Many skeptics were unsure of DeMar DeRozan’s fit alongside LaMarcus Aldridge with the San Antonio Spurs, but keen roster construction and great coaching has empowered them to thrive.
A portion of the basketball community viewed San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich as curmudgeonly when he said that three-point shooting takes the beauty out of basketball, but he may have had a point. When the primary function of an offensive unit is to stretch the floor, it takes away from the intricate fundamentals of the game.
San Antonio’s multi-decade run of playoff success has been structured around getting the most out of individual players. By homing in on the strengths and weaknesses of his personnel, Popovich has put his players in position to reach their full potential and contribute to a winning on-court product. Over the course of the last month, we’ve seen the culmination of his work as the All-NBA duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan have achieved new heights.
The Spurs have claimed victory in 13 of their previous 16 games including victories over Denver, Boston, Toronto and LeBron James’ Lakers. During this stretch, both DeRozan and Aldridge have played some of their best ball in the silver and black.
After a dreadful November, Aldridge has come alive in his last 16 games. The 33-year-old put up 22.5 points per contest on 58.4 percent shooting in that span while showing off an array of crafty veteran skills on both ends of the floor. His improved defensive effort is evident, using active hands to cut off passing lanes and using his size and strength to hold down the low block from the center position.
The Spurs are 13-3 in their last 16 games. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan in those 16 games…
LMA: 22.7 PTS, 6.3 REB, 2.5 AST, 1 BLK per game, 59.2 FG%, .637 TS%, 13.8 NetRtg
DDR: 20.1 PTS, 7.2 AST, 7 REB, 1.1 STL per game, 46.9 FG%, 10.3 NetRtg
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) January 8, 2019
Meanwhile, DeRozan is coming into his own as an all-around superstar. Earlier in his career, critics focused on the shooting guard’s one-dimensional style of play because of his score-first mentality. Now as a Spur, DeMar has unlocked other aspects of his game while playing substantially improved defense under the structure of the team.
Over the course of the last 16 games, DeRozan is averaging seven rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.2 steals per night while leading the Spurs in scoring on multiple occasions. He notched his first career triple-double against his former team just three games ago, foiling Kawhi Leonard’s return to San Antonio. The superstar struggled against Memphis in the following contest but exploded on the road against his former coach Dwane Casey in Detroit. He posted a stat line of 26 points, 9 assist, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals in 34 minutes, leading to a huge win.
All things considered, the Aldridge-DeRozan experiment is working out well in the Alamo City this season. The Spurs are back up to the sixth seed in the Western Conference, just 3.5 games behind Denver for the first seed. So why exactly are things clicking for a team that many thought would fall off?
Next: The ideal surrounding cast
The ideal surrounding cast
Getting two All-NBA players together is great in theory, but that’s only the first piece of the jigsaw puzzle for a general manager. The next step is to surround them with complimentary pieces that will make their jobs easier. For this reason, Spurs GM R.C. Buford deserves serious consideration for the Executive of the Year Award.
This offseason saw monumental turnover for the Spurs roster. It would’ve been very easy for Buford to watch the stars align and begin a rebuild in the Alamo City. With Tony Parker headed East, Manu Ginobili calling it quits and Leonard requesting a trade, San Antonio had become an underdog of sorts.
Somehow, Buford made a poor situation right by working with Pop to set the team up for the future while remaining competitive.
By re-signing Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes, Buford set his team up with two young budding pieces who’ve already been instilled with the corporate knowledge that’s sustained the Spurs way. The two sharpshooters have used their opportunities to show off enhanced skill sets with Forbes emerging as a potential Most Improved Player candidate for his efforts.
Bryn Forbes' points per shot attempt: 120.3 pts per 100 shot attempts (via CTG). That's placing him in the 88th percentile (really good) among combo guards.
Forbes is making 47% of his mid-range shots (88th percentile – really good) & 44% of his threes (96th percentile – elite).
— Paul Garcia (@PaulGarciaNBA) January 9, 2019
The season-ending injury to sophomore point guard Dejounte Murray was devastating to the franchise, but it opened up the minutes for Forbes to show what he can bring to the table. Forbes quickly developed great rapport with DeRozan on the perimeter, making the two a deadly combo by playing off of each other and sharing ball handling duties. As DeRozan continues to show off his playmaking skills, Forbes is knocking down threes at an unprecedented rate.
Meanwhile, Bertans is showing off more skills this season than he has ever before, improving as a passer and defender while remaining one of the game’s deadliest three-point shooters. The 26-year-old is posting a career high 66 percent effective field goal percentage, or EFG, which ranks third in the entire league. With DeRozan and Aldridge taking possession of the ball so often, Buford knew that he needed players who excel away from the ball to keep Popovich’s motion-centric offense running.
Having two players that dominate the midrange and interior running the show, Buford made the wise decision to commit San Antonio’s minuscule cap space to players who can confidently play off of their primary duo. Adding Marco Belinelli and Dante Cunningham to the squad brought two battle-tested veterans ready to work hard and play harder, fitting right in with the rest of the unit.
Blowing up the roster and going for an entirely new look was not in the cards for Buford. Now that everyone is clicking and the average rotation is locked in, San Antonio’s role players are affirming his vision.
Next: Sticking to what you know
Sticking to what you know
It’s easy for the casual bystander to say “DeMar and LaMarcus should learn to shoot threes,” but that goes against everything that they’ve worked on throughout their careers. Forcing players to change themselves to fit a role is not a good way to maximize their potential. Once Popovich came to the realization last season that he can’t force LaMarcus to be the franchise’s new Tim Duncan, Aldridge fit more organically in San Antonio and earned All-NBA honors for the fifth time in his career.
For as much as we like to hold Pop to the highest degree, this was a moment in which he recognized a flaw in his coaching approach. It’s his job to enable his players to be the best versions of themselves both on and off the court. Character counts in the Spurs locker room and the relationships built between players and coaches need to be founded on trust.
These lessons carried onto the beginning of Pop’s relationship and coaching of DeMar DeRozan. As someone who analyzes the game so deeply, it didn’t take long before Popovich pinpointed ways that DeRozan could unlock his true potential and become a championship worthy player. We’re now seeing the culmination of their work together with DeRozan emerging as a dark horse MVP candidate and Popovich reviving the Spurs after a treacherous 2017-18 campaign.
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San Antonio’s two superstars rank second and third in the NBA for two-point attempts per game with DeRozan taking 17.1 and Aldridge taking 15.3. Even though the league is trending back toward the three-point line, the Spurs are only taking threes when it’s the right shot.
Beautiful basketball, by the Spurs’ definition, is based in the ideology that all five players on the floor should be looking for the best available shot, even if that means sacrificing their own attempts. We’ve seen both DeRozan and Aldridge show off their passing chops so far this season, embodying the culture of the team.
Pop’s scheme has resulted in the fifth best offensive rating in the NBA at 112.6 for San Antonio while posting a league-best turnover percentage of 5.5 percent. It doesn’t matter how many mid-range jumpers the Spurs take as long as they execute their game plan and play to each other’s strengths.
There’s still plenty of time games left to play in the season and San Antonio’s playoff hopes are not secured.
The Western Conference is unpredictable and health is always a concern, but stretches like this show the league that the Spurs are and always will be competitive.