San Antonio Spurs 2020-21 Preview: 5 Burning Questions

The San Antonio Spurs will tip off their 2020-21 campaign on Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. As San Antonio heads into their season, the answer to these five questions will play a big role in determining whether or not the Spurs will be successful this year.

1. Can LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan co-exist?

It appears the Spurs will be running it back this season with the duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan leading the charge. Since DeRozan’s arrival, the Spurs have struggled to make this combination work efficiently.

Both players are supreme talents in their own rights. Between them, they share 11 All-Star nods (seven for Aldridge, four for DeRozan) and seven All-NBA selections. They’ve both had the opportunity to be a focal point of their own team, with Aldridge headlining in Portland and DeRozan being “the man” in Toronto. They are ranked eighth and 12th, respectively, on the list of active scorers. 

On paper, it would seem like a good one-two punch to elevate a team into contending status, particularly in the modern NBA that is laden with power duos. Unfortunately, the marriage has been far from harmonious. Both players prefer to operate in the same areas on the court: from the elbows and in the high post. Both also tend to play an isolation-style of basketball which requires a lot of touches to be effective.

The biggest issue, however, is the pace of play. DeRozan seems to thrive in transition and high pick-and-roll action, whereas Aldridge’s offense is predicated on slowing things down into half-court offense and throwing the ball into the post. For those reasons, the two stars seem to mute each other’s talents and have struggled to stay out of each other’s way.

The advanced numbers seem to back up the eye-test. Collectively, the two players shared the court for more than 1,460 minutes last season and combined for a net rating of -3.4 points per 100 possessions.

When Aldridge was on the court, the Spurs had an offensive rating of -3.8. For DeRozan, that number was also a net negative at -2.5. However, when either player was on the bench, the team’s offensive rating actually improved significantly to +1.5. For two players known for their punching power, it’s concerning that the offense actually suffered when either one was on the court.

Last season, the Spurs made a few tweaks to facilitate the two stars, most notably with Aldridge spotting up for more three-points shots. He saw his attempts increase from a modest 0.5 per game to 3.0 per game, while shooting an impressive 38.9% from deep. Aldridge has not been shy about letting them fly in the preseason, putting up a whopping 6.3 attempts per game. This trend would be a step in the right direction assuming he can continue to knock them down.

While Aldridge missed play in the Disney NBA bubble due to shoulder surgery, the Spurs’ offense benefited by putting DeRozan in a facilitating role while surrounding him with lineups that focused on drive-and-kick offense. This led to a much faster pace of play and an offensive scheme that consistently generated open looks. It was perhaps the most cohesive offense that Spurs fans have seen since the days of The Beautiful Game. Finding a way to fit Aldridge into that style of play would seem to be the best direction going forward, but that will be a significant adjustment on the big man’s part.

2. Will someone emerge between Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson?

The Spurs are in the enviable position of having almost too much talent to develop. They currently have four budding youngsters who all seem poised to take their career to the next level.

Dejounte Murray had a stellar sophomore campaign in which he played 81 games and was selected All-Defensive First Team before tearing his right ACL in the following preseason. He missed the entire year recovering, but still found his starting spot waiting for him despite the emergence of Derrick White. Although Murray was able to display a much-improved jump shot upon his return, he also showed that his game still lacks maturity. He has poor vision in the open court, and has a propensity to dribble himself into trouble and make poorly timed passes. These are not great characteristics for a starting point guard. He is still a young player and has time to correct the course, but basketball intelligence is one of those immeasurables that some players either do or don’t seem to have.

White had an impressive season in Murray’s absence, starting 55 games that culminated in a heroic first round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets in which he hung 36 points in a Game 3 victory. However, he seemingly regressed with the return of Murray. Whether this was due to a reduction in minutes or being relegated to a bench role, White too often seemed to lose the aggression that makes him stand out as a high level asset. He plays at his best when he is letting the ball fly without hesitation and sticking his nose in on defense, but that seemed to come and go. Unfortunately, White has also been hampered by injury and is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season, so health continues to be a big concern.

It’s hard not to get excited about the potential of Lonnie Walker IV when you watch him play. He seems to have quick-twitch speed, boundless athleticism and the ability to create separation at will. However, despite seemingly having the tools to be a star in the NBA, Walker also has a tendency to disappear into the background far too often. Aside from one incredible outburst against the Rockets, Walker spent most of last season going through the motions and trying to fit in. Even in the NBA bubble where the team was making a clear effort to highlight its young talent, he did very little to separate himself from his peers.

On the other hand, Keldon Johnson seized the opportunity in Orlando. He was aggressive every time his sneakers hit the floor, and at times looked like the Spurs’ best player. His ability to get to the rim and finish in a variety of ways is already above average, and he also showed the propensity to knock down big shots. Throughout this short offseason, Johnson seems to be laser focused on improving and being ready for a bigger role next season. There is a lot for Spurs fans to get excited about with this young prospect.

That said, all four players have potential and should get ample opportunity to break out next season. The question remains: who will emerge from the pack and elevate their game to the next level?

3. Can this team play…defense?

It took me a moment to come up with the D-word because we haven’t seen much of it over the past year. According to advanced stats, the Spurs were tied as the 25th worst team in the league on the defensive end. To put that into perspective, they actually had the same rating as the Golden State Warriors, a team that was actively trying to lose games.

There are many factors behind the departure from the Spurs’ typical defensive roots. DeRozan has never been known for his defensive abilities, and he played — by far — the most minutes on the team (562 more than the next most, Aldridge). He was also consistently surrounded with net-negative defenders such as Bryn Forbes, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay.

Pop also showed a peculiar resistance to playing the Spurs two best defenders, Murray and White, simultaneously. With only one plus-defender on the court at most times, there were simply too many holes to plug and opponents knew exactly which weaknesses to exploit.

Coming into this new season, two of the notable scapegoats (Forbes and Belinelli) will no longer be with the team. The general consensus is that this will be addition by subtraction —  what the two guards brought to the court with their shooting ability was immediately surrendered by their woes on defense. This will also allow more playing time for the aforementioned Murray and White combo to be utilized, as well as present opportunities for players like Walker and Johnson to maximize their roles.

It was also a pleasant surprise to see the Spurs front office approach the 2020 NBA Draft with a defensive focus by selecting Devin Vassell and Tre Jones. Both players were lauded for their lockdown abilities in college.

Vassell has been mentioned as possibly being the best 3-and-D prospect in the draft, which would be a much-needed shot in the arm for a Spurs team that struggled defending the perimeter last season. He is a lengthy guard-forward who has excellent range and excels at help defense. He was named Second Team All-ACC in 2020. 

Jones was expected to go in the first round of the draft, but slipped to the Spurs at the 41st pick. He is a hard-nosed defensive point guard with the ability to command an offense. He was named First Team All-ACC in 2020 and also won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

The Spurs also plucked another defensive forward, Keita Bates-Diop, out of free agency on a two-way contract in the hopes of a reclamation project a la Danny Green.

By eschewing the team’s weakest defenders and focusing on a stable of young guns with length and athleticism, it almost seems inevitable that the Spurs will be able to improve upon their porous defense of last season.

4. Will Devin Vassell get the rookie treatment?

Throughout the years, the Spurs have shown a tendency to ease their rookies into the NBA waters. On a contending team supported by three Hall of Famers and surrounded by veteran talent, there simply didn’t seem to be enough minutes to go around.

Even the Spurs current three young talents took a while to find their footing. Murray averaged only 8.5 minutes in 38 games as a rookie. White was further behind at 8.2 minutes over 17 games. Walker saw only 6.9 minutes per game in 17 contests. Luka Samanic, San Antonio’s selection with the 19th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, is currently walking this path with a total of only 48 NBA minutes to his name.

To compensate for this, the Spurs have utilized their G League affiliate team in Austin to develop their young talents. By assigning players to the Austin Spurs, they could provide them the opportunity for playing time while running a system that closely resembles the Spurs’ philosophies. The trio of Murray, White and Walker all spent ample time playing in Austin before being firmly implanted into the San Antonio lineup.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has left the status of the G League up in the air. Even if the G League is able to produce a season, it will likely be shortened and may be forced to replicate a bubble situation like what was used to finish the 2019-20 NBA campaign. Considering this, it’s hard to envision it as a viable option for player development this year.

Furthermore, the 11th-picked Vassell is the highest selection the Spurs have made since trading George Hill for the rights to draft Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick in 2011. Leonard was initially seen as a developmental project but quickly supplanted veteran Richard Jefferson as a starter in his rookie year in which he played 64 games.

While I would hesitate to compare the young Vassell to the likes of Leonard, it’s possible he will see the same fast track. As an NBA lottery pick, he comes in as one of the most developed players that the Spurs have had access to in over two decades. He also immediately fills a need as a lengthy defender on the wings.

While all signs point to the Spurs trying to stay competitive this season, they will be afforded the luxury of tinkering with their young talent more than we have seen in years past. Vassell actually averaged 27.6 minutes per game in the Spurs’ three preseason games, which was a team-high. Hopefully this indicates that Pop recognizes the value in the first lottery pick the Spurs have had since Tim Duncan.

5. What happens at the trade deadline?

Despite a bevy of rumors that the Spurs were being highly active as the trade market opened, the team was predictably quiet and nothing came to fruition on that front. As of today, the Spurs are one of only five NBA teams who did not participate in a single trade transaction during this abbreviated interim.

It’s still possible that the team continues to explore options throughout the season. In particular, there may be interest in acquiring some of the expiring veteran players like Aldridge, DeRozan, Gay and Mills from teams looking to add talent for the playoffs. All four names were reportedly featured in trade speculation, but their suitors apparently decided to go another direction.

However, San Antonio can also be counted as one of the teams that is trying to maintain cap flexibility going into the 2021 free agency, so they will likely value their expiring contracts and avoid taking on any long-term salary. That, alone, will limit their possibilities on the trade market. When you combine the current financial insecurity of the league and the Spurs’ tendency to avoid trading things from their lunch box, it’s difficult to anticipate any midseason roster changes.