I must say, as a lifelong San Antonio Spurs fan, following the team this year had its ups and downs, to say the least. Moments of excitement at the team’s performance prior to the All-Star break eventually gave way to frustration watching a clearly exhausted basketball team fight just to make the play-in game. Unfortunately, compounding all of that frustration was the anxiety of not knowing what to expect from the Spurs’ future, as this offseason has the chance to drastically alter the timeline for the Spurs to find them back into contention; either speeding up the process or slowing it down. However, that uncertainty also makes for fun discussion fodder, so I thought I’d weigh in with this podcast. Note, I’m going to split this into two parts: part 1 will be focusing on the Spurs this season and their own FAs, with part 2 focusing more on additions I’d like to see the team make. However, I will allude to possibilities of a couple of additions in this part, as I think it illustrates some parts of how the Spurs should think about their own roster.
With that out of the way, let’s get started with some team rankings from the previous season.
Additional practice time should help with the myriad of communication issues that plagued the team defensively. However, offensively, the team needs to make drastic improvements in terms of 3-pt. shooting, both in terms of attempts and accuracy. To learn more about how the team got to those numbers, I first decided to look at the 5-man lineups the team used throughout the season.
As an aside: I’ll be relying rather heavily on net rating in this episode. I realize the stat has its problems (especially game-to-game, where it’s effectively useless), however, I do think that it does have value over the course of a season, as it does show trends. So, without further ado, let’s dive in beginning with 5-men lineups.
There are some tidbits here worth mentioning: the starting lineup with Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl was not only the most used 5-man lineup this year, but it was also one of the very few that had both a positive net rating and DeMar as part of it (more on that later). Another interesting data point is that the team’s most successful 5-man lineup was Patty, DJ, Vassell, Rudy, and Jakob, but replacing DJ with DeMar dropped its effectiveness into the negatives, this might be skewed by the games in which those lineups appeared in though, so it’s not a be-all and end-all revelation or anything.
While these 5-man lineups are interesting and perhaps useful in terms of in-season rotations, they may not be that useful in terms of assessing individual play. Upon diving down into 3-man and 2-man lineups, though, some interesting nuggets of information can be found. Here were four large takeaways for me:
- Derrick White is the team’s most impactful player, and they couldn’t replace him.
Perhaps not in terms of talent level, but certainly in terms of team impact. Out of the top 60 3-men combinations the Spurs used this year, Derrick White was in 13 of them, and every single one had a positive net-rating. Every single one. And those combinations were with just about everyone on the roster. Out of his top 21 3-men combinations, White had a positive net rating in all but two, and both of those included a certain player who will be discussed later. So losing him was very detrimental to the team’s success, not just because of his own individual talent, but also how he affected the others around him, case in point:
- DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White were consistently at their best when playing with each other.
Of the said 13 Derrick White 3-men combinations, the three best in terms of net rating were with DeMar DeRozan. From DeMar’s perspective, he was in 28 of the top 60 three-men rotations the Spurs used. Of those 28, only 12 had positive net ratings. However, four of his top five combinations were with Derrick White (there’s a shockingly good Gay, DeRozan, and Murray combination in limited minutes). When you watched them play together, this makes sense: DeMar is good at getting the other players open 3s, and Derrick was the best player on the Spurs at making them AND covering for DeMar’s defensive deficiencies.
- DeMar DeRozan playing with anyone else resulted in a rather mixed bag.
As was mentioned, only 12 of the 28 3-men lineups DeMar was part of (in the top 60) were positive. This leads to a lot of net negative combinations. As mentioned he usually worked well when playing with Rudy and Dejounte, but take one or the other out, and things get dicey. This likely stems from the qualities and limitations of both DeMar himself and of the players around him: the shooters didn’t make enough shots, and the team couldn’t defend well enough to make up for that.
- The player who has the most room to improve (shall we say): Lonnie Walker IV
This one hurts, and is going to make some fans angry, but it needs to be said if we’re being honest: Lonnie Walker IV had a bad season. He was a part of 19 of the 60 most common 3-man lineups the Spurs used, and he posted a positive net rating in only 6 of them, the majority of those with bench players. The numbers for his 2-man lineups are even more damning: he posted a positive net rating with only Rudy Gay and Luka Samanic. That’s it. Jakob, Patty, Dejounte and Derrick helped compensate for his negative impact, but other pairings resulted in the Spurs digging a hole for themselves. It’s not just in the numbers either: Lonnie struggled to find his offense when he was with the starters, and would sometimes struggle to know when he should shoot, drive, or pass. On defense, while he was solid on the ball, he would sometimes lose track of his man off the ball. All that being said, he still has a chance: he’s got all the potential, both in terms of athletic ability and intelligence in the world. Not to mention that he has dealt with serious trauma that most of us haven’t had to deal with. That being said he needs to improve next year. By a lot.
Given those four takeaways, I’ve come to somewhat of an obvious conclusion: this Spurs team was done in by trying to replace Derrick White (arguably their best rotation player) with Lonnie Walker IV (arguably their worst) and, to a lesser extent, Devin Vassell (who also struggled, though I think some leniency should be allowed given he was a rookie with very limited practice time). I believe that, had Derrick played most of the games this year, the Spurs would’ve been a playoff team. Not a contender, but a playoff team.
Now that we have a clearer picture of what happened during the season, let’s move on to what the Spurs should do with their own players this offseason. There are two questions that immediately come to mind:
- What should the Spurs do with DeMar?
- What should the Spurs do with the other vet FAs? (Mills, Gay, Dieng, Lyles)
What should the Spurs do with DeMar?
This is the biggest, the most contentious and the most important question of the offseason, and for good reason. There are compelling arguments to be made in favor of keeping him or letting him go (or S&Ting him). The argument in favor of keeping him is that he’s a really good fit with Derrick White in particular, and that the improvement of the younger players could really make this team much better next year. The argument against is that his results of playing with the other players are mixed, how much improvement could be reasonably anticipated from the younger players with DeMar being the focal point, it would be very difficult for the Spurs to build a contender around what DeMar does and doesn’t do well, and he’s getting older.
In order to fully illustrate what my final stance is on this question, I think it’s important to show the pathways to contendership taking either route.
If the Spurs keep DeMar
To get the furthest that they could go with DeMar, they’d need to craft a roster that compliments a really good player with a rather unique skill set. So let’s look at what DeMar does well and not-so-well:
What he does well:
- Score from the mid-range and free throw line
- Decent (if possibly diminishing) finisher at the rim
- Initiate offense and generate open 3s
- Can rebound well on occasion
What he does not-so-well:
- Shoot from 3
- Play off-ball
While the list of his pros is longer than his cons (as it should be with a player of his caliber), those cons can be deadly if paired with other players that don’t suit him. His ability to generate open looks won’t be very helpful on a team that can’t, or doesn’t shoot them. Or, if they excel at driving, having DeMar play with them will hurt their ability to do so. So, in order to compete at the highest level, DeMar needs to have the ball in his hands, surrounded by plus-shooters and plus-defenders, as asking a team to succeed when 2 of the 5 players on the court are non-shooters is a tough request. Finding those qualities among wings and guards isn’t too difficult, and it could very well be argued that the Spurs are already on their way to having a stockpile of those. However, the challenge is finding a big that can do both at a plus-level.
While DeMar and Jakob have a positive net-rating in 2-man pairings (1.3), that is a small amount compared to Jakob’s other pairings: 3.9 w/ Devin Vassell (who really struggled in many 3-man groupings), 4.4 with Dejounte, 10.0 with Rudy, etc. So, it’s fair to say that playing DeMar with Jakob mutes their potential impact individually.
Therefore, offensively, you need a big that can take advantage of what DeMar does well, namely, a big that can shoot. On the other end, you need a big that can help make up for DeMar’s defensive deficiencies. Unfortunately, there are only two big men that come to mind that can defend well and shoot the three: one is Joel Embiid (who won’t be a Spur) and the other is Myles Turner. So, naturally, Myles Turner should be a high priority for the FO. On the plus side, he might be gettable, considering the Pacers are looking to build around Domantas Sabonis. The Spurs would have to part with one of their young guards and probably a pick to make it happen, but I would argue that that would still be a solid move, considering roster fit. Unfortunately, such a trade would likely have to include Dejounte Murray or Derrick White in order to get the salaries to match and to entice Indiana’s interest. If such a trade as…
…is on the table, I believe the Spurs should do it. Not saying the losing Dejounte wouldn’t hurt at all, or that the Spurs would necessarily get the better of that trade. However, there are very few bigs that can defend and space the floor as well as Myles Turner can (arguably, only one). In my opinion, the Spurs’ hands would be somewhat tied.
From there the Spurs could sign a 4, or another wing to help mitigate the loss of Dejounte. Kelly Oubre’s name has been bandied about if the Spurs decide to go the latter route. I don’t have a lot of hope at the 4, as outside of John Collins, every other player that might be attainable and a potential upgrade is somewhat of a reclamation project (Lauri Markkanen in RFA; Marvin Bagley in the trade market).
Let’s just say that the hypothetical Spurs that keep DeMar get everything they want and they sign John Collins and pull off a trade for Myles Turner. They also get Kelly Oubre as a Dejounte approximation. Your SL in the season opener is: White, DeMar, Oubre, Collins, Turner. On the bench, you have Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker, Devin Vassell, Luka Samanic, Jakob, and Tre Jones.
Is that a true contender? If I’m being honest with myself, I’d have to say really only on the fringes, and that’s if everyone plays well. The pieces might fit, but there are still questions about the overall talent level. Ultimately, the biggest concern is the lack of growth potential. DeMar is the guy that stirs the drink there, and he’s getting into the tail-end of his prime. While I think Derrick could ultimately take over the role of a lead guard, I don’t think DeMar would be well-served by playing an off-guard role. However, this would be, in my opinion, the best-case scenario for the Spurs offseason. It’s a narrow path.
If the Spurs let DeMar go or pursue a sign and trade
Given that we’ve already broken down what he does well, we know what losing DeMar would mean: you’re losing the team’s primary initiator. If the Spurs elect to just let him sign elsewhere in FA, then they’d clearly be relying on Dejounte and Derrick to take up the slack in shot creation, and they’d be looking to maybe improve their shooting, defense, and offensive output in FA. Kelly Oubre’s name could come up in such a scenario, as would John Collins or Markkanen. The plus side, if White and Murray can replicate DeMar’s shot creation ability, is that whomever you find in FA wouldn’t have to be perfect shooter, nor necessarily be an amazing defender. Let’s say DeMar leaves and the Spurs end up signing Collins and Oubre. While obviously not an ideal situation, as SL of White, Murray, Oubre, Collins, Jakob and a bench of Tre Jones, Walker, KJ, Vassell, Luka and Drew Eubanks. If White and Murray can step into that creation role (which the Spurs letting DeMar walk would indicate that they could), that might not be as good as the hypothetical best-case that I outlined earlier if DeMar stays, but it certainly has more growth potential.
However, it’s only fair that I look at the ideal situation for both pathways, and the ideal for the Spurs if they don’t want to keep DeMar is a sign and trade for Ben Simmons.
While Ben Simmons isn’t nearly the scorer DeMar is, and therefore the Spurs’ shooting issues could get even worse, one thing that Ben Simmons offers in abundance over DeMar is defensive versatility. So, instead of absolutely needing a 3-and-D capable player at every other position, you could get away with someone who isn’t the best defender at another position because the need isn’t as dire. On top of that, because the Spurs pretty much swapped max contract slots, the Spurs would still have enough cap room to go after someone else, be that John Collins, Lauri Markkanen, or Kelly Oubre.
(Side note, I’m bringing up Oubre’s name a lot, but he doesn’t move the needle for me, either way; I’m just using him as a wing example. If you prefer Devin Vassell or even Luka Samanic getting that spot with further development, I’m willing to listen).
Let’s go with the best-case scenario and say Collins signs with San Antonio along with a S&T for Ben Simmons, sending DeMar, Lonnie (trading Dejounte wouldn’t be as necessary, as DeMar and Ben would match salaries) and the 1st-round pick (which the trade would probably look like), and the Spurs sign a big that can shoot, but isn’t the best defender in the NBA (let’s use Dieng here as an example). Here’s your opening tip SL: White, Murray, Simmons, Collins, Dieng. Your bench is Tre Jones, Vassell, KJ, Luka, Jakob. Now, weirdness at the 5 aside, would that team be better than the White, DeMar, Oubre, Collins, Turner team that I brought up before? I’d say yes, comfortably so. In my opinion, that’s a team that would get as high as that best-case DeMar team, with growth potential to reach even higher.
So, after highlighting the best-case scenarios for both pathways, I think I’ve made my position clear: I think the Spurs should move on from DeMar. He’s a very good player, but he’s limited in such a way that he narrows the Spurs’ ability to build a true contender around him, and the window for his peak is closing fast. There’s a wider range of possible outcomes without DeMar: in both negative and positive directions, and given the goal is to win the title, I think the Spurs would be acting in their best interest to take a risk here.
What should the Spurs do with the other vet FAs?
Phew, now that the big one is out of the way, let’s get into the other players whose contracts are running out this offseason:
He’s gone. Appreciate your effort and work Trey; best of luck to you at your next stop.
Rudy Gay is an interesting case. In terms of net rating, Rudy had an incredible year. Not only does he have positive net ratings in numerous pairings, but many of said positive ratings were substantial (some double digits). However, I believe that it’s fair to ask if that was a mirage due to playing so many minutes with the bench and (at least early in the season) paired with Jakob Poeltl, who was amazing when coming off the bench. Either way, the biggest issue with Rudy Gay isn’t so much his quality of play this past season, but rather the opportunity cost of re-signing him. As the Spurs have the ability to have enough room on their cap to sign two max FAs if they decide not to bring any of their own FAs back, the team may simply want to use that money to bring in some help from the outside. If the Spurs decide not to bring DeMar back, and they can’t sign an outside FA, there would be worse things than bringing Rudy back at a smaller figure. However, if the Spurs do bring him back, I think it would be fair to speculate that the FO is trying to make lemonade out of some lemons.
Patty Mills is in a similar spot to Rudy in that his play wouldn’t necessarily be the determining factor in the decision to keep him or let him walk. Much like Rudy, if the Spurs decide to pursue more outside help this offseason, Patty might ultimately just be a cap casualty. That being said, he does have one advantage over Rudy in terms of the likelihood of the Spurs trying to retain him, in that he’s the final member of the Beautiful Game Spurs on the roster, and therefore has the most corporate knowledge on the roster. If the Spurs were forced to choose to keep one of Rudy or Patty, you’d have to think that Patty would be the one they’d keep for that reason.
This might be a weird thing to say, but I think that, if they can’t get two max-level FAs to come to SA (which will probably be the case, let’s be real), then, out of all of their vet FAs, Dieng should be the priority. The Spurs simply don’t have a floor-spacing big on their roster outside of Dieng, and FA is rather slim pickings for someone who can fill that role. For the amount of money the Spurs would likely have to spend to retain Dieng, they probably aren’t going to find a better value at that role, as the closest approximation would be Daniel Theis, and he’s just not the shooter Dieng is. If the shocking thing happens and the Spurs find themselves with Ben Simmons, finding a way to retain Dieng should be an even higher priority, as he could theoretically even be your starter, spacing the floor for Ben to have room to work on the inside (which I alluded to previously). If the Spurs decide to keep DeMar instead, having Dieng around would still be a plus, as he could come off the bench and give your team an extra offensive punch. However, the Spurs would likely still have to start Jakob in order to help cover for DeMar’s defensive deficiencies, so Dieng would be less impactful overall. If the Spurs don’t have Ben or DeMar on their roster, Dieng goes lower on the priority list, though he’d still be nice to have around. If he’s a cap casualty due to the Spurs getting two max FAs, sobeit. Otherwise, I think the Spurs should try to retain Dieng.
To wrap up question 2, I think Gorgui Dieng should be the Spurs first priority in terms of their own vet FAs (outside of the DeMar question), with Patty and Rudy tied behind him, and Lyles dragging behind in the distance.