Everyone knew coming into the 2022-23 NBA season that the Spurs would be in rebuilding mode. They had traded away their All-Star point guard for draft compensation (not to mention their second best ball-handler at the 2022 All-Star Break) and didn’t add much else to the roster in the offseason outside of the three first round draft picks and some end-of-the-bench depth. Even before the season began, Gregg Popovich pointed out (at the risk of being fined) that this team shouldn’t be expected to contend for anything.
As a result, Spurs fans entered the season with likely their lowest expectations since 1987. (Note: the Spurs didn’t enter 1997 expecting David Robinson or Sean Elliott to miss the majority of the season). However, a 5-2 start that featured plenty of ball movement, team work, and effort on defense gave hope that this team would at least be enjoyable to watch, even if they couldn’t keep up with their winning ways as opponents got a scouting report and uncovered their weaknesses.
Unfortunately, the Spurs have gone just 1-16 since then, bookended by the two worst home losses of the Pop era: a 39-point drubbing from the Toronto Raptors on November 2 and a 38-point loss to the Phoenix Suns on December 4. A lot of factors can be attributed to this slump: a jump in strength (and density) of schedule, a constant flow of injuries to main rotation players, Keldon Johnson’s shooting slump, etc., but one factor has stood out so much that it’s becoming more maddening with each passing game: defense.
I believe Brandon Koontz said what we’re all thinking the best in his recap for the Suns game:
For close to two decades, the Spurs were known as a very, very good defensive team. Their yearly stats may have fluctuated, but teams understood that defense was always going to be a focus. That’s what makes the massive mistakes, rotation failures, and general confusion so frustrating to watch this year. We all get this team is designed to struggle its way to a high lottery pick, but I don’t know that most expected any Pop-coached group of players to be this poor at basic defensive rotation work. It may simply be a byproduct of a team of young players, many of whom are still learning the game, but it feels like more than that. I don’t know if there’s been a shift in the message, new defensive schemes, or a lack of available practice time to get everyone on the same page, but something really looks broken.
It would be one thing if the Spurs just didn’t have the personnel to be good on defense, but based on who they do have, it feels like they should at least be hovering around 20th, not dead last (where they currently reside). Jakob Poeltl is one of the best interior defenders in the league, Devin Vassell has a 6’10” wing span, Jeremy Sochan has the potential to be an All-Defense level player as he matures, and Tre Jones is small but has a Patty Mills peskiness to him. The problem isn’t who the Spurs have, but either effort, scheme, or both.
From a schematic standpoint, some of the issues seem to lie with too much double-teaming, which Brett Brown — who coached the last two games after Pop had a minor medical procedure — straight up admitted was their approach against the Suns: double-team Devin Booker and make someone else beat you (and did they ever). Just like in many other games, it didn’t work well as he simply found the open man. Whether it’s finding the roller in the pick-and-roll, backdoor cuts, or an open shooter from three, offenses with any sense of passing acumen are eviscerating the Spurs after these double-teams.
Of course, this is also where the effort comes in. The reason teams are getting almost anything they want out of double-teams is the defensive rotation simply stops, with players left ball watching, and that’s the mindboggling part. As Brandon said, it feels so unusual watching a Pop-coached team be this bad at basic rotations and team discipline.
Here are a couple of classic examples of these issues. Against the Pelicans, the Spurs unnecessarily double team Jonas Valanciunas (who isn’t even looking to shoot) on the wing. Vassell gambles for the steal on his pass out, and Keita Bates-Diop is slow to rotate back out of the double team, leaving Romeo Langford to cover an impossible two-on-one situation against Jose Alvarado and Naji Marshall. With the way teams have been hitting threes against the Spurs lately, the result is predictable.
NAJTHREEEEEEEEE MARSHALL pic.twitter.com/73lLpUVDVn— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) December 3, 2022
In another example of their poor rotation habits, after an offensive rebound by the Suns, Malakai Branham goes to cover Booker above the arc, but Vassell gets caught watching and fails to cover his man in return, letting Mikal Bridges (who hit five of them on the night) simply float out for the wide open three with no resistance.
Teammwork makes the dream work.@mikal_bridges knocks down the triple pic.twitter.com/8bHn6vm3vQ— Phoenix Suns (@Suns) December 4, 2022
Again, it would be one thing if it felt like the Spurs were trying and just didn’t have the personnel to get more stops, but that simply isn’t the case. It often feels like they aren’t trying, which is so unlike a Pop-coached team. It’s not overly surprising that the Spurs have the 29th ranked offense in the league, but I don’t think they planned on having the 30th ranked defense and a historically bad net rating of -11.6.
Some of the defensive struggles may be related to team morale sinking due to struggles on the offensive end. Maybe once some shots start falling, they get their two missing starters back, and get a confidence boosting win, the effort will pick back up on the defensive end. Of course, to get that aforementioned win, they’ll have to play some defense. Even in a rebuilding year where administrative eyes may or may not be on the draft, the point is still to learn and grow, and right now, these young Spurs still have much to learn and a lot of growing to do, especially on the defensive end.