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Death, Taxes and Mediocrity

The Spurs have surprisingly found a way to replace the production they lost last season. Is it sustainable?

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Trading away your only All-Star for three first round picks and a player you immediately waive is not something you do with a view towards winning a lot of games in the upcoming season. Doing so after managing to squeak out just thirty-odd wins for the third year in a row before losing in the first game of the play-in tournament for the second year in a row is a pretty obvious attempt to trip yourself up, fall down, and get shot off the back of the treadmill of mediocrity. The San Antonio Spurs’ timing could not have been better. The prize at the top of next summer’s draft is the answer to the question, “What if Tim Duncan was crossed with a gazelle who could shoot threes?” — and everyone who bought a Powerball ticket in the last month can relate.

But so far, the stubborn Spurs refuse to embrace the grim expectations of preseason predictions. At 6-8, the Spurs are on track for 37 or 38 wins, right smack dab in the middle of the purgatory they seemed committed to escaping. It’s early yet, and most real tanking doesn’t occur until after the All-Star break, but the question of why the Spurs aren’t as bad as they probably ought to be still lingers. The loss of Dejounte Murray with nothing of immediate value in return should have left a pretty large hole in the middle of the starting lineup and a corresponding drop in production in all the areas where he excels. Much of that has come to pass, which we’ll get to shortly, but a hole in the lineup has to get filled, and who exactly is getting those minutes is worth considering.

The biggest changes are the losses of Dejounte, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV, the addition of Jeremy Sochan, and a significant upticks in minutes for Tre Jones and Josh Richardson. Who’s scoring for the Spurs this year vs. last year looks very similar.

Dejounte scored a lot of the Spurs’ points last season, as did the other two guards who’ve moved on, and no one player is picking up the slack. Instead, the gap is mostly being filled by Josh, Tre, Jeremy, and the Keldon Johnson show. The result, thus far, has been an unreliable offense that keeps the Spurs in games against much better opponents when it shows up but leaves them helpless and hopeless when it doesn’t.

The team’s offensive rating is 110.2, nearly 2 points lower than last year’s. But the 2021-22 squad was only blown out by 20 or more points three times all season, while this year’s team has already exceeded that number, with their worst night thus far coming in a 43-point drubbing at the hands of the Raptors. In their other 10 games, the Spurs have scored 115 points per 100 possessions, with 8 of those games coming against teams in the top half of the league in defensive rating. Excluding blowouts isn’t a reliable way to determine how good a team actually is, but in this case it shows just how hit or miss the Spurs’ offense is.

And that’s especially peculiar because this year’s team shoots the ball better and is creating a more efficient shot profile. After finishing near the bottom of the league in three-point attempt rate for the last 7 years, the Spurs are currently 11th in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, and are shooting 38.6% from deep, good for 7th. They’re shooting slightly worse in the mid-range and essentially the same at the rim, so the net effect is an effective field goal percentage of 54.8%, two full percentage points higher than last year and good enough to rank in the top 10 in the league.

Where Dejounte’s absence has really hurt the offense is turnovers. The list of point guards who assisted on as large a share of their teammates’ buckets as Dejounte did last year is Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Chris Paul and James Harden. Not bad company, and yet, none of them turned the ball over less often than Dejounte’s 10.2% of possessions used.

In his stead, Tre Jones has held the fort down admirably with a 12.5% turnover rate, although he uses far fewer possessions and doesn’t generate nearly as many assists. The players who are using those possessions now, like Keldon, pretty much all have higher turnover rates than Dejounte did. The lone exception is Devin Vassell, whose 7.3% is the fourth best mark in the league for a wing, per Cleaning the Glass. The end result of that redistribution is a team turnover over rate near 17%, more than 4 percentage points higher than last year’s squad, which has sunk the Spurs from 2nd in the league in turnovers to 28th.

Considering the team’s youth and inexperience, it’s pretty reasonable to expect them to rein in some of those mistakes as the season goes on. Should they continue to shoot it close to as well as they have so far, there’s a very good chance this year’s offense will end up more efficient than last year’s.

Unfortunately, there’s not quite as much reason for optimism on the other end of the floor. Despite some schematic changes that have significantly altered their opponents’ shot selection for the better, the Spurs still have the 3rd worst defense in the NBA with a defensive rating of 115.2. At least some of their struggles come down to dudes just making shots. Opposing shooters are hitting 39% on above the break threes so far, for instance, which is the highest in the league. But even a little regression to the mean won’t fix their problems in transition and at the rim.

It may be surprising that the Spurs are struggling to defend the restricted area with Jakob Poeltl patrolling the paint, but that’s the concession the Spurs have made to cut down opponent three-point attempts. The consequence of sticking closer to shooters and rotating aggressively to run them off the three point line is more penetration. Combined with the occasional lapse due to inexperience or lack of familiarity with the other players on the court, the Spurs interior defense is getting torched. Opponents have taken 38.6% of their shots at the rim this season, which is the worst in the league, but they’ve only made 64% of those attempts, which is a little better than league average. Still, that’s a lot of layups and dunks.

The problem extends out through the mid-range, too. Opponents are hitting 45% of attempts between 4 and 14 feet and 50% on two-pointers outside 14 feet. That last number will likely come down quite a bit, but the fact that putting more pressure on the three point line has resulted in more attempts and higher field goal percentages inside the arc makes a lot of sense. The only question, really, is whether they can choke off enough of those easy buckets at the rim to allow the math to work in their favor.

So far, that hasn’t been the case, mostly because the Spurs can’t finish their defensive possessions. They’re the second worst defensive rebounding team in the league, which has led to giving up nearly 15 second-chance points per game. It’s a pretty straight line connecting that particular dot back to trading away an elite rebounding guard.

There’s a schematic issue at play here, too. With Jakob constantly needing to ride the line between stopping penetration and staying attached to his man, he’s rarely exactly where he’d like to be to box out or secure a miss. That means the Spurs need to gang rebound to keep their opponents off the glass, but their commitment to sticking with shooters means there’s more space in the interior for a bad bounce to wind up in the wrong hands.

If that was the biggest issue, the Spurs would probably find themselves in real danger of missing the lottery. But even the worst half court defense is better than letting the opponent get out in transition. Unfortunately, they’ve been doing that at an alarming rate as well. In two very related stats, the Spurs are giving up the 2nd most fast break points and the 2nd most points off turnovers. But it’s not just the turnovers: a problem that will hopefully resolve itself to some extent over the course of the season. The Spurs are letting their opponents turn nearly a third of live ball rebounds into transition opportunities, per Cleaning the Glass.

Aside from the ability to secure the rebound, an area where a 6’5” guard with gumby arms would probably help, there are some discipline and execution issues at play here, which could and probably should improve with reps. The Spurs lose their floor balance on offense quite a bit, an easy thing to do in the motion offense when everybody’s moving all the time, and there’s not always quite enough immediacy in getting back on live rebounds, but that’s part and parcel of having a young team. Again, time and reps should help.

One place where that youth has not shown is fouls. The Spurs are keeping their opponents off the free throw line just as well as they ever have, with the 2nd lowest opponent free throw rate in the league. In more good news, they’re forcing opponent turnovers slightly more often than last season, a bit of a surprise given Dejounte and Derrick’s combined affinity for relieving the ball handler of his responsibilities.

So all the Spurs need to do is be more consistent on offense, reduce their turnovers, maintain floor balance and get back on defense, gang-rebound without sacrificing three-point deterrence, and cut down on shots at the rim without fouling or leaving shooters. Pretty simple, right?

Well, maybe not, but the connection between the Spurs personnel and schematic changes and their performance thus far is pretty clear. But where does that leave the team? Are they still just a little too good, even after trading away last year’s starting backcourt, to wind up at the bottom of the standings? And if they are, what does that say about the real value of the players who’ve left or joined the squad and those whose roles have expanded?

If net rating is any indicator, then Dejounte Murray is really quite good at basketball, and losing him significantly improved the team’s lottery odds. Their -5.1 net rating is the 5th worst in the league. If the team’s record matters, then the team must have found a gem in Jeremy Sochan, and the (slightly less) Big Body probably deserves the same All-Star consideration that Dejounte got last year. Tre Jones and Josh Richardson have probably earned some kudos, too, as they’ve absorbed the next biggest shares of the load. The reality is likely a combination of the two. The Spurs aren’t as bad as their net rating, but they aren’t as good as their record either.

That might sound like bad news for the Wemby-stans in silver and black, but it’s a long season and a lot can happen. There are guaranteed to be trades and injuries that alter the landscape of the league. In the meantime, whether good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, this Spurs team is undoubtedly fun to watch, so remember, they aren’t going to play themselves into the play-in or out of the lottery before the new year, so sit back and enjoy the show.