San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has had his hands full all season trying to press the right buttons to maximize his team’s talent. Unfortunately, instead of living up to his credentials as a Hall of Fame coach, Popovich has made things worse. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to find the right combinations to unlock the potential of the ill-fitting roster.
The Spurs, 21-26, sit five games below .500 and two games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. With San Antonio failing to make the most of their relatively easy schedule, making the playoffs now appears increasingly unlikely.
There was hope that this team would be significantly better defensively than last season’s 19th ranked team. Instead, the Spurs rank 23rd this season, in large part thanks to an overreliance on defensive turnstiles like Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli.
Of the two, Forbes has been particularly detrimental to the team. The Spurs starting shooting guard has the worst defensive rating of any rotation player on the team, yet is third in minutes. Demoting Forbes is an obvious adjustment that would at least improve the starting lineup defensively.
Unfortunately, Popovich disagrees. Forbes has started all but two games since the start of last season, providing opponents a reliable weakness to attack.
Belinelli’s role in the rotation has continued to confound those who follow the Spurs. While Belinelli has never been mistaken for a good defender, his offensive decline has made him virtually unplayable.
The emergence of Lonnie Walker IV as a viable option on the wing should’ve meant the end of Belinelli’s time in the rotation, but he continues to play. Walker has made big strides on the defensive end in part due to coach Popovich’s tough-love approach. That said, Walker hasn’t been given nearly the same leeway to make mistakes as Belinelli or Forbes.
Walker has a high ceiling on defense due to his physical tools, specifically his length and athleticism. In fact, he already ranks 11th among all NBA shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus in just his second season. All evidence suggests that if Walker were to have an bigger role, San Antonio would be far more competitive defensively than they are now.
Gregg Popovich’s Questionable Rotation Rationale
Second-guessing a head coach with five championships isn’t often wise but it’s warranted in this case. Pop’s mystifying decision-making hasn’t been limited to just lineups or overplaying players, but also to not playing certain players entirely.
After being a key contributor on the Brooklyn Nets for two seasons, DeMarre Carroll was acquired by the Spurs this past summer. Carroll’s ability to defend, shoot, and play both small forward and power forward made him an ideal fit on paper. This season, however, Carroll has been cemented to the bench. Popovich failing to utilize Carroll is particularly enigmatic.
There have been no reports of injury or conduct issues that would explain Carroll’s nonexistent role. Trey Lyles has benefited from Carroll’s mysterious benching — but the team can’t necessarily say the same. Lyles, as a stretch four, has been a below average three-point shooter this season.
Though Lyles has been an excellent rebounder, a solid passer and decent defender, he doesn’t move the needle enough on offense or defense to warrant starting. It’s become apparent that he is better suited for a role off the bench.
Pop’s willingness to play Lyles early on was a good idea, given his potential, but it came at the expense of a better player in Carroll. Had Carroll been given the same chance, he would have been a better fit as starter — or at least a rotation player.
The Spurs have slowly increased their three-point volume with LaMarcus Aldridge and Dejounte Murray’s shooting improvements. Add in Forbes’ shooting, DeMar DeRozan’s increased drives to the rim, and Carroll’s high-volume, above-average outside shooting and the Spurs could be even better on offense. On defense, Carroll would’ve added another capable defender to the lineup.
Overplaying Forbes, underplaying Walker, not playing Carroll and playing Belinelli … Pop’s rotations are out of whack.
In-Game Coaching Blunders
With DeRozan and Aldridge on roster, coach Popovich has two All-Star caliber players at his disposal. Despite the talent level, Pop’s team has a tendency to play down to lower competition.
The Spurs have already lost 11 games to teams below .500, after losing 15 all of last season, including losses to five of the seven worst teams in the league.
Against Washington, Pop thought it was best to bring Murray off bench in favor Patty Mills with Derrick White injured. Without a capable perimeter defender starting, Bradley Beal punished Forbes. Beal went on to score 33 of the Wizards 138 points in the win.
Against Atlanta, Trae Young, the NBA’s third leading scorer, was held in check for three quarters by Murray and White. In the fourth quarter, however, Popovich went away from his best perimeter defenders. With those two on the bench, Mills and Forbes were tasked with guarding Young down the stretch. Predictably, Young got going and scored 18 of the Hawks 38 points in the period and, ultimately, sunk the Spurs.
In their most recent game against Atlanta, Popovich chose to play three of the Spurs worst defenders — Mills, Forbes and Belinelli — together in the fourth quarter. As a result, the Hawks outscored San Antonio by 12 points in the period. On the final defensive possession, Mills was put on Young with both White and Murray also on the floor. The end result: the Spurs lost to the second worst team in the NBA for a second time, 121-120.
Against Cleveland, the Spurs trailed 78-72 with ten minutes remaining in the fourth. With the team struggling, Popovich deployed an unorthodox lineup that included White, Walker, Belinelli and DeRozan. San Antonio outscored the Cavs 25-13 and led 97-94 with 1:52 remaining. Then, inexplicably, coach Popovich subbed Mills in for Walker and the Cavaliers were able to force overtime.
Popovich then trotted out a lineup of Mills, Belinelli, DeRozan, Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl — a lineup that hadn’t played together — in overtime. The Cavs capitalized on the poor coaching decision and outscored the Spurs 14-6 to seal the win. Popovich and the Spurs were both outcoached and outplayed by a Cleveland team that had gone 1-14 in their previous 15 games.
Gregg Popovich’s Future
Popovich’s decision-making in-game has turned winnable games into losses with perplexing coaching strategies. It’s difficult to say how many more wins the Spurs could have this season but it’s likely that the Spurs would be in better position with better coaching.
While this season has gone poorly, in large part due to his coaching, it doesn’t diminish Popovich’s overall legacy. He remains one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. Still, no matter how this season ends, it appears that the time is now for a new coach to lead the Spurs into a new era.