Growing Pains

I suppose the biggest difference in this version of Pop than the one from 20 years ago is that he does not have pressure on him. He is more mellow, obviously, and some of that is age and maturity, but some is life experience. He lost his wife last year and that can certainly put a perspective on things that makes the daily investment in basketball seem even more silly.

Gregg Popovich had never been one to lose sight of the situation: this is a game that is ridiculously well-paid, but if you are going to play it you might as well play it the right way.

There is a delicate balance to it all, and that is much like life.

This week DeMar DeRozan mused that he thought this recent swoon would have brought more fire from Pop, but he was “more patient than I expected”. Pop has always been good at picking up a struggling team and being a taskmaster when it is going well.

The good and bad feelings from wins and losses do enough, and the competitors that are NBA players will put in the appropriate level of work. The coaching staff is there as a check, and an external motivator, mostly.

In this tough conference, the Spurs sit just outside of the playoff picture having benefitted from beating a hurt, and struggling Warriors team. As Pop said, “no one cares”. He is right. Much like no one really cared that Kawhi and Tony were injured in the 2016 WCF, no one cares that the Spurs got a win over a Steph-and-Draymond-less GS team.

DeRozan repeats that the Spurs are getting a “little better” every game and every week. This has been true. There are a lot of moving parts and it has only been just over a month of real basketball to play. Derrick White came back and struggled but then also shone brightly in the win over Houston.

LaMarcus is struggling offensively, but is still a force defensively — an underrated part of his game — and as recently as Nov 3rd he bulled Anthony Davis all night. When things are going for the Spurs, they have a nice little combination that can beat near any team on the schedule.

They do not have an otherwordly athletic force like Kawhi, Giannis, Bron, or KD but right now that is not the focus.

Smooth DD, and Assists

DeMar DeRozan is averaging a career-high in assists — 8.0 per game. His previous career high came last year at 5.2. 

On NBA Game Time, Isiah Thomas said, “We didn’t know he had this type of playmaking in his game” — or something to that effect. 

The thing about assists is, that you need the pass recipient to score after you give it to them. In Toronto, Kyle Lowry was the assist man, and also a good individual scorer in his own right. 

You can see glimpses of DeRozan’s passing ability in highlight reels. His teammates don’t exactly help him out all the time.  His potential assists are markedly higher than his actual total, suggesting that his teammates are helping him out in San Antonio. Compare that to Chris Paul and James Harden, who are creating far more potential scoring opportunities than are being converted. 

nba.com 10/30

For what it is worth, DeRozan’s potential assist rate was not high in Toronto, but as we can see, his teammates would often receive the pass to give it back. Another interesting thing is that the Spurs have never had a guy average this many assists since Tony Parker, and even then he was not exactly Chris Paul.

I think we are seeing the benefit of a playmaking guard that can get into dangerous positions finding other smart, capable, basketball players who can score. 

DeMar is most dangerous because he can score — he had 34 last night on Wes Matthews, a capable defender. He can get those 34 because of his 9 assists, keeping the rest of the Mavericks honest. Look at these next screenshots to see what I mean. The first two show the Mavericks having to stick close to the rest of the roster while DeMar operates on Wes Matthews for two of his biggest buckets of the game.

This final one is of last year’s duel between the Spurs and Raptors. This was a decidedly different kind of situation, but you get my meaning. 

Pau sinking

The Spurs sank into the paint based on the lineups here. No need to guard non-threats from outside. 

The current Spurs, however, do not have obvious non-threats aside from perhaps, Dante Cunningham. He does a great job of playing the other forward spot, flashing in the post for easy 10-15 foot jumpers or as a high-low option to dump the ball down to Aldridge. He also has been great flashing from the weak side for easy dunks — something OKC’s Andre Roberson does on occasion. 

This led to a Rudy Gay 3pt make

The above is mostly a mistake on Luka Doncic’s part, as he doubles needlessly. DeMar finds Rudy Gay for a wide open three. Notice, however, the rest of the Mavericks spread out in stark contrast to the previous Toronto-era DD screenshot. 

This led to a Rudy Gay pull-up jumper. This is also 4-down

Finally, we see the classic Spurs look: 4-down look. This led to a Rudy Gay pull up jumper. One concern everyone had about the Trade was that LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan like to occupy the same space and take similar shots. The solution, it turns out, is that DD has been taking the Pau Gasol post-ups. 

LMA is on the same post-ups-per game pace (just about 13). DeMar has 3.5, which is little more than Pau had last year. 

Both LMA and DD are getting about 60+ touches per game. That is a bit more than Kawhi/LMA’s 2016 55/57 per game.

Here, Aldridge does not quite pull DeAndre Jordan away from the paint, but he is neutralized enough that he does not interfere with the play. Also, look at Cunningham wearing Boris Diaw’s 33 in the same spot.

Everyone said the squad is still working on things and that hopefully means there will be fewer down-to-the-wire games. 

The season is young but the Rockets, Lakers, and Thunder look much worse than we thought. Houston is already changing their entire defensive scheme to compensate for Melo problems and no one can hit a shot. 

The Spurs are getting defensive contributions from Rudy Gay (six steals!) and even DeRozan (three steals!), and Marco Belinelli is an upgrade offensively over Kyle Anderson. Bryn Forbes has been so much better — he’s looking like the guy they drafted and not the gun-shy, brick layer he was early on. 

I can understand the championship-or-bust thinking, but there is very real value to fielding a competitive team every season even if the odds of winning the league are against you. These unbeatable Warriors are composed of players who competed and lost against much better teams early in their careers. 

Getting to the playoffs and losing is not without its value. Sure, for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, there is less value than for Forbes, White, et al. The thing about going with an all-young group is that they might not even make the playoffs to learn those lesson. You need a mix, and you might as well put out the best possible combination you can — balancing future and present. 

The Spurs are much more fun to watch this season. 

New Season: New Problems

Dejounte Murray is out for the season, probably. This comes after an offseason of stories about his transition into the engine of the team. Pop said everyone was going to have to run with DJ if they wanted the ball. Now? Well, without Tony Parker, Hornet, the Spurs are going to have to rethink things.

This has been the worst offseason in a long while, and it got a little worse. Despite all that, there were some good feelings. Everyone is happy to be done with the robot problem that is Kawhi Leonard. Eventually, we all may reconcile with the KL and learn why, exactly, he hated being a Spur. For now, we all are very disappointed with the way it happened. 

Tony and Manu’s final season together was a valiant effort but it should have been as a contender — even if only in their own minds — instead of just as filler in the West. 

DeMar DeRozan is hungry, not as good as Kawhi, and yet perfect for the Spurs this season. Yes, he disappeared in the playoffs much like LaMarcus Aldridge did in years past and we all would rather someone who does not backdown from the moment. Every team wants that. As it is, the Spurs have two go-to guys and that is still very rare. 

Dejounte Murray was going to be a big part of this team, and probably the real determinant of the ceiling of this team. Now, the Spurs likely are going to be very good, but just not quite good enough. Compared to last year, that still will be so much more fun to watch.