Anyone who came into the 2021-22 NBA season with reasonable expectations probably isn’t too surprised by how things went for the San Antonio Spurs. They were predictably a sub-.500, rebuilding team that was better than most outsiders expected but also showed plenty of room for improvement going forward. Still, despite them being the team we expect in some ways, in others they surprised, so here is a look at five things we got right and wrong about the 2021-22 Spurs.
Right: The Spurs were better than their Vegas odds of 28.5 wins
Most Spurs fans saw the Vegas odds before the season, and any who were betting people probably didn’t have much trouble taking the over on that number. Despite losing several key veterans in DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge (who really didn’t play much of a role last season) and Rudy Gay, that group underwhelmed last season, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a motivated, freed young squad wouldn’t at least come close to last season’s 33 wins, especially with 10 extra games to accomplish it. (I’ll be generous and guess whoever put those Vegas odds together forgot the 2020-21 season only had 72 regular season games.)
That’s exactly what happened, as they reached 34 wins and arguably could have won more with fewer “rest” games down the stretch and had they figured out how to win close games earlier in the season. By extension, the estimate that this team’s ceiling was roughly as a .500 team seems about right. Yes, they could have won seven more games had a few more things gone right, but the fact remains that they had to learn from their past mistakes to reach the point they did in their late surge, so anything more than that seems like too much.
Wrong: The Spurs’ defense would be their strength
Coming into the season, that aforementioned group of veterans took a large bulk of the Spurs’ scoring load with them, and with no one on the roster having ever carried the assignment of being “the guy” before, not to mention a perceived lack of outside shooting, it felt like this Spurs squad would struggle to score. On the other hand, the Spurs had several good individual defenders, so it was easy to assume that defense would be this team’s calling card. That ended up not being the case.
Solid team offense, a quicker pace, and better-than-expected outside shooting thanks to improvement from Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell plus the additions of Doug McDermott and Josh Richardson helped form a solid (if unspectacular) Spurs offense that could hold its own against most opponents. Instead, most of the Spurs’ problems came on the defensive end, where their youth often showed via poor communication and rotations leaving players wide open, resulting in a below average defense whose production didn’t equal the sum of its parts. Although in hindsight, the next point may have had something to do with that...
Right: The lack of a true power forward would hurt the Spurs
The power forward position is one area the Spurs failed to address last offseason. With Aldridge and Gay’s departure, that left Luka Samanic and Thaddeus Young as the only true power forwards on the team. The Spurs had finally seen enough of Samanic — whom they had taken a risk on in the 2019 NBA Draft but just wasn’t showing enough improvement (and allegedly desire) to keep waiting on — and waived him during the preseason, and Young was neither part of their plans, nor did he fit well on the court with Jakob Poeltl due to his old-school style and lack of shooting range.
As a result, 6’7” McDermott started PF most of the season, but he was not the defender the Spurs needed at the position. When he wasn’t playing, the usually Spurs played four-out, with Johnson or later Richardson playing the four. While both are solid defenders, at just 6’5” they don’t have the size to guard traditional power forwards in the NBA, so that meant the Spurs were often overwhelmed by any team with size in the front court. Filling out the PF position with some size should be the Spurs’ top priority this summer.
Wrong: Healthy Derrick White would be the Spurs’ best player
Entering the season as the Spurs’ highest-paid player, there were high expectations for Derrick White to finally break through as their best player as well. For the last couple of seasons, despite not owning that title, the team’s production leaned on his health, availability, and performance perhaps more so than any other player. When he was healthy and performing near his peak, the Spurs were at their best; conversely, when he was hurt or struggling, the Spurs struggled as well.
While White was tied with Jakob Poeltl for “second best Spur” based on the SVP leaderboard after his last game with the squad on February 9, Dejounte Murray was already running away with the lead. This is not to say White was having a bad season, but a down year shooting from outside combined with an even bigger leap from Murray that currently has him named as a finalist for Most Improved Player meant White did not live up to the preseason expectations most fans had for him, which led to...
Wrong: The Spurs would not be sellers at the trade deadline
Despite having the assets to make some decent (if not franchise-altering) trades, the Spurs are almost never active at the trade deadline and seemed happy to keep developing the young core they had, so why would this year be any different? Some fringe moves were made, such as trading Bryn Forbes for Juancho Hernangomez as part of a multiteam deal, and everyone expected the Spurs to be looking for buyers for Thaddeus Young (and in a pleasant surprise they were able to find one that included a first round pick), but beyond that no big moves were expected.
But then, in a deadline move that shocked everyone, they traded White to the Celtics for Richardson, Romeo Langford and another first round pick. It was somewhat surprising to see the Spurs let one of their homegrown talents, best defenders and main ball-handlers go in what felt like a lateral move at best, but the Spurs backcourt was getting crowded, and if White has truly hit his ceiling, it made sense to move on and see what players with potentially higher ceilings (like Vassell and Johnson) could do. On top of that, Richardson has been great fit and leader for this young core, while White has thrived in a sixth man role for a Boston team that almost instantly improved and suddenly has championship aspirations. At least in the short term, this was one of those rare win-win trades.
Those are the main things I can think of without getting too far into the nitty gritty. Are there any other preseason predictions you can think of that were right or wrong about the Spurs? Feel free to discuss in the comments below!