I am bullish on all of our young prospects (specifically Josh Primo and Devin Vassell) but there is a problem that the Spurs have that we don't really talk about. It was touted to be a strength of our team coming into the season, but the reality of it is that our defense kind of sucks. I started thinking of this when listening to a discussion about the NBA All-Defense team and the only Spur mentioned was Jakob Poeltl as an afterthought sandwiched between pundits gushing about Robert Williams III and Jarrett Allen as a potential 2nd team center consideration (note: he doesn't really get considered). Derrick White gets some love but more as a Celtic (because their defense is good at a historical level), Dejounte Murray (presumably our defensive ace) gets mentioned as an afterthought going through their list of candidates considered.
While we can put it on national pundits ignoring the Spurs or DJM having to do more on offense, the truth of the matter is, our defense kind of sucks. While I'm impressed with the offensive jumps of our players, the lack of defensive development is actually somewhat concerning to me. Murray, who leads the league in steals, barely gets any consideration, because frankly, the Spurs are bad on defense. This is not Tim Duncan never winning DPOY. This is a Spurs team underwhelming defensively. For all the national criticism of Rudy Gobert getting "solved" as a defender, it's equally true of Poeltl. Poeltl's defensive number suffers even more, because he has to cover so much for our wing defenders, and he's not as good as Gobert.
At a quick glance, the Spurs are 23rd (read bottom 10) in opponent points allowed, they are 27th (read bottom 3) in defensive field goals made and 30th (read last) in defensive field goals allowed. In short, this means the Spurs allow opponents to take and make a lot of shots. This for a team that was touted to be ball-hawks that will generate a lot of steals. I don't mean to throw anyone under the bus, the fact that we essentially try to play Boston's defense with wings much smaller than Jaylen Brown and Jayson Taytum and therefore are perhaps playing out of position.
Specifically, I'm going to call out two players that I think need to step it up, and I'm not saying this to throw them under the bus, but rather, this is something to notice and observe. The first is Keldon Johnson. For all his improvements offensively, Johnson's poor defense is actually quite alarming. Looking at some of the stats, he's near Bryn Forbes level of defense. For a guy touted to be an essential part of the core, his inability to be even average defensively poses significant problems. While he has the tools to be effective defensively, that aspect of his game hasn't seemed to develop. Even when we look at the recent games where he has shouldered the brunt of the scoring, we see that he scores a lot of points and not much else (yes, he makes 3s, that's scoring points). His defensive +/- is -1.2, which to give you context, is the third worse of all players still on the team which for context rates him around the same as Jeff Green, Devonte Graham, and Danilo Gallinari, he's the bottom 30 of all players that qualified on Basketball-Reference.
The second player, unsurprisingly to some, is Lonnie Walker IV. He's touted more as a scorer off the bench, so maybe it's okay that his defensive +/- is -1.4, the same as former Spur Patty Mills (FYI our worst defender still on the roster unsurprisingly is Doug McDermott). While I'm not saying these numbers are the be-all-end-all, it is apparent watching the games that both Lonnie nor Keldon are at best slightly below average on defense. Again, I'm not trying to minimize the Spurs roster issues. Maybe it would help to have a big, more defensive minded wing on the roster, which we don't have. However, if Johnson and Walker are going to have significant minutes on the floor (maybe Lonnie isn't going to be around long-term), they will need to step up their defensive games, definitely Johnson for sure. For the Spurs to be successful in any iteration, that needs to change if they are to remain core members of the young Spurs rotation. Is it something they can grow into? I hope so. It's definitely something to work on over the offseason.