“Eventful” doesn’t begin to describe the year 2018 for the San Antonio Spurs. They didn’t reach 50 wins for the first time in 19 years, were forced to trade their superstar player in the offseason and entered the 2018-19 season with a mostly new roster and some important injuries.
San Antonio began the season strong, then faded in November before submitting an excellent December.
In 2019, the Spurs will be looking to find a bit more of their trademark consistency. Let’s run through five New Years’ Resolutions for San Antonio in relation to the 2018-19 season.
Monitor the workloads of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan
In the first several weeks of the season, Aldridge and DeRozan were both among the league leaders in minutes. Gregg Popovich relied on his two best players for major offensive production in around 35 to 37 minutes per game.
Aldridge’s minutes have decreased significantly since then. He averaged just 29.9 minutes per game in December, a number that was lowered by several blowouts and improved play from Jakob Poeltl.
The added rest has helped his offensive efficiency and defensive energy skyrocket. He’s worked harder off the ball to get better post position and has the legs to make more jumpers. His true-shooting percentage leapt from 48.9 prior December to 63.2 in December. San Antonio merely needs to stay the course in terms of managing Aldridge’s workload.
DeRozan’s playing time, meanwhile, has yet to decline substantially. He averaged 34.3 minutes per game in December and 37.7 minutes in games with a final margin of less than 20 points.
This isn’t ideal for San Antonio. DeRozan’s season average of 35.2 minutes per game is the highest Spurs number since Tim Duncan in 2003-04 (36.6). DeMar’s efficiency has stagnated a bit since his hot first few weeks of the season, unlike Aldridge’s.
San Antonio has enough support to let DeRozan’s minutes and workload drop a bit. Derrick White, in particular, is proving himself to be a capable facilitator and a strong defender worthy of big minutes. The Spurs need to keep giving White minutes in the high 20s and more playmaking reps to preserve DeRozan for the remainder of the season.
Figure out the Pau Gasol situation
Gregg Popovich found a groove with his rotations in December. He tag-teamed Aldridge and Poeltl at center for nearly all 48 minutes, using more versatile options such as Rudy Gay, Davis Bertans or Dante Cunningham as the next biggest player on the floor next to one of his more traditional bigs. That strategy has improved the spacing on offense and the versatility on defense.
But now, Gasol is back from his foot injury. That complicates things.
The 38-year-old big man has a few valuable skills. He’s an expert passer from the high post and top of the key, he has a respectable jumper out to three-point range and he is a solid rim protector. On offense, he has chemistry with Aldridge in the high-low game.
But he’s also painfully slow, which hurts him some on offense and a lot on defense. And he’s still rather interior-oriented on offense, which would get in the way of Aldridge’s post play and Poeltl’s rim runs.
Aldridge is clearly better than Gasol and his minutes are already decreasing rapidly, so it would be silly to give Gasol minutes at LMA’s expense. Poeltl, meanwhile, is just so valuable to the second unit on both ends. He’s a young prospect that the team needs to keep developing.
If Gasol takes minutes from any of the other players, that would mean the Spurs are abandoning the one-big strategy that has worked so well for them on both ends.
San Antonio can try to squeeze Gasol into a rotation spot, keep him in a very limited role or explore the trade market to see if there’s a taker on his $16 million contract.
Figuring out this quandary will be a key for the Spurs this (and potentially next) season..
Prioritize the youth movement while keeping the veterans involved
The core of this years’ Spurs team is mostly veterans. But this season, especially the past several weeks, has shown that their cupboard of younger prospects isn’t completely bare.
Lonnie Walker (20 years old) will likely continue to develop his game in the G-League. But Bertans (26), Poeltl (23), Bryn Forbes (25) and White (24) have all turned into legitimate rotation pieces as of late.
Bertans is a deadly three-point sniper with a respectable all-around game. Poeltl is becoming a good modern center with a simple, yet effective offensive game and rim protection abilities. Forbes has honed his excellent three-point shooting while improving his off-the-dribble game.
And White, well, he’s growing in confidence by the game and just did this to the Celtics on New Years’ Eve. He’s one of the most underrated players in the NBA, especially on defense.
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All of them except Forbes deserve more minutes than they currently average (22.4 for White, 18.6 for Bertans and 15.4 for Poeltl). The quartet of players are simply more effective right now than guys like Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Cunningham and Gasol.
But there is the balance of maintaining that Spurs’ culture of valuing the experiential know-how of veterans. Mills, Belinelli, Cunningham and Gasol have their limitations, but they still pull some wily veteran moves and know how to work well with teammates.
San Antonio has the tough task here of keeping an eye on the future while not completely ignoring its vets.
Finish as a top-15 defense
The Spurs have the NBA’s second-best defensive rating (101.8) since December 8. However, they’re still 19th (109.8) for the entire season. That shows just how much they struggled on that end to start the campaign.
San Antonio is due for some regression to the mean. The Spurs have played a home-heavy schedule recently and have been relatively healthy compared to many other teams. Individually, this year’s squad just doesn’t have much defensive talent.
However, I do think the squad has found a recipe that will keep it moving upward in the defensive rankings for the rest of the year.
Making it into the league’s top half of defensive teams would be a huge win for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.
Earn a top-4 seed in the Western Conference
What a difference a month makes.
On December 5, the Spurs were 11-14. They had lost 12 of 17 games and were tied for the sixth-worst net rating in the NBA (minus-4.2). All they’ve done since then is go 10-3 and lead the NBA in net rating (plus-14.9). The Spurs have wiggled into the West’s No. 8 seed and are just one game behind the No. 4 Rockets.
Why can’t San Antonio get to that spot by the end of the year?
The Warriors are going to pull away at some point. The Nuggets, Thunder and Rockets should be the favorites to slot in behind Golden State, but one of them might falter.
The early darlings of the West, such as the Grizzlies, Clippers, Trail Blazers and Pelicans, have all regressed. The Mavericks, Kings and Timberwolves probably don’t quite have the talent and/or experience to make the top four at season’s end. The Jazz have both, but they have been frustratingly inconsistent. The Lakers should be competitive with the Spurs, but we’ll see how much LeBron James’ groin injury affects them.
If the Spurs can earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, their strong play at the AT&T Center (15-5 record with a plus-7.8 net rating) will give them a great opportunity to advance at least one round. That would be a remarkable outcome for this Spurs roster.
To be clear, getting the No. 4 seed won’t be easy for San Antonio. Ups and downs can affect any team in unexpected ways. But it’s definitely possible.
Notes: All statistics are from NBA.com. Video clips came from the FreeDawkins YouTube account.