The forward spots have been tough for the Spurs to figure out in recent years. After mostly abandoning two big men units, San Antonio has been trying to find the right pairings that can provide the benefits of smaller lineups while not giving up a big edge on the boards and defense. It’s been a tough balance to strike.
This upcoming season might be the one in which the Spurs finally find something that works. In the past few months, the franchise has acquired several players who should allow them to play different styles and give the Silver and Black a versatile and intriguing forward corps. Let’s take a look at it.
SF: Keldon Johnson - Josh Richardson - Romeo Langford - (Joe Wieskamp)
PF: Doug McDermott - Jeremy Sochan - Isaiah Roby - (Keita Bates-Diop)
At this point, it seems safe to assume that Doug McDermott will start since he only lost his spot last season because of injury, and Jeremy Sochan might need time to adjust to the NBA game. Who is actually the small forward and who is the power forward doesn’t really matter when he’s sharing the court with Keldon Johnson, who will surely man one of the starting forward spots, since the veteran sniper is often hidden on defense on the least-dangerous matchup.
Once bench players check in, the difference between the two positions should become more clear. If Richardson or Langford are in, they’ll be at the wing and the Spurs will give up some size. Sochan and Roby, on the other hand, have to be considered traditional power forwards who will help create bigger lineups. There are a lot of possible configurations Gregg Popovich can use, so hopefully he’ll get experimental often.
For now, we’ll mostly ignore the impact Joe Wieskamp, who is still a restricted free agent, and Keita Bates-Diop, who is on a non-guaranteed contract until the season starts, could have in the rotation.
Weaknesses: Rebounding and defensive versatility
The two biggest problems the Johnson-McDermott duo had last season were rebounding and defensive versatility. Despite being 6’8”, McDermott rebounds like a guard and can’t really defend most forwards. Johnson is better in both areas, but far from a standout in either. The bench doesn’t offer any great solutions either. Josh Richardson is a tough defender, but he’s simply not long enough to handle power forwards. The same applies to Langford, and they both rebound like guards. Isaiah Roby and Keita Bates-Diop are passable rebounders and have solid mobility that allows them to handle switches relatively well, but they are not going to change the ceiling of the team on the defensive end. Most configurations that include two of the aforementioned players will range from bad to average on their own end.
The responsibility to solve both the potential issues on the boards and on defense could actually fall to 19-year-old Jeremy Sochan, which is both exciting and scary. Sochan was a good rebounder in college and he has the size, the length, and the athleticism to remain a good one at the next level. His defensive versatility is the main reason why he was picked in the lottery and could make him special at the pro level. His lack of range would probably make it hard for him to share the floor with Jakob Poeltl for long stretches — although the Spurs should definitely try it — but he could conceivably be out there every minute Poeltl rests since both Zach Collins and Gorgui Dieng can shoot. Will a rookie have a big enough impact to turn a clear weakness into a strength? Probably not immediately, but hopefully he’ll help.
Strengths: Shooting and complementary offensive skills
While everyone but Sochan can be considered at best an average rebounder and defender, the rookie is the only questionable shooter of the bunch. Johnson’s gigantic leap as a marksman is well-documented. McDermott is a specialist who can connect with his feet set or on the move. Richardson is probably not going to average 44 percent from outside as a Spur again, but he should at the very least be a league-average volume shooter. Roby and Langford are not proven marksmen but have improved in recent years and are not afraid to let it fly. Last season, that contingent combined to shoot 41 percent from beyond the arc on over 1,000 attempts. There might not be a ton of shot creation in the forward group, but most configurations will likely feature good spacing.
Having shooters is great, but playing too many specialists can cap the offensive ceiling of a team. Fortunately, the group not only features two elite finishers in the likely starters, but also a lot of players who can do more than one thing and can provide the type of connective skills non-featured options need to have on offense. Richardson and Langford are good enough ball handlers to run some pick and rolls if needed or keep defenses on rotation by attacking off the catch. Roby is comfortable acting as a screener and can be both a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop option. Sochan does most things that don’t involve scoring at a high level. Even Johnson and McDermott can do more than just shoot. The forwards have a lot of complementary skills that should keep the offense flowing.
The Spurs have the personnel to have success with the type of small pairings they normally like, featuring Johnson and a second perimeter player. Richardson and McDermott are reliable veterans who know their roles. Langford and potentially Wieskamp, if he returns, are young but have a couple of NBA seasons under their belt. Add Devin Vassell to the mix for when the team plays two small guards together, and that’s a lot of versatility for the one-big units.
The most interesting dynamic will be to see how the coaching staff incorporates the bigger forwards into the mix. The only power forward on the roster last season was Bates-Diop, but now there are also two other guys who can fill the role in Roby and Sochan. If Popovich can successfully use Johnson at small forward at least some of the time next to a bigger player who can help with the rebounding and help defense, the Spurs will have the type of lineup flexibility they’ve lacked in recent years.
With so much uncertainty at the guard spots, it will be tempting to play familiar small units at forward, but rebuilding years should be about experimentation. Throwing Roby and especially Sochan into the mix as often as possible next to Johnson could have the type of payoff that is worth any growing pains.