Doug McDermott was the Spurs’ biggest offseason acquisition, by far. With many veterans leaving and the team in dire need of outside shooting, the front office decided to offer the sharpshooter, fresh off a great season with the Pacers, a three-year deal worth around $40 million.
At times, McDermott’s addition has seemed questionable. Most compound stats suggest he’s one of the worst players on the team and despite plugging an obvious hole as a knockdown shooter with the starters, he has struggled in other aspects. Simply put, he’s not been as good as he was last season.
It doesn’t mean he hasn’t been valuable, though. McDermott is not a core player, but he does contribute in key aspects. The question is, could he do more? Does he need to in order to justify his contract? Let’s take a look.
First, the undeniably good. McDermott has been an absolute sniper for the Spurs. He’s averaging a career-high five attempts per game and connecting on 40 percent of them. The vast majority of them have been catch-and-shoot threes, but that’s fine for the Spurs, who have him spacing the floor or moving all over the court to get open and fire right away. He’s been really good on the few pull-ups he’s attempted as well, so opponents have to play him close when he gets a ball screen. A huge percentage of his makes have come from above the break instead of the corner, which is a tougher shot to make, mostly because attempts from the corner are normally open. McDermott is the shooter the Spurs thought he was, which is huge. It’s the other elite aspect of his offense that has suffered a bit.
Last season McDermott averaged 4.6 attempts at the rim and converted on a ridiculous 69.5 percent of them. He was one of the few non-bigs to rank in the top 50 in possessions ending with a cut and ranked sixth in the league in points per possession on those situations, according to Synergy Sports. Over 50 percent of his points came from shots in the paint. This season, McDermott is averaging two attempts at the rim per game and connecting on a good but not elite 63.6 percent. He’s outside of the top 100 in possessions per game ending in a cut and outside of the top 150 in terms of points per possession on cuts. About 31 percent of his points are coming in the paint. While McDermott is arguably a better shooter with the Spurs than he was with the Pacers, he’s definitely less dangerous as a cutter and finisher.
The big question then is whether it’s because of a decline in athleticism or because of the personnel around him. Fortunately for the Spurs, who locked the 30-year-old up for three seasons, it seems like the latter might be the culprit. McDermott still moves a lot and quickly, both by the eye test and the league’s speed and distance tracking stats, and still seems to have good body control. So what has changed? It’s simple: Jakob Poeltl is not Domantas Sabonis.
Sabonis is an elite passing big man who had amazing chemistry with McDermott. He assisted him on a whopping 110 of Doug’s total 354 makes last season, an insane mark. Not only did he find McDermott whenever he got open near the rim, but also created openings for him because the defense had to always pay attention to Sabonis as a scoring threat. To an extent, the Pacers’ offense ran through him, and McDermott was one of his favorite targets.
Poeltl has good passing vision, but he’s merely good when it comes to finding teammates instead of great. When he has the ball in his hands anywhere outside of the paint, opponents can mostly ignore him. He’s still managed to assist McDermott an impressive 21 times this season, but he’s never going to be an offensive hub for the Spurs, The offense mostly runs through the guards in San Antonio, and McDermott is often asked to play around their needs.
Some of the spacing issues the Spurs have have not helped and neither has the understandable decision to not use passing savant Thaddeus Young at all. Essentially, unlocking the best version of McDermott on offense is probably impossible, at least this season.
So is the version the Spurs are getting is still good enough to offset the fact that McDermott is a liability on defense? Opponents have hunted him on switches often and he simply can’t keep up with quicker, smaller players. Gregg Popovich has realized that and as a result, McDermott has played the eighth most clutch minutes on the team, below the other four starters, as well as Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell and even Keita Bates-Diop. He can sop up minutes, but he can’t help as much when the game is on the line.
The defensive issues are not going anywhere and the Spurs probably understand that they can’t fully unlock McDermott’s cutting game, so should they be content with the production they are getting from their big offseason signing? For now, the answer is yet. He’s not going to have half his offense coming from points in the paint in San Antonio, but as long as he continues to be such a dangerous shooter, he’s providing value on offense. On the other end, he tries hard to be at the right place and that’s often the difference between being a minor negative and fatally hurting a team. No veteran should be untouchable on a team going young, but McDermott makes life easier for the core players, at least on one side of the ball, so the Spurs should not be in any rush to move him.
Ultimately, any judgement on McDermott comes down to expectations. Anyone who wanted the optimized 2020/21 version of the veteran forward is probably slightly disappointed at how he’s performed so far after being the big offseason addition.
For those who saw him as a role player who just needed to bring shooting and off ball movement to complement the existing core, he’s likely been perfectly satisfactory, despite his shortcomings and sizeable contract.