In a rollercoaster ride of a season, the San Antonio Spurs have officially passed the midway point of their 2018-19 campaign and have shown signs of promise.
Going into 2018-19, the San Antonio Spurs found themselves in uncharted territory. For the first time in the Popovich-era, the Spurs began a season without any of their iconic trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili on the roster.
Also gone were Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, leaving two members from the 2013-2014 championship team on the roster. The Silver and Black were hovering around the .500 mark and a playoff berth was no certainty.
However, since December 7th, San Antonio has posted a .777 winning percentage and are currently a game out of the third seed in the Western Conference. These are three takeaways from the Spurs so far this season.
Excellent contributions from DeMar DeRozan
After being dealt to the Alamo City in July in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan voiced displeasure in having to leave Toronto after saying he’d like to play for the Raptors his entire career and after being led to believe that he would not be on the trading block.
However, the 29-year-old Compton native has fit in seamlessly in San Antonio, as DeRozan has posted averages of 22 points and 6 rebounds while shooting 47 percent from the field and 83 percent from the foul line. More surprisingly, the USC product leads San Antonio in assists, with a career-high of 6.5 dimes per contest.
Despite limited outside shooting ability, DeRozan has anchored the Spurs on the offensive end and during key stretches during crunch time and is a huge reason San Antonio is first in field goal percentage since December 7th.
An argument can be made that DeRozan has been the second best shooting guard in the Western Conference and is the most critical component if San Antonio will make their 23rd consecutive postseason appearance this spring.
Next: Improved effort and communication on defense
Improved effort and communication on defense
Teamwork, consistency, communication are all qualities basketball purists and casual fans alike use to describe the San Antonio Spurs over the past two decades. One word that had been synonymous with the Spurs basketball could not be used during the early going this season: Defense.
Known for their defensive prowess throughout the Popovich era, this edition of the Spurs looked unrecognizable compared to previous squads under Popovich’s direction. Put simply, San Antonio couldn’t stop a runny nose with Cottonelle tissue.
The Silver and Black allowed 135 points or more four times before the beginning of December. Previously, the Spurs allowed that many points only twice in 23 seasons with Popovich at the helm. San Antonio was surrendering 112.9 points per 100 possessions, ranked 19th in defensive rating,20th in defensive efficiency and opponents shot 46 percent from the floor.
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This free fall into the bottom third on the defensive end was caused by a number of factors. The departure of All-NBA defenders Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto via trade and a season-ending injury to rising star Dejounte Murray rendered San Antonio’s perimeter defense nonexistent. The departures of future first-ballot Hall of Famers Ginobili and Parker didn’t make matters better either. Though no one ever mistook the two for Gary Payton and Tony Allen defensively, Parker and Ginobili had high levels of familiarity with the Spurs defensive schemes and rotations.
As a result, newcomers like DeRozan and others not known for their defensive expertise such as Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes, and Patty Mills were tasked with more responsibility on the defensive end, which as the statistics illustrate, was not a success.
However, since December 7th, the Spurs have looked liked the Spurs of old. The Silver and Black have posted the league’s 2nd best defensive rating at 103.6, are 3rd in the following four categories: opponents points off turnovers, opponent points in the paint, and opponents field goal percentage. The improvement can be attributed to a number of factors: greater familiarity with Coach Popovich’s defensive schemes and rotations, lineup changes that have resulted in fewer minutes for Dante Cunningham and Pau Gasol and the return of Derrick White.
Next: The Arrival of Derrick White
The Arrival of Derrick White
The Spurs are widely regarded as an organization that does a superb job of player development, most notably taking Jonathan Simmons from toiling in the D-League to cashing in with a 20 million dollar contract with Orlando in 2017 and helping transform Kawhi Leonard from a long, athletic defensive-minded small forward to one of the five best basketball players this side of mars.
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Judging from the past 20 games it seems like Derrick White is going to be the latest player the Spurs will use to turn lemons into lemonade. After notching averages of 5 points per game while shooting 38 percent from the field in November, White has played the best basketball of his two-year career in the past 18 games.
The University of Colorado product has averages of 17 points per game while shooting a blistering 53 percent from beyond the three-point arc since being placed into the starting five. His emergence has helped ease the offensive load on DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge and gives the team another perimeter threat opposite Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes.
White’s defense has also been superb, as he has been tasked with guarding each team’s primary ball handler, and has played extremely well. White held Kyrie Irving to 16 points, did an admirable job guarding Kawhi Leonard and was a big reason the former Spur posted a plus-minus of -22 in his return to the Alamo City and held Grizzlies star Mike Conley Jr. to 15 points on measly 6-19 shooting performance.
If San Antonio is to continue playing well and gain ground in the Western Conference standings, White must continue his strong play on both ends of the floor.