Recently, we introduced the PTR Mailbag and asked for your questions, and I’m very pleased to report that y’all did not let us down. You submitted enough questions that we’re definitely not getting to all of them, because I think that we’d all prefer that I not go full Nathaniel Hawthorne every time we do one of these. But if your question didn’t get answered today, just know that you can continue submitting it and others in the comments below, as we will absolutely be combing through each and every one of them.
As far as this edition of the Mailbag is concerned, we’ll be taking a stab at things ranging from the Ben Simmons trade rumors, to the status of another Australian Big Man.
Helping me out with this batch of mail is fellow PTR regular, August Bembel, here to put his thoroughly Germanic spin on all things Spurs and to balance out my nonsense (or enhance it).
Let’s dive right in!
“I haven’t watched every game but I do follow (the Spurs). I’ve noticed that several times this season one of the young players has a great first half, scoring 20 or getting into the high teens. Then the second half they seem to quit shooting, don’t touch the ball or don’t see the court. What’s going on?”
Devon: Well, to be fair, you wouldn’t have to watch every game to have noticed that particular trend. It’s not your imagination, Spud Thief, and it’s a big part of San Antonio’s closing woes. Much as it pains me to say it, this Spurs team is primarily (at least currently) a jump-shooting team, and if the rest of the NBA hasn’t figured that out yet, they seem to be doing so on a team-by-team basis. Which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if not for the qualifier that the Spurs are a mid-range jump-shooting team.
Almost 70% of San Antonio’s attempted field goals per game are of the 2 point variety, tops in the league. And while they also convert them at a rate that’s tops in the league (63% of the Spurs points are two-pointers), the reality is that that shot profile is a bit concerning. There was an assumption after the exits of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge that some of those mid-range attempts would creep back over the arc, but so far that hasn’t been the case, which compounds San Antonio’s other (less derided) issue, interior scoring.
The reality is that in DeRozan and Aldridge’s absence, the Spurs now lack a dreadnought post-scorer and an interior slasher. With only one guard/forward consistently driving and converting (Keldon Johnson, though Murray, White, and Walker have finally begun to have more success around the rim) and a front-court that poses little offensive threat, San Antonio’s shot profile has become pretty predictable, which is then doubly compounded by the Spurs team-wide inability to draw fouls (less than 11% of their points have come from the free-throw line, lowest in the entire league). Without a change in San Antonio’s shot profile from the outside and/or the interior, it’s likely that the Spurs offense will remain entirely too predictable to consistently execute against NBA defenses at a high level.
What are your thoughts on this one, August?
August: The Spurs‘ best players are very good role players. Looking at the starting five when everyone is fit, I would say the three best players are Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Jakob Pöltl. None of them has an elite offensive skill, none of them can be expected to score consistently over four quarters of NBA basketball. One of them might get hot, which is the case every now and then. Also, one of the guys who come from the bench might get hot. But, per default, they don’t play enough to score consistently.
What then Spurs are lacking is a guy who gets them a bucket when they’re desperate for one. Though Derrick is a bit down in terms of points per game due to his poor start to the season, I would say the Spurs’ two best scorers right now are Dejounte and Derrick. But neither of them is that guy. What is the maximum role they could play on a championship-winning team? I think that in the best-case scenario, either of them could be a strong third option.
Going back a few years in Spurs history, both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were fully established as one of the first three options on offense from the season that started in 2003. Together with Tim Duncan, they remained the Spurs’ first three options for ten seasons. But both Tony and Manu were incredibly skilled on the offensive end. Over the ten seasons mentioned, Tony took 37 percent of his shots around the rim, making 66 percent of those. That’s elite. Manu maybe didn’t have that one elite scoring skill, but he was above-average from just about anywhere. Pair that with his unpredictability and you have a player that is a top three option on the offense of a championship-caliber team.
Dejounte’s preferred way of scoring is the pull-up jumper from mid-range. This season he takes 27 percent of his shots from 10 to 16 feet, making 46 percent. It’s nowhere near in terms of efficiency when you compare it to Tony’s preferred way of scoring. As for Derrick, he’s a bit like Manu in the sense that he can do a bit of everything with a focus on three-point shooting. He’s just not quite as good as Manu was at just about anything.
Before I stray any further, we lack an elite scorer. Maybe Devin can turn into one.
“Ain’t we gonna talk about patty mills yet?”
Devon: No. No we are not, Oknotok. About a week after Patty signed with the Nets I made the mistake of watching Crocodile Dundee on a whim, and I cried like three times. Recently I noticed that my all-time-favorite Australian film The Proposition is available on Peacock, and now I’m avoiding it just so I don’t burst into tears.
Honestly, I’m just looking forward to the days when I can watch The Rescuers Down Under with my daughter without embarrassing myself. Basketball is a stupid, stupid sport.
August: Yes, Oknotok. Yes, we are. If I had to choose one of all the players that I’ve seen in Silver & Black I can be friends with - and that includes anyone since the league pass has become available in Germany, and almost anyone since 1993, when the NBA was first shown on TV in Germany - I would probably choose Patty Mills. Everything I’ve seen from him on the court, and everything I’ve heard from him interviews, makes me sum him up in four words: salt - of - the - earth.
He’s now playing with, as far as I’m concerned, the three least likable all-stars in the league. And if the Nets were to play the least likable franchise, as far as I’m concerned: the Lakers, in the Finals, I’d be rooting for the Nets, because Patty plays for them. In fact, I’m happy he plays for a contending team. He would be wasted on this iteration of the Spurs. According to Cleaning the Glass, he is right now the best three-point shooter in the league at almost 48%. And you know what? That’s exactly what I want him to be, regardless of where he’s doing that. Two things left for me to say. 1) Number 8 to the rafters! And 2) Devon, Crocodile Dundee is nice, but Mad Max is nicer.
Devon: Agree to agree. Although, I like to imagine that there’s another universe out there in which those two films have been combined, and Post-Apocalyptic Max gets to visit 1980’s New York City and charm the locals with his gruff survivalist ways while adjusting to a more sophisticated way of life. I need that movie in my life.
“Is it here one can file a missing persons report? One Jock Landale.”
Devon: I have three theories about Jock Landale and they are as follows:
- A secret quota has been established requiring the Spurs to have an Australian on the roster at all times. Whether this is to keep the universe intact or to serve some darker purpose is beyond my pay grade. But then, everything is beyond my pay grade. I’m not even an intern. Heck, I’d kill to be an intern. I’m just a monkey with a typewriter and a thesaurus.
- Pop is really into Australian accents.
- As soon as PATFO got wind of Patty’s impending exit, they agreed to acquire another Aussie in a subtle attempt to gain Ben Simmons’ interest/curry favor and burrow their way into Daryl Morey’s mind palace.
Obviously these are all ridiculous theories, but on the .01% chance that I’m right about the third one, I wanted to get it in writing so that I can then add ‘NBA Insider’ to my Twitter profile and gloat about it eternally. In reality, I’m as baffled as the rest of you regarding Landale’s usage (or lack thereof), but I could do worse than assuming it’s all part of an Aussie-Friendly recruiting strategy. It’s probably more sensible than my current personal funeral plan of being taxidermied, placed in an old-timey diving suit, and displayed at the bottom of a City/University aquarium.
August: I think the sole reason Jock Landale is with the Spurs is to have a third center in case Thad Young gets traded (and in case Zach Collins doesn’t get fit again). I don’t expect Jock to feature in anything but garbage minutes as long as Thad is on the roster. Though I enjoy watching Thad play basketball, I do hope he gets traded. He has no place on a rebuilding team. Also, I would like to see more from Jock. But we have to see it from Pop’s perspective — which is impossible, but I’m giving it a try nonetheless.
Pop knows what Drew can do and what he cannot. He’s a known quantity, who’s used to playing competitive games with the likes of Dejounte, Derrick, Lonnie, and Keldon. I guess Pop’s priority is to give the Spurs’ first-rounders the best opportunity to take the next step. It could be he thinks this is likelier when they are with players they are used to. Not a particularly convincing answer, I know. But that’s all that’s possible for me in the realm of speculation.
Devon: Which brings me to our most popular mailbag query...
“How close do you think the Spurs got to making a deal for Ben Simmons?”
and MCRichey asks:
“Is a Ben Simmons trade still possible if so, what would it likely look like? (To be clear, I hope we don’t do it, but I am a bit suspicious we are waiting for the price to go down)”
Devon: Okay, so I’m opting to do these as a two-part answer, because they’re good questions, I hate redundancy, and also because I don’t want to be haunted by them for the next however many months/years/blood oaths it takes for Daryl Morey to finally google the Sunk-Cost Fallacy and ship Simmons out.
- I think prior to the escalation of this whole fiasco (or phillyasco, if you will), the Spurs were in the lower third of trade offers. Not only do the Spurs not trade very often, but historically they don’t overpay, either. This is largely supposition, but I think one of the consequences of San Antonio’s success has been that any time the Spurs are interested in making a trade, the GM/Team they want to trade with instantly gets suspicious. If the Spurs traded more often, maybe that wouldn’t be the case, but if you were a GM and the Spurs suddenly cozied up to you, wouldn’t you immediately think about raising the price? If anything, real interest from San Antonio’s front office may have strengthened Morey’s opinion of Simmons’ value. I mean, historically speaking, if the Spurs think there’s value there, there probably is. It’s sound logic, even if it’s coming from Daryl Morey.
- That being said, I’ve gone on record as being a Ben Simmons agnostic in the past, and I mostly stand by that. Personally I don’t think that he has the value that Morey clearly thinks he does, unless he either improves from distance (unlikely, though not impossible) or really invests in developing a formidable post game (interesting, and still very possible). Armed with an interior torture chamber, Simmons could become a very interesting player, even in this era of the NBA. Until that happens though, I’m not exactly bullish on him or his trade value. This prolonged standoff might eventually tip the scales in Simmons’ suitor’s favor, but Tyrese Maxey’s emergence may have given the Sixers some leverage in turn, as it appears to be allowing that front office to move with less urgency. My guess is that Morey’s either looking for a forward to replace Simmons (preferably one who can shoot) or a more traditional point guard (outside of his transparent lust for Damien Lilliard).
Additionally, I think Dejounte Murray is probably off the table now with the season he’s having, so Morey has likely missed that boat. As it stands, if PATFO were somehow able to magically lure Morey into trading Simmons, I’d estimate that it would cost something along the lines of Derrick White + Thad Young + Lonnie Walker + two unprotected 1sts.
August: I don’t think the Spurs ever truly considered trading for Simmons. I’m neither a psychologist, nor do I know as much about basketball as PATFO. But I can see a red flag attached to Simmons. I said it once in the comments section, way before his refusal to dunk in the most recent playoffs, that I consider Simmons mentally unable to compete at the highest stage. Because a) he had a number of no-show appearances in playoff games prior to the “no dunk” incident. And because b) he is quite obviously too afraid to shoot even in meaningless regular season games. I don’t need a third reason to write him off.
In all honesty, why would a team whose major problem on offense is a lack of three-point shooting trade for Ben Simmons? Why would any team trying to build a contender trade for Simmons? The guy’s on a negative contract. Elite defense and elite play-making isn’t enough to pay a guy a max. And no one in their right mind can still consider him elite at finishing around the rim after what happened in the playoffs.
I don’t know how the rumor came about. Maybe because Pop once called three-point shooting “a gimmick”, and because that might make some people think the Spurs value players who refuse to shoot. They don’t. Also, I can’t see an organization, in which Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford still have a say, do a deal for a challenged player with Mr. Fleece himself, Daryl Morey.
I trust the Spurs to do their due diligence, and I trust them to pull the trigger when there is a chance to get the roster closer to contention. Simmons is a player who gets you closer to the playoffs, not closer to contention. There are some franchises that look for short-term success, and among those some franchises that consider making the playoffs a success. I trust the Spurs not only to have a long-term strategy, but also to think things from the end. And making the playoffs is not the end for a five-time champion, period.
Devon: Which segues perfectly into...
“What makes Murray seemingly much better than last year? What can we expect of him going forward this season and further?”
Devon: To help us answer this question, I contacted my resident stats consultant and twitter basketball data maven, Professor Jesse Pittsley (PhD), and he rather cheerfully agreed to mock up some visuals for us. Professor Pittsley is the Department Chair of Exercise Physiology at Winston-Salem State University and teaches courses in Advanced Physiology, Applied Nutrition, and Statistics via the quantitative analysis of sport and exercise performance.
He can also whip up some mean charts and graphs, which I intend to use at every opportunity because I am an addict and need to seek professional help.
High usage guards and select (smaller) wings (56 players) in the NBA with the following Criteria— Jesse Pittsley (@jessepittsley) December 3, 2021
> 500 total minutes played this season
> 18.0 Usage
Axis intersection: Turnover rate (league average (12.8%) Usage rate of these 56 players (24.5%)
Regression line 95% CI pic.twitter.com/I00idlNFgn
There are a lot of things to unpack here, but the most obvious one is that Murray has one of the lowest turnover percentages of any guard with a usage rate north of 25%. Last year Murray’s usage rate was 3% lower, and yet his turnover percentage has remained essentially the same. Even more impressive is that he’s done so while upping his assists per game to 8.3 from 6.1 last season.
The next thing that catches the eye is Murray’s defense. Per Professor Pittsley, the size of each circle on the chart indicates their Defensive Box Plus/Minus. And while Box/Minus can be a bit of a fiddly statistic (as can most), it does seem to be confirming what the eye test has been telling us: Dejounte Murray has fully recovered to his pre-injury defensive level. Murray has the 2nd highest defensive ranking on the chart, and the highest for players with a usage rate north of even just 20%.
So, in short, what makes Murray seem so much better than last year is that he has been better than he was last year. In addition to those improvements, he’s also upped his scoring average to just shy of 20 points-per-game, while maintaining his usual shooting splits. And if I’m not mistaken, should his current averages hold, Murray will be the first player to average 19/8/8/2 not named Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. So yeah, that’s...pretty good.
August: I’ll have to start my answer with a counter question, Spurschasm. Could it be that “seemingly” is the key word in your question? If so, I maybe can see why. Here’s how I see Dejounte: The main progress he’s made from last season, and this is not to be underestimated, is not doing worse in a larger role. Per 100 possessions, he’s up three points and three assists per game. In every other “per 100 possessions” category listed by bk-ref, he’s slightly better or slightly worse than last season.
The increase in assists and points per game is certainly not a given, but it can be explained by increased ball-handling duties and more scoring opportunities through DeRozan’s departure. Let me emphasize that I acknowledge not doing worse in a larger role as clear-cut progress. Let me also emphasize that I don’t think this sort of progress makes him MIP material.
I think the Dejounte we’re seeing right now is peak Dejounte, because I can’t see a skill that wasn’t there before or has got better significantly since last season. Still, that’s one hell of a player. And, by the way, a player whose weaknesses are easier to make up for than those of a certain Ben Simmons.
Devon: Now, as for the second part of your question, Spurscham, that’s harder to say. What can we expect of Murray going forward this season and further? Well, I’m not sure we can expect anything per se, since this is a pretty impressive season for Dejounte, and the result of improvement in almost every area. I think we can probably forecast this level to be pretty static for Dejounte (barring injury), but I’m not sure this isn’t his ceiling rather than his floor. It would be pretty hard to quibble with this being his ceiling if that were the case, but I do see one area that I think he can still realistically improve in, and that’s in his ability to run a half-court offense. Cue chart No.2
Clearly a strong relationship between net rating and points per play in the half court. Circle size is the team rank in percent of plays in half court. Note: MOST of the NBA offense occurs in the Half Court. The lowest in the league is 75.3% (Toronto) pic.twitter.com/JEIGqO03dA— Jesse Pittsley (@jessepittsley) December 3, 2021
Saying that the Spurs have been bad in the half-court this season is like saying that the Sacramento Kings have been been the hallmark of NBA futility in the new millennium (Can I still call it that? It’s been 20 years).
Professor Pittsley wanted to make sure that I mention the disclaimer that half-court offense data is tracked by play rather than possession, and that due to rebounds and such, a possession may consist of multiple half-court plays, but that really doesn’t help the Silver and Black’s case very much as they still rank 5th in least % of plays in the half-court, and 21st in score efficiency in the half court. Not great, Bob.
While the Spurs’ fast-paced offense has been about as fun as we thought it might be, the reality is that half-court execution has been another big part of San Antonio’s late game woes. Teams have learned that if they can slow the Spurs down and force them to play in the half-court, the offense will struggle. And with just shy of a 27% usage rate, Dejounte Murray bears a bit of the blame in that. It’s just the nature of the beast when you’re handling the ball that much and half-court execution also happens to be that low. Completely fair or not, nothing happens in vacuum.
However, I’d expect that to improve somewhat as both this year and his career progress. The front office and coaching staff have navigated this specific issue with a talented young point guard before. But if Murray ever makes a huge leap in this area, the sky might be the limit ceiling-wise.
That will do it for the inaugural edition of the PtR mailbag. Thanks for all of your questions.
We always appreciate your interaction (there wouldn’t be a mailbag without mail!), so if you have questions you can submit them on Twitter @poundingtherock (with the subject: Mailbag Question), drop a comment down below on this post, or in the comments of our Mailbag Twitter posts. Cheers!