Basketball is back. The San Antonio Spurs take on the Orlando Magic tonight in the AT&T Center in what is the first preseason game for both squads. While it’s unlikely that any of the main players for the Spurs will be on the court for more than 20 minutes, we should start to get a feel for what head coach Gregg Popovich has in mind for his team this upcoming season. Here are six subplots that should become clearer after tonight.
1. The Starting Lineup
It’ll be fascinating who Pop pencils into the starting lineup. Against the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, the starting lineup was Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl. Considering that defense has been the number one focus of training camp, I assume that Dejounte Murray will start. However, Pop can’t simply replace Bryn Forbes in the starting lineup with Murray because the resulting lack of shooting would make that lineup virtually unplayable.
One option would be to take Poeltl out of the starting lineup and replace him with Rudy Gay or DeMarre Carroll in order to get more shooting on the floor. That might work but spacing could still be an issue unless at least one of White, Murray, DeRozan or Aldridge proves to be a quality (and quantity) three-point shooter.
Another option is starting one of White or Murray and then use the other in a Manu Ginobili-like role off the bench. But is Forbes actually a starting-quality player in the NBA? He played well last season in the playoffs for the most part but it’s difficult to imagine Forbes starting on a team with lockdown defense aspirations.
2. Any Three-Point Improvements?
The Spurs led the NBA last season in three-point shooting accuracy but they were last in the league in three-pointers attempted per game. Over the summer, there was talk of a number of players working on their shooting range, most notably DeRozan, White and Aldridge. With the unfortunate loss of Davis Bertans, San Antonio will need internal improvements if they are to climb the leaderboard for three-pointers made.
It shouldn’t take long to figure out if any of the returning players are more comfortable shooting three-pointers. If a player or two has noticeably improved in that area, it’ll make it a lot easier for Pop to put together a workable starting lineup.
3. Dejounte Murray’s Health
While the Spurs weren’t able to make a big offseason splash in free agency or in the trade market, the addition of a healthy Murray has a chance to make this a much better team, particularly defensively. Murray has been medically cleared to play basketball for nearly two months and all reports indicate he’s moving really well in training camp. It’ll be interesting to see how he looks during live NBA action, even if it’s just preseason.
If Murray isn’t the same on defense, that’s obviously a huge blow. On offense, not only do the Spurs need him to return to his former level, they need him to be a lot better than when we last saw him. A reliable jumper is important. At the very least, the Spurs need Murray not to be a liability on that end.
4. The Backup Point Guard
With Murray back, how Pop distributes the point guard minutes will be of interest. Will Murray or White be the clearcut starter at point guard? Will the other one be the backup or will it be Patty Mills? If all three of Murray, White and Mills are in the rotation, which one will be shifted over to shooting guard?
Mills played well in the FIBA World Cup for Australia, averaging 22.8 points and 3.9 assists on 49.6% shooting from the field and 40.4% shooting from the three-point line. His showing in China likely helped him erase the memory of his poor postseason performance against the Nuggets in which he shot 13.6% (3-for-22) from three-point land.
On one hand, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see White played more at shooting guard in order to accomodate Murray and Mills. On the other hand, it’d be a really questionable strategy to take White, who is likely the team’s best playmaker, and move him off the ball
5. Lonnie Walker IV’s Leap
The Spurs have a lot of youngsters on their roster. Of the rookies and sophomores, it’s Walker who appears primed for a breakout season. He played really well in summer league and obviously has all the physical tools to be an impact player.
While it’s dangerous to read too much into a preseason game, at what point Walker is substituted into the game will be telling. Personally, I’m hoping Walker is already ahead of Marco Belinelli in the rotation. If the Spurs hope to be a top tier defensive team, Belinelli can’t be part of the regular rotation. And if San Antonio is going to max out their potential, they need someone like Walker to emerge.
6. Chimezie Metu Movement
Due to a ill-timed foot abscess, Chimezie Metu wasn’t able to play during summer league. Heading into preseason play, Metu is probably the biggest question mark on the roster. His $1,416,852 salary is fully guaranteed this season but it’s possible that the Spurs will release him if he underwhelms during training camp and the preseason.
Metu had his moments in Austin last year but struggled to move the needle in a positive direction. When he played in San Antonio, it was often unsightly, to put it kindly. He needs to show signs of life to lock up a roster spot.
Metu averaged 9.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 18.8 minutes per game for Nigeria in the FIBA World Cup, so there wasn’t much needle-moving there either. But to his credit, he authored one hellacious dunk against the home team:
Let’s hope to see some of that athleticism translate to the NBA level during the preseason.