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Two Spurs made The Athletic’s 2021 NBA Player Tiers

After having four players make the 2020 edition, only two Spurs showed up in this year’s Athletic NBA Player Tiers.

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive year, the Athletic’s Seth Partnow returned with his NBA Player Tiers project.

I briefly covered Partnow’s articles last summer, and the general premise remains the same; placing players into tiers is the best indication of talent and impact since rankings can often skew our perception of ability, and Partnow explains why that is:

“In many cases, [the No. 25 player on a] list will be closer in ability and value to No. 40 on the same list than to No. 20, but a rank-ordered list completely removes that information.”

Similar to last year, Partnow evaluated each player through the use of advanced stats such as Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM), Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM), and John Hollinger’s BORD$ model — the latter of which combines a number of metrics to estimate a player’s value in dollars.

For context, here are a few examples of the types of players you might find within each tier:

Tier 1: Best of the best (LeBron James, Steph Curry)

Tier 2: All-NBA level (Jimmy Butler, Paul George)

Tier 3: Solid All-Stars (Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam)

Tier 4: Fringe All-Stars/very good starters (Malcolm Brogdon, Gordon Hayward)

Tier 5: Above average rotation pieces (Andrew Wiggins, Buddy Hield)

Every tier (except for the fifth) is also divided into subsections, but the difference between each section is slight and the tiers represent a much larger gap in ability.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the Spurs who made the cut.

Which Spurs made the Tiers?

Last summer, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White all made the tiers. With the two veterans now departed, Murray and White remained the only Spurs included in this year’s edition.

Both guards landed in Tier 5, which is also where they were placed a year ago. That seems fair, and there are a few things currently preventing either player from ascending into a higher tier.

First of all, it’s important to remember that the Tiers are heavily based on playoff impact, and while Murray and White have had postseason moments, the sample size is just too small to anoint them as big-game players.

Since neither of them has ever been the primary option for San Antonio, it’s hard to determine how far they’re capable of leading a team. Every player in higher tiers has either shown the ability to guide a team to the playoffs or proven themselves to be elite role players whose impacts exponentially raises a team’s ceiling.

On a positive note, Murray and White both possess arguably the most important skill in basketball: shot creation. They’re each able to take defenders off the dribble and score in isolation, but the one thing holding them back is their poor efficiency. Murray registered a 50.9% true shooting percentage last year while White was better at 55%, but both numbers are still below average.

In order for them to break into Tier 4 or higher, they’ll need to start scoring more efficiently and prove to be better playmakers. Without improvements in either area, Murray and White likely won’t become much more than good starters who are more suited to be tertiary options/role players on better teams.

What does this mean for the Spurs?

With Murray and White as their two best players, the Spurs ceiling is likely no higher than the play-in tournament next year. San Antonio was only one of seven teams that had two or fewer players in the Tiers, and only one of four without a player in Tier 4 or higher.

Of course, that’s not gospel, but there’s no denying that the Spurs have a severe lack of star power that’ll keep them from contention in the near future. Almost every team with championship aspirations has at the very least a player in Tier 2 and another in Tier 3, so a lot of work needs to be done before San Antonio can become a dominant team again.

The good news is that PATFO finally seems to have committed to a rebuild, so hopefully the Spurs can land some high picks in the coming years. Drafting a star is still the easiest way for a small market team to acquire talent, and San Antonio needs to land some home runs in order to get back on top of the mountain.