The first round of the NBA Playoffs did not go as planned. Four of the eight lower seeds defeated their homecourt advantage-holding counterparts. Some of them did it quite convincingly. The Heat and Knicks handled their series in five games, while the Lakers and Warriors won in six and seven games, respectively.
The Spurs are closer to bottoming out than contending for a championship right now. Because they are so early in their rebuild, there is flexibility in molding the roster into a playoff team. There are plenty of lessons to learn about team building by watching who moved on to round two. Paying close attention to the type of players that succeed in the postseason, and what positions are the most important can help inform how the Spurs move forward this offseason, and into the rest of their build.
Let’s take a deeper look into what San Antonio can learn from the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Superstars who can create offense
What do Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, and Stephen Curry have in common? They are all three-level scorers who can provide their teams with offense in a pinch. They also have the ability to create for others and can lead a team offensively for long stretches despite defensive pressure and physicality. Put simply, they are superstar scorers who can drag the rest of the roster to a win.
Few teams have these kinds of players, but the ones that do are rewarded with playoff wins. Seven of the playoffs top-10 leading scorers moved on to round two. Six of those seven players are shooting over 48% from the field, and a separate six of the ten are shooting over 38% from three. Most of the top-10 scorers are also adding in around five or more assists per game. The ability to create efficient offense at a high volume is a game changer in the playoffs.
Take Butler for example, who is averaging 35.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists on 59/43/73 shooting splits. His shot making was the biggest difference in Miami’s upset over Milwaukee. In crunch time, Erik Spoelstra found creative ways to get the ball into Jimmy’s hands, whether it be on inverted PnR’s with Kyle Lowry, or baseline curl screens. No matter where Butler caught the ball, he was a threat to score. All of that pressure opened up looks for Duncan Robinson (who is shooting a higher percentage than the regular season) and driving lanes for Kyle Lowry and Caleb Martin.
San Antonio is still looking for their star. Keldon Johnson assumed the role of primary scorer for the Silver and Black this season but hasn’t proven he can consistently shoot the ball at a high level. This year’s draft is loaded with shot-creating talent, especially in the lottery. They may just find their most important piece on June 22nd.
Interior defense and rebounding
Own the paint, own the series. That’s been the story of the playoffs outside of a few outliers (like Heat vs. Bucks). Anthony Davis has dominated, putting up an insane line of 22.1 points, 15 rebounds and 4.3 blocks. Kevon Looney’s rebounding was a major difference maker in the Warriors upset win over the Kings. Mitchell Robinson has established himself as an interior beast, making the Cavs front court look weak.
That’s not even including the MVP Joel Embiid and runner-up Nikola Jokic. After a perceived devalue of the center position, this postseason has proven that having an anchor to your team down low can make a difference in winning. The 76ers, Knicks, Nuggets and Lakers have had strong defenses in the playoffs, and a major part of that is their interior presence. AD, Embiid, and Robinson have established themselves as elite rim protectors, making scoring around the basket a nightmare for their opponents.
Gregg Popovich has praised Zach Collins “nastiness” and told reporters he would be their starting five next season. Collins is not the dominant rim presence that some of the other players mentioned are. However, the 7-footer is a smart interior player who is a real difference maker inside and can space the floor out to three-point range. It may behoove them to pursue a stronger rim protector as they move forward.
They could look to prioritize this in the draft. Obviously, securing the number one pick and selecting Victor Wembanyama would be an answer. There is talent later in the draft like Derek Lively and James Nnaji who profile as strong interior defenders. Pursuing a big in free agency could also make sense, especially with money to spend on young exciting players like Naz Reid.
Secondary creation on the wings
Austin Reaves has made himself a household name in the playoffs. It helps that he plays for the Lakers, but there is legitimate reason for the attention. He’s averaging 15.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He’s one of Los Angeles’s strongest creators on the wing. He can score off of the bounce, and create looks for others when the ball isn’t in LeBron James and Davis’s hands. That skillset has given an advantage to the teams who have been successful thus far.
Caleb Martin, RJ Barrett, Michael Porter Jr., Andrew Wiggins and Tyrese Maxey are good examples of this. Not the first or second option on offense, but they can come into the game and provide more than just three point shooting and defense. Having players that are multi-skilled, well-rounded pieces in your lineup stop stagnation when key player leave the floor. These connective pieces that can do more than one thing well make for a sort of mega role player that turns a good team to a contender.
Just look at Memphis, or Milwaukee. Outside of their star players, they struggled to get consistent play from wings like Grayson Allen and Dillon Brooks. If the 4th, 5th or 6th best player on your roster can create for themselves and others, the offense works better.
San Antonio has a handful of guys that fit this bill. Malaki Branham comes to mind, although he likely needs to defend better to compete in a playoff series. Even Johnson and Devin Vassell could provide secondary playmaking from the wing spot if needed. Going forward, they can grab more of these kinds of players in the mid-first to second round of the draft. This year guys like Colby Jones, Maxwell Lewis and Kobe Brown all look like wings who can make plays with the ball in their hands.
This position is something you focus more on once you’ve acquired the star, but it’s never too soon to start thinking about what players could bring to a playoff series.