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Power Rankings, Week 3: The Spurs are still seeking a winning formula

Dejounte Murray has been a bright spot for the Spurs, but he needs help in the clutch.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to find the two teams who are the biggest enigmas in the NBA so far, you needn’t look any further than the borders of the great state of Texas. Here is our own Bruno Passos to explain:

You can also remain in the Southwest Division to find a third enigma, as the Memphis Grizzlies are in this category as well with a 5-4 record but -5.1 net rating. Simply put, the 3-7 Spurs (net rating +0.4) have outscored their opponents overall despite losing over twice as many games as they’ve won, while the Dallas Mavericks — whom the Spurs have already faced twice and are headed into their third matchup this weekend — and Grizzlies have been badly outscored overall but keep finding ways to win more than they lose.

The difference? There’s the mathematical explanation of “when the Mavs and Grizz win, they barely win, but when they lose, they lose badly”, and the reverse is true for the Spurs. All three of their wins have been by double figures, including a 26-point shellacking of the Magic on opening night, while five of their seven losses have been by single digits, leading to the off-kilter net ratings.

Then, there’s the more simple, basketball-oriented explanation: Dallas and Memphis have closers (a.k.a. stars they can rely on down the stretch to help create wins) in Luka Doncic and Ja Morant, respectively, while the Spurs do not — at least not yet. Dejounte Murray has tried to be that player for the Spurs, but is he ready for the role? Advanced stats say not quite.

With “clutch” time being defined as any point the teams are within five points of each other in the final five minutes, over the course of seven such games (in which the Spurs have gone 1-6), Murray has played 3.2 clutch minutes and shot 37.5 percent from the field on 2.3 attempts per game, while dishing out just under one assist per game. This shows that he is willing to take those shots, but he isn’t as successful as the rest of the game — his +/- in the clutch is -2.3 compared to 1.3 overall — and he isn’t getting much help.

Derrick White has only scored 0.3 points per game on 0.4 attempts and 33.3 percent shooting in the clutch — way lower than would be expected for the player many would have pegged for the role heading into the season. Keldon Johnson has been even worse on more shot attempts, and Devin Vassell has played in the clutch but hardly been involved on the offensive end. In fact, the only Spur that doesn’t have a negative net rating in the clutch is Lonnie Walker at a net zero, and he hasn’t been given much of a chance, only appearing in three games during the clutch and getting three shots total up.

The bottom line is the Spurs don’t have a closer to bail them out of late jams like the Mavs and Grizzlies do, and admirable as his willingness to take over is, Murray can’t be relied on to do it every time. More of a team effort will be required to close games strong, and until that happens, the Spurs will continue to struggle winning close games, even if every other stat indicates they’re better than their record indicates.

Week 2: The pesky Spurs were a nuisance for superior opponents in their gauntlet of an opening schedule, but late mistakes cost them wins before they finally pulled out a victory in the home of the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Last Week: 1-3 (3-7 overall) — 118-131 L @ Indiana Pacers; 108-109 L vs. Dallas Mavericks; 102-89 W @ Orlando Magic; 94-99 L @ Oklahoma City Thunder

This Week: Wed. 11/10 vs. Sacramento Kings (5-5); Fri. 11/12 vs. Dallas Mavericks (6-3); Sun. 11/14 @ Los Angeles Lakers (5-5)

John Schuhmann, — 24 (Last week: 24)

Pace: 101.8 (8) OffRtg: 104.6 (20) DefRtg: 103.9 (8) NetRtg: +0.7 (15)

The Spurs have a top-eight defense, but that mark comes with the context that six of their 10 games have come against teams that rank in the bottom eight offensively. The highest-ranked offensive team that they’ve faced is the 11th-ranked Pacers, who had the second most efficient game for any team this season last Monday. The Spurs allowed 78 points in the first half and then yielded two layups (on the same play) on the first two possessions of the third quarter. And that game came before Jakob Poeltl was lost to health and safety protocols. The 2-2-1 press was cool, and the Spurs have held their last two opponents under a point per possession. You can only defend the teams that are on your schedule, after all.

With Poeltl out, Thaddeus Young is playing more, and he’s playing more like he did in his previous stops. Over the last three games, the Spurs have been much better with him on the floor, he’s connected on a few of his patented, Antawn-Jamison-esque, short-range flip shots, and he’s averaged 5.4 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes.

The Spurs will host the Kings’ fifth-ranked offense on Wednesday. Then they’ll play four straight games against offenses that rank no higher than 19th offensively.

Week 4: vs. SAC, vs. DAL, @ LAL

ESPN Staff — 25 (last week: 24)

Dejounte Murray has continued his strong start to the season with averages of 18.4 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Those statistics would put him in rarefied air if he were able to maintain them throughout the season; only two other players have hit that mark since steals became an official NBA stat in 1973-74: Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. — Andrew Lopez

Sporting News — 25 (last week: 24)

X-Factor: Derrick White stepping up offensively

White has been fantastic defensively and distributing the ball, second on the team in assists behind Dejounte Murray — who is having a breakout campaign — but with the Spurs losing several close games this season, they’ve needed that secondary offensive punch with many expecting that to be White. He has immense two-way potential, however, he is currently fourth in points per game behind Murray, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl. If his offense catches up to his defense, the Spurs will be in a much better position.

— Benyam Kidane

From Friday:

Colin Ward-Henninger, CBS Sports — 25 (last week: 25)

San Antonio’s only win of the week came against a short-handed Bucks team, with losses to the Pacers and twice to the Mavericks. The Spurs lost Jakob Poeltl, who has played well to start the season, to health and safety protocols, leaving Drew Eubanks and Thaddeus Young to fill in the center minutes. Dejounte Murray had a strong week, averaging 21.3 points, 7.8 assists and 6.5 rebounds on 45 percent 3-point shooting.

Andy Bailey, Bleacher Report — 25 (last week: 25)

After two decades at or near the top of the league, it still feels a little foreign to see a rudderless, starless San Antonio Spurs squad. They play hard and are fundamentally sound—as you might expect—but it’s hard to get all that excited about their long- or short-term prospects.

The first few weeks of the season have shown that San Antonio has several solid rotation players, but no one looks like the kind of leader who can carry the Spurs back to the playoffs.

The possible exception might be Dejounte Murray, who’s averaging 18.3 points, 8.4 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals.