The San Antonio Spurs have underwhelmed in preseason thus far, to put it mildly. They lost their two games by a combined 54 points (125-89 loss to the Orlando Magic and 107-89 loss to the Miami Heat) and neither game was competitive in the second half.
Considering it’s just exhibition play and a lot of the ugliness was due to players who won’t even make the team, it’d be a mistake to get too worked up about the losses and start preparing for lottery balls. That said, there are a handful of issues that are legitimately concerning to me at this extremely early point of the 2019-20 season.
1. Lack of Shooting in the Starting Lineup
Right now, it looks like Pop is leaning toward starting the fivesome of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl. Defensively, that lineup has potential to be quite a bit above average due to the size in the middle of Aldridge and Poeltl, and the versatility and range of Murray. However, as good as it can be defensively, I don’t think that starting lineup produces enough spacing to be adequate on the other side of the court.
Last year, the Spurs used a similar starting lineup, with Derrick White in Murray’s place. As it was, that lineup struggled spacing-wise. Considering Murray is unlikely to be as good of a shooter as White was last season, the floor promises to be even more congested.
We’ve already seen evidence of the lack of spacing, as the Spurs have managed only 89 points in each of their preseason games. Of course, you can’t draw any concrete conclusion in a pair of preseason games that featured an abundance of garbage time, but the lack of spacing has been apparent with the starters on the court.
Then again, the Spurs have scored a total of 83 points if you just count the first and third quarters of each game, which is when the starters were primarily on the court.
2. The Derrick White and Rudy Gay Combination
In theory, I think Derrick White off the bench can be great for the Spurs. He’s a very good playmaker, he’s a capable enough scorer to take on some of that load himself and his ability to defend multiple positions can help plug multiple holes.
In actuality, through two preseason games, White has been really bad. There’s no softer way to put it. He looks unconfident and unsure of how to go about his role.
While White simply has to play better, I think an issue is the compatibility between him and Rudy Gay. As productive as Gay has been over the last two seasons, he’s mostly an isolation scorer who needs and wants the ball in his hands. Gay is not someone who White can feed off of — or vice versa, really.
Can White and Gay coexist off the bench together? I’m not convinced they can. Gay did well last year as the focal point of the bench unit but for White to live up to his potential, he’ll need to be the bench’s focal point. Otherwise, his talents would go to waste.
To help this issue and the lack of spacing in the starting unit, I think Pop should consider putting Gay in the starting lineup and move Poeltl to the bench. White and Poeltl have strong chemistry as a pick-and-roll duo. Gay in the starting lineup would add another shooter to the mix. Not only can he space the court for the starters, he excels at scoring off of broken plays, which could happen quite often due to isolation-heavy nature of the rest of the starting lineup.
3. Buried Lonnie Walker IV
After his exciting summer league showing, I think that Lonnie Walker IV should enter the season in the rotation. His athleticism, speed and, most importantly, upside is needed on a team that must overachieve in order to contend in the West.
After starting in the preseason opener, Walker didn’t enter the second game until Pop went beyond his normal rotation. Most notably, both Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli were ahead of Walker in the pecking order. Compared to those two, Walker’s potential is higher, especially when you factor in the defensive end of the court.
A couple caveats regarding this observation: Firstly, as always, Pop’s rotation will continue to be a work in progress so it’s far from a guarantee that Walker will be out of the rotation by the time the real season starts. Secondly, it’s not a completely cut-and-dried decision because Mills and Belinelli are two of the best shooters on the team and the rotation is already suffering for shooters as it is — especially after accidentally sacrificing Davis Bertans to the Wizards.
But the bottom line is I think it’d be a mistake to not give Walker the opportunity to hang onto a spot in the rotation when the regular season tips off.
4. A Possible DeMar DeRozan Extension
While I believe DeMar DeRozan holds definite value in the NBA — perhaps even near max contract levels in the right situation — I don’t think signing DeRozan to a lucrative extension is a smart move for the Spurs. The talk of San Antonio possibly giving DeRozan a maximum four-year, $150 million extension is worrisome.
I still believe that the best move is to allow this season to be played and then make a decision regarding DeRozan next summer. Right now is not a good time to make the call regarding how much DeRozan is worth to the Spurs. After the season, San Antonio will better understand what they have in their young players, specifically Murray, White and Walker, and it’ll be easier to gauge whether DeRozan is a vital part that helps keep the Spurs in contention or if the money would be better spent elsewhere.
Again, I think DeRozan is a good player and is valuable in a vacuum. If he’d be willing to sign something like a two-year, $50 million extension, then I think the Spurs should consider it. But if the talk of a max extension is legitimate, I believe that would be a mistake at this point in time.
The deadline for the Spurs and DeRozan to agree on a contract extension is Oct. 21, so a decision will need to be made soon.
5. Pop Pulling the Soft Card So Early
Usually, Pop yawns his way through preseason. Spurs fans, correspondingly, have been trained not to put too much emphasis on what happens during exhibition play. But after the Spurs got smashed for the second straight preseason game, Pop deployed one of his few annual soft cards.
Said Pop: “My assessment after two games is our competitive nature is lacking. Some would interpret that as soft. And that’s how we’re playing.”
“I’m okay with turnovers to a point,” explained Pop, “missed shots and all that, so that doesn’t matter. But, the competitiveness and aggressiveness shows. The ‘give a [crap]’ factor shows in transition defense when standing in front of somebody on defense or rebounding is not there.”
Considering Pop will only call his team soft one or two times per season, the fact that he used one of his bullets two games into the preseason tells me Pop is actually worried about what he has witnessed so far. Maybe he has even been dissatisfied with what he has seen in training camp. Or, maybe I’m worried for nothing. We’ll find out soon enough.