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San Antonio Spurs Midseason Mailbag

The Spurs are doing Spurs-y things again.

San Antonio’s streak of 18 consecutive 50-win seasons ended in a drama-filled 2017-18 season, and they started 2018-19 with a very new roster and a 11-14 record.

But Gregg Popovich and his squad have gotten back to their roots to turn that 11-14 start into a 24-17 mark.. The Spurs are winning the only way they know how: moving the ball well, outclassing opposing benches and playing sound team defense.

I put out a call on Twitter for questions about the team at the season’s halfway point. Let’s discuss some of the responses I got.

“What are your thoughts on [Derrick] White’s improvement this year?” -@NBADreamwork

If you’re a Spurs fan and don’t crack a smile at even a mention of White’s name, get some help. Seriously. This guy is an absolute delight to watch play basketball on both ends of the floor and is just on another level right now.

White’s overall season numbers aren’t great yet, but his offensive game is quickly rounding into form with an expanding role. In his last five games, he’s averaged 17.8 points, 2.6 assists, 0.8 turnovers in 30.7 minutes per contest on a shooting slash of 76.2/75/90.5 and a true-shooting percentage of 86.8.

His defense has been rock-solid all year, but he’s taken it to a new level in the last couple weeks. He did a great job limiting the usage of stars Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Mike Conley as the primary defender in consecutive games over the past week and a half. He’s averaging 1.9 steals and 1 block per 36 minutes in his last 15 contests. For the season, he’s contesting 13 shots per 36 minutes, more than any other NBA guard this season with at least 500 minutes.

Here’s Gregg Popovich on White’s development, per the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald:

He is rising to the challenge. He wasn’t expecting to be in this position, and he’s grown by leaps and bounds, with every week, with every game.

Maybe the best part about the 6’5″ White is how well-rounded he is. It’s hard to point out a meaningful weakness for him. Here are his BBall Index talent grades for this season:

That perimeter shooting sticks out in a bad way, but everything we know about his last couple years with Colorado, in the Summer League, in the G-League and last season with the Spurs tells us that his numbers so far this year are a fluke. He’s been much more accurate and confident with his shot in the past few weeks after being tentative early on.

So what’s White’s long-term outlook?

I hate to break this all of you, but White won’t continue to be a mid-80s true-shooting percentage guy. Opposing teams are going to scout him more, and shots won’t always fall like they are now.

White is going to be a strong candidate for the Most Improved Player award this year. He’s also going to be a big-minute player for the Spurs’ foreseeable future. Will he be an All-Star one day? I won’t rule it out, but probably not. Remember, he’s already 24 years old. He doesn’t have an elite skill on offense yet, though that could come.

But don’t be surprised if he sticks around as a top-50 or top-60 guy in the league for a long time.

“Can the Spurs get homecourt advantage in this West? They need start to winning road games to clinch a 4th seed for example, no?” -@vinioaraujo

Assuming this question is asking about home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, yes, absolutely. San Antonio is only a half-game out of the 4th seed right now.

If you like net rating as a predictive tool, the Spurs actually do rank fourth in the West there (plus-3.4). Since December 8, they’re basically the Dream Team (plus-15.7).

The goals I have for this Spurs team are constantly getting more and more lofty with every great performance. At this point, I think the No. 3 or even No. 2 seed could even be a viable target considering how well San Antonio is playing. The Spurs’ rotation is perfectly balanced right now and the big thing they have going for them is that they don’t really play any bad players.

But yes, the Spurs’ road performances will be something to watch. San Antonio’s current 13-3 push has included 11 home games and only five contests on the road. The team is 17-5 at home with the fourth-best home net rating (plus-8.8) and just 7-12 with a road net rating (minus-2.9) that ranks 16th.

The team will have 19 home games and 22 road games the rest of the way. Based on how good San Antonio has been at home, I think the Spurs can still grab a No. 4 seed if they go something like 9-13 or 10-12 on the road the rest of the way, but going 12-10 or 13-9 could put them in position for something better.

Strength of schedule is worth noting here. According to playoffstatus.com, San Antonio’s remaining schedule is the fourth-easiest in the Western Conference by opponent winning percentage.

All things considered, somewhere around 50 wins plus one (or maybe even two) playoff series wins would be a great outcome for this squad.

“What can you say about DeMar DeRozan’s defense this season?” -@vinioaraujo

I had pretty low expectations for DeRozan’s defense this season. He earned the reputation of being a liability on that end as his Raptors tenure wore on.

He hasn’t been as poor as I thought he would be. In fact, I would describe his overall defensive performance this season as “passable.” He started the year struggling as he developed chemistry with the team and took on a huge offensive load. Recently, he’s had more energy to expend on defense and is developing better habits in positioning.

With DeRozan, you have to accept that he’s never going to have that pitbull mentality on defense, and his lateral quickness is below-average for a wing. Screens stonewall him too easily. Among wings with at least 500 minutes this season, DeRozan’s BBall Index talent percentiles in perimeter defense (47.4) and interior defense (21.3) aren’t good.

On the positive side, he’s a strong defensive rebounder and provides good resistance when he gets in one-on-one situations. He’s allowed just 0.5 points per possession in 28 isolation possessions (96th percentile) and 0.864 points per possession in 22 post-up possessions (60th percentile) per Synergy’s defensive data. He’s not falling asleep off the ball as much and his closeout technique is improving to prevent easy drives.

An important thing to understand with DeRozan’s defensive impact is actually his offense. Because he’s such a vital scorer and facilitator for the Spurs, his teammates don’t need to work as hard on offense. They can allocate more energy to the defensive end.

Even though DeRozan definitely isn’t a good defender, he’s improving and he’s not total dead weight.

“Do you look for the Spurs to make any deals after the All-Star break? If so, for whom?” – @KSSpursguy

If the Spurs keep winning most of their games easily, there’s absolutely no reason to swing a trade. Their team chemistry is right where it needs to be.

Jakob Poeltl said this about the team last night, per Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News:

There’s a really good vibe we have going, between players, coaches, (front) office. There’s a family vibe here I really enjoy.

The Spurs’ biggest weaknesses, according to BBall Index talent data, are their bigs’ perimeter defense and overall interior defense. I don’t see Aldridge and Poeltl relinquishing many minutes. But if there’s a defensive-minded forward with some versatility available on the market, it wouldn’t hurt for the Spurs to put out some feelers to see if they can raise their defensive ceiling.

I believe Pau Gasol or Marco Belinelli are the most likely Spurs to hit the trade block. Especially with Gasol, I don’t think there’s a real spot for him in the rotation. Unfortunately, neither have much trade value with their age and contracts. The Spurs would need to attach positive assets to get anything truly helpful, so I’m not sure if it’s worth it.

San Antonio should probably just run with a group that is working for it this season and continue to add youth and versatility in the offseason.

Note: All statistics are from NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.

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