The Spurs have turned their season around. Since starting 11-14, they are 21-9 and have put themselves in position to challenge for a top-three seed in the Western Conference.
San Antonio’s players deserve most of the credit for sparking the improvement. The team has a deep roster with a lot of positive contributors.
Focusing specifically on the second trimester of the season between game 28 and game 55, let’s hand out grades to the nine individuals who got at least 400 minutes of playing time in that span. Everyone else who received playing time will be lumped together at the end. We’ll be grading the players based on how they’ve played relative to expectations.
Each player will have a statistical capsule from the trimester. The Adjustable Player Impact Plus-Minus Data that is shown is courtesy of BBall Index’s Chief Analytics Officer, Jacob Goldstein
LaMarcus Aldridge: A
2nd trimester stats: 32.1 minutes, 24.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 1.8 turnovers, 63.0 true-shooting percentage, +3.36 PIPM
Aldridge was a controversial Western Conference All-Star selection last week. His season has been fringe-All-Star worthy, but it definitely wasn’t more All-Star worthy than Rudy Gobert’s. Gobert somehow missed out on the festivities.
If we isolated just the second trimester, though, people probably wouldn’t be complaining about Aldridge’s inclusion.
San Antonio switched from revolving its offense around DeRozan to using Aldridge as the focal point since the beginning of December. And it hasn’t been just post fadeaways and pick-and-pops from LMA.
A huge chunk of Aldridge’s usage has been deep post touches and finishes. He shot 79.3 percent in the restricted area during the second trimester and got 45.4 percent of his field-goal makes from that distance. He’s working really hard off the ball, and it’s made a big difference.
On defense, Aldridge won’t wow anyone, but a San Antonio squad with several suspect defenders was ninth in the NBA in its second trimester with Aldridge as the main back-line communicator. That’s something.
Bryn Forbes: B
2nd trimester stats: 30.5 minutes, 12.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, 1.1 turnovers, 58.4 true-shooting percentage, +0.51 PIPM
Forbes didn’t show us anything new in the second trimester, but he continued to play solid basketball. He has a 91.9 season percentile in perimeter shooting, per BBall Index’s talent grades, and he’s remained remarkably consistent — Forbes has now canned at least one three in 23 straight games. He hit double-figure scoring in all but three of those contests.
This is nothing against Forbes’ performance, but I still don’t see him as a true 30-minute-a-night guy at this point. His all-around game is improving, but it’s not great yet.
I’d like to see Forbes continue to develop his strength and quickness to become a more dangerous slasher and a more versatile defender.
DeMar DeRozan: D
2nd trimester stats: 34.6 minutes, 17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 2.7 turnovers, 48.9 true-shooting percentage, -0.33 PIPM
The last several weeks been a bad stretch of play for DeRozan. He was playing at an All-Star level in the first trimester, but his second trimester performance dropped him out of that conversation pretty decisively.
DeRozan has failed to adjust to his role as the No. 2 scoring threat behind Aldridge. Instead of phasing more of the tough attempts out of his shot profile, he’s actually relied slightly more on the midrange shot and spent less time at the free-throw line. The percentage of his field-goal attempts from 10 feet to the three-point line increased from 52 to 53.3 from the first to second trimester. His free-throw rate dropped from 35.4 to 29.2. His turnovers have gone up a bit, too.
Gregg Popovich has given DeRozan four games off in the past three weeks to help deal with his workload and some minor bumps and bruises, but so far the time off hasn’t produced positive results.
DeRozan avoid a failing grade for staying a valuable playmaker in the Spurs’ offense and playing passable defense. His BBall Index talent grades in perimeter and interior defense this season are 60.0 and 36.3, respectively.
Derrick White: A
2nd trimester stats: 28.7 minutes, 12.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.9 blocks, 1.6 turnovers, 62.7 true-shooting percentage, +3.18 PIPM
It took White several games into the second trimester to really catch fire on offense. That’s the only thing holding him back from an “A-plus” grade.
The second-year pro was still a menace, though. White scored consistently at all three levels and has recovered from a poor outside shooting start to make 19 of his last 40 three-pointers. The January 5 update of BBall Index’s talent grades had White’s perimeter shooting percentile at 27.3. It shot up to 55.4 by the January 27 update.
His playmaking was a plus in this trimester, too. He’s been on the money with his entry passes and pocket dimes in the pick-and-roll with Aldridge.
Defensively, White is everywhere. It seems like teams are going at him a lot without realizing that he’s actually quite good on that end. It’s no coincidence that San Antonio improved defensively in this trimester with White playing more minutes. He led the team in Defensive Player-Impact Plus Minus (plus-2.15) during the span.
Hopefully the plantar fasciitis that White is currently dealing with isn’t too serious.
Patty Mills: B
2nd trimester stats: 22.4 minutes, 9.7 points, 2.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks, 1.4 turnovers, 58.6 true-shooting percentage, -0.05 PIPM
Mills doesn’t shoot quite as consistently from game to game as you’d like from someone whose perimeter shooting is his best skill. And, at a generous 6’0″ with very little length, he’s a clear net negative on offense.
But this was still a solid stretch of play from the animated Aussie. He’s initiated the team’s offense well and tries his best to be a pest on defense.
He and Marco Belinelli have developed great synergy on offense with their collective basketball IQ and off-ball movement. Both guys are B-level playmakers leaguewide, per BBall Index’s talent data. But they make things easier for each other by navigating screens well and tricking off-ball defenders with unpredictable cuts.
Marco Belinelli: B+
2nd trimester stats: 23.1 minutes, 12.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 1.1 turnovers, 66.0 true-shooting percentage, -0.21 PIPM
Belinelli makes shots. That’s his thing. When the shots don’t go in at a respectable rate, he’s a liability. When they go in a lot, he can win games almost singlehandedly with his utter lack of conscience.
During the second trimester, Belinelli made a lot of shots off the Spurs’ bench. His shot selection was just as questionable as usual, but he’s in the midst of an extended hot streak, so that’s great for the team. His wild makes seem to have an energizing effect on the Spurs and their home crowd. Opposing defenses also have a hard time defending him off the ball.
Belinelli didn’t give us anything more than we expected in the second trimester. Unfortunately, he still doesn’t play much defense and actually had the team’s worst D-PIPM mark (minus-2.16) in the last 28 games.
Davis Bertans: A
2nd trimester stats: 24.4 minutes, 9.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, 0.7 turnovers, 68.2 true-shooting percentage, +2.34 PIPM
Bertans’ development into an elite role player has been a major factor in the Spurs overachieving this year. He’s making three-point shots much more accurately this year (37.3 to 47.2 percent) in a consistent rotation role, and that’s despite the fact that teams are gluing defenders to him off the ball.
The Latvian Laser’s BBall Index perimeter shooting grade has improved from 75.2 last season to 96.1 this season. The confidence that comes with a bigger role on the team as well as personal improvement have made him one of the league’s most terrifying shooters to defend. Despite that, he unfortunately missed out on a Three-Point Shootout bid at All-Star weekend. Maybe next year.
You can’t undersell how good of an overall complementary piece Bertans has become. It’s not just the shooting. It’s the heady defensive rotations, the occasional brilliant pass and the off-ball movement that makes him so good.
He’s now 34th in the entire NBA in real plus-minus (plus-2.79), and second among players qualified for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
Rudy Gay: A-
2nd trimester stats: 27.1 minutes, 14.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks, 1.5 turnovers, 59.7 true-shooting percentage, +2.93 PIPM
Gay has found his best role in the modern NBA. He’s playing mainly as a 4 next to one big man and attacking more opportunistically as the No. 3 offensive option. Most of his attempted shots are a result of him taking slower, bigger defenders off the dribble or exploiting smaller, weaker defenders in the post.
A wrist injury shelved Gay for six games out of eight contests in late December and early January. Since returning, he’s shown absolutely no ill effects.
Overall, Gay has one of the league’s most well-rounded skill sets.
Not surprisingly, the Spurs have been much worse with Gay out this year. The team is just 4-6 with a minus-3.4 point differential without him, but it’s 28-17 with a plus-3.6 point differential when he plays.
The main thing holding Gay back from an even better grade is a lack of offensive explosiveness. The veteran forward’s most points scored in the trimester was a mere 22 points. I realize he’s the No. 3 option, but he (and the Spurs) need to feature Gay a bit more when he has the hot hand.
Jakob Poeltl: C
2nd trimester stats: 15.5 minutes, 4.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.1 steals, 0.6 blocks, 0.7 turnovers, 59.8 true-shooting percentage, -0.66 PIPM
Poeltl started to heat up offensively at the end of the first trimester. The 23-year-old center averaged 9.1 points per game on a 77.5 true-shooting percentage in an 11-game stretch between November 19 and December 7. His rim protection was also improving.
He seems to have lost most of that momentum now, especially offensively. Popovich used to stagger Aldridge and Poeltl as the lone big in the lineup. Now that Pau Gasol is back, Poeltl is losing his role. He’s either playing with one of the other bigs or getting only sporadic stints with the reserve-heavy unit.
San Antonio’s young big man does much better with Gay or Bertans as his biggest lineup mate as opposed to Aldridge or Gasol. San Antonio’s point margin per 48 minutes with the Poeltl/Bertans and Poeltl/Gay pairings on the floor is plus-12.3 in 585 total minutes. With Poeltl/Aldridge or Poeltl/Bertans, it’s minus-17.2 in 120 total minutes.
Of course, Poeltl needs to shoulder some of the blame for his recent struggles. His free-throw percentage dropped from 69.7 to 41.2 percent between trimesters. In his last eight games, he has 13 fouls but just two blocks.
I’m a proponent of keeping the rotation the way it was, when Poeltl and the team were rolling before Gasol’s return. The Spurs can see if there are any takers for Gasol’s contract this week. Or, they can always just waive him in the offseason.
The others: C-
In thie second trimester, Dante Cunningham, Pau Gasol and Quincy Pondexter have all gotten at least 80 minutes. Cunningham led the way with 183. Their values in PIPM over the stretch range from minus-0.49 to minus-0.33, and that seems to tell the story of their “blah” contributions.
Cunningham and Pondexter are decent defenders who don’t have a standout skill on offense. Gasol is a great passer. However, his slow movements seem to get in the way of every other aspect of the game.
Lonnie Walker finally got his first burn in San Antonio this trimester and showcased his top-shelf athleticism. He, Drew Eubanks and Chimeze Metu haven’t really played enough minutes to affect this grade, though.
The biggest reason for this low grade is because Gasol is be wedging himself into a rotation that was working great without him. Maybe Pop is doing it to showcase him for a trade and mute Poeltl’s value for his free agency this year. In the present, though, it does seem to be hurting the team a bit.