The 2021 San Antonio Spurs are unlike anything fans have seen in the 2-1-0 over the last two decades. With a much-needed youth movement and new faces all around, this group is going to be a breath of fresh air for the Alamo City.
The only concern that comes with San Antonio playing the long game with their collection of young talent is that it might result in lackluster outings becoming more commonplace than usual at the AT&T Center. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Although head coach Gregg Popovich admitted the Spurs lack a superstar in his Media Day interview, they have built around their strengths. And all things considered, they managed to walk away from their reset with plenty of assets along with some veterans who complement their diverse array of young, home-grown prospects.
The Spurs added two legitimately good veterans in McDermott and Young
Former Indiana Pacer and three-point ace Doug McDermott was the big free agency signing. His catch-and-shoot expertise, coupled with his ability to hold his own on the other end of the floor, should pay dividends for the Spurs over the next three seasons.
The big piece they landed via trade is Swiss Army knife forward Thaddeus Young. The 14-year veteran has consistently remodeled his game to fit whatever his team needs, which has shaped him into a high-level rebounder, advanced passer, and multi-positional defender.
McDermott and Young (if he sticks around) project as the most effective veteran additions for the Spurs in 2021, providing boosts in areas of the game San Antonio struggled a season ago. From ball movement and shooting to defensive versatility, both players should prove to be well worth their price tag.
But one of those veteran additions will probably be more effective than the other for San Antonio this season because he brings a much-needed asset that the Spurs lacked last season.
McDermott can bring shooting without being a liability on defense...
The McDermott signing specifically hints at an offensive overhaul into a more “modern” hoops philosophy. Although some fans initially scoffed at his three-year, $42-million contract, San Antonio desperately needs his three-point shooting and off-ball impact to make things flow smoothly.
McDermott has consistently found a way to be impactful despite not needing the ball in his hands. Last season, he was one of the league’s best cutters and when he took less than one dribble, he posted an eFG% of 66.2%. While he won’t provide off-the-dribble shot creation, his constant movement and knack for scoring without commanding a ton of touches is integral for an offense that already has a handful of play initiators.
San Antonio didn’t bring in the veteran sharpshooter for his defensive versatility, but McDermott has proven serviceable on that end within a few scenarios, specifically his ability to guard the pick-and-roll ball-handler well. Last season, this was an area the Spurs were routinely exposed, landing six players at or below the 57th percentile when defending the pick-and-roll ball-handler, four of which allowed a scoring frequency of 41.2% or higher.
McDermott might be solid enough to help a defensive unit that struggled to stop the ever present pick and roll. In an admittedly tiny number of opportunities, he landed in the 75th-percentile when defending the P&R ball-handler, relinquishing a scoring frequency of 39% and just 0.79 points per possession. He isn’t a stopper who will guard the opposing team’s best player, but he seems to be able to hold his own if opponents try to attack him in the pick and roll, which will only help a team that ranked ninth-worst in that category a season ago.
The final — and most obvious — skill that McDermott adds to the Spurs is steady three-point shooting. San Antonio ranked among the bottom of the barrel in far too many three-point categories last season, and McDermott’s presence should work wonders in that department.
Coming off three consecutive seasons of shooting 41% or better from beyond the arc, McDermott’s three-point percentage in 2020 was on the low-end for his career, but he still shot better than most. The 6’8” forward drained 37.8% of his three catch-and-shoot attempts per game in 2020, a number that ranks second on San Antonio’s roster. Moreover, a slight dip in his efficiency doesn’t make him any less of a proven commodity from deep, so he will not only bring some much-welcome perimeter firepower but also spacing, as opponents can’t afford to leave him open.
... But Young’s versatility makes him an even more helpful addition
While McDermott was a fantastic pickup for a Spurs team that needed someone with his skill set, Young should ultimately prove to be San Antonio’s most meaningful veteran addition — as long as they don’t trade him.
As mentioned earlier, Young has shown incredible adaptability throughout his lengthy career. Splitting time between both forward spots over his first 13 seasons in the NBA, Young reinvented himself in Chicago as an elite passer who could play several positions. including center for nearly a third of his minutes last season.
The Spurs could benefit greatly from the positional versatility that “Thagic Johnson” brings to the table, as it could allow them to make up for their lack of size across their projected lineups. A small unit with 6’6” Keldon Johnson primarily at power forward could turn into a big one if Young slides in and allows Johnson to move down a spot. If the Spurs then want to go small, Young can just move to center with the team not losing much size compared to 6’9” Drew Eubanks. San Antonio hasn’t had a big forward that allows for this much rotational flexibility in a while.
Some might question Young’s fit in some lineups because he doesn’t space the floor as a shooter, but he can still help most units thanks to his half-court passing. His court vision and capacity to make quick reads and identify open teammates should greatly benefit the Spurs. From dishing out of the short-roll to finding the open man from the elbows, Young’s efficient facilitating adds another facet to San Antonio’s offense. The athletic slashers on the roster will benefit the most, but he’ll also help manage the need to create.
Young should make an impact off the floor, too. As one of the oldest players on the roster, the 33-year-old provides plenty of experience, something this Spurs squad lacks. The veteran may not share many common interests with teammates more than a decade younger than him, but his leadership, above all, could be the bow that ties this youthful San Antonio group together.
Despite joining a new franchise, he discussed how his former organization looked to him to “help lead, help build something, help grow something and build some culture.” He’ll likely find himself in a similar role to the one he was in with the Bulls at the beginning of 2019.
Ultimately, defense is what will get the Spurs wins and Young helps more there
San Antonio‘s route to victory will get tricky at times. Not having an undisputed go-to option will only make winning even harder than it was last season. To win games, they must take a page from the 2020 New York Knicks’ book. The Spurs have the personnel to make life difficult for opposing offenses, and their defense must get in the habit of keeping them in contests.
Young raises the team’s floor with his versatility, moving the Spurs closer to being one of the best defensive teams in basketball. And his impact should be even greater when surrounded by potent perimeter defenders like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Devin Vassell, and an elite rim protector in Jakob Poeltl.
McDermott will help a lot in his specialist role, but Young is everything a budding young ball club needs. His two-way versatility combined with an established track record of leadership should pay off for the Spurs. He may not be an All-Star, but being a high-level role player capable of making significant contributions for 25 minutes per night is just what the doctor ordered for the Spurs this season.