The Spurs entered their second game of the season against the Orlando Magic with similar records of 2-6 and 2-7. respectively. However, for two of the seven worst teams in the league record-wise, they could hardly be further apart. The Magic are a young, depleted team with the youngest starting line-up in NBA history. They have no franchise player, have been in limbo since Dwight Howard forced his way out nine years ago, and no clear direction going forward.
The Spurs can relate in some aspects — they are also one of the younger teams in the league, have been in limbo since their franchise player forced his way out, and lack any stars — but unlike the Magic, the Spurs (now 3-6) have something resembling a plan and are better than their record indicates. Five of their six losses have been to should-be playoff teams, and their only truly “bad” loss was to a shorthanded Indiana Pacers squad who, when healthy, should also be better than their current record indicates. And maybe two of their three wins are against the Magic, but they also got one in the home of the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Furthermore, according to advanced stats, (if you’re into that sort of thing), the Spurs are a middle-of-the-pack — even slightly above average — team that that should be fighting to make the playoffs if everything holds. They’re 11th in defensive efficiency at 104.5 and 18th on offense at 105.8. For those keeping track, that’s good for a positive net rating of 1.3: currently good for 10th in the league. They lead the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, with nearly two assists to every turnover, and they are even 13th in the league effective field goal percentage. Small sample sizes and all, but that isn’t something many would have expected to see from this Spurs squad at any point in the season.
More proof that the Spurs are better than their record is the fact that, despite their similar records coming in, they did not look at all impressive in Orlando last night, but at the same time the outcome never felt in doubt. While they never turned it into a blowout, they jumped out ahead by double digits early and never looked back, using a teamwide defensive effort to keep the Magic’s shooters at bay. Even when they snuck within single digit points every now and then, the Spurs responded, and the outcome never felt in doubt.
Putting away teams they should beat, like the Magic, with relative ease is the first step towards reaching their ceiling, whatever that may be. The next will be to start closing out and winning those close games against the better teams. The schedule doesn’t get much easier, but if the Spurs can take that next step, the record will start reflecting what the advanced stats say: that the Spurs are a good-not-great team, but they’re better than many may realize.
- One part of learning to close those close games will be finding a closer — as that too many “closes” — and Dejounte Murray seems up to the task. He may not be the most efficient of options, but he isn’t afraid of the moment, and that’s something. After scoring nine points in the fourth quarter to nearly lead the Spurs past the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday, he recorded 6 points, 3 steals, and 3 assists in the fourth to help keep the Magic at bay whenever they tried to make things interesting. He’s getting more and more efficient at the midrange game, and the more teams try to go under screens against him, the more he punishes them. And once they read the scouting reports and stop doing that, he’ll be able to use his length and speed to drive by and create more efficient looks either for himself or others. Murray is the Spurs’ best player so far this season and is putting up career highs. Obviously, he’s not the type of player who will bring a team a high ceiling as it’s best player, but his continued improvement should not go unnoticed and underappreciated.
- Devin Vassell is another player who has stood out so far this season. He has taken an impressive leap in his second year, especially on the offensive end. He’s no longer hesitant look for his own shot and is showing he can score from all three levels. Friday wasn’t his most efficient game, but he was once again solid off the bench with 12 points on 5-11 shooting, with some flashy plays on offense and his typical excellent defense. At least right now, he feels like the Spur with the highest upside. Of course, that opinion can change from time-to-time. Sometimes it feels like Keldon Johnson. Other times it’s Lonnie Walker or Derrick White, and while it’s way too early, Josh Primo has even already managed to captured the imagination of many fans. But at this moment, Vassell is the one standing out the most as the Spurs sparkplug off the bench and one to keep an eye on going forward.