Remedying the San Antonio Spurs’ defensive woes in a new season

SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 20: Jakob Poeltl (25) of the San Antonio Spurs and Derrick White (4) defend Paul Millsap (4) of the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter on Saturday, April 20, 2019. The Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs faced off for game four of their first round NBA playoffs series at the At&T Center. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - APRIL 20: Jakob Poeltl (25) of the San Antonio Spurs and Derrick White (4) defend Paul Millsap (4) of the Denver Nuggets during the first quarter on Saturday, April 20, 2019. The Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs faced off for game four of their first round NBA playoffs series at the At&T Center. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
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BROOKLYN, NY – FEBRUARY 25: DeMarre Carroll #9 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY – FEBRUARY 25: DeMarre Carroll #9 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots the ball against the San Antonio Spurs (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The San Antonio Spurs were uncharacteristically inefficient on the defensive end of the floor last season, but 2019-20 provides a new opportunity to fix that.

Under the careful guidance of hoops genius Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs organization has historically valued defensive effort more-so than the competition. Based in the core values of the game, Pop’s style requires the team’s personnel to commit full effort to closing out on shooters and keeping in front of opponents.

Without legendary power forward Tim Duncan to anchor the defense, San Antonio has struggled on defense in recent years with their troubles coming to a head in the 2018-19 season. Losing 2018 All-Defensive Second Team selection Dejounte Murray to an ACL-tear in the preseason certainly didn’t help, but that’s not a plausible excuse for San Antonio’s 20th-place finish in defensive rating at 110.5.

Even in their counting stats, the Spurs were highly ineffective on defense, ranking dead-last in steals per game with 6.1 and tied for 21st in blocker per game with 4.7. It’s going to take a concerted effort across the board, but San Antonio has the capability to return to its previous status as one of the best defensive teams in the league.

Although the Spurs’ leading duo of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge aren’t necessarily known for their work on the defensive end, these cornerstones can set the tone for the rest of the team while allowing specialists like Murray and new addition DeMarre Carroll fill in the gaps.

Next: Sparking defensive intensity with athleticism

SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 2: Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass between LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs and Derrick White (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX – FEBRUARY 2: Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans looks to pass between LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs and Derrick White (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Sparking defensive intensity with athleticism

To bring the Spurs back to their defensive ways of the past, they’ll need to make use of their rising levels of athleticism. Between the aforementioned Murray and DeRozan, along with sneaky-athlete Derrick White and the ever-explosive Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio’s backcourt is packing some serious potential.

Assuming that DeRozan plays the majority of his minutes at the small forward slot, Murray and White are poised to enter the season as one of – if not the No. 1 – best defensive backcourt combinations in the league. There are 13 feet and six inches of wingspan between the two of them that’ll be used to pluck the ball from opposing ball handlers, disrupt jump shots and snatch the ball though passing lanes. As a result, the Spurs’ steals average is sure to rise.

Still, an effort from two players simply won’t be enough to secure the deal. There’s no confirming that Walker will play significant minutes, but if he does, the 20-year-old should be focused on making his name on the defensive end. Anyone who watched him through the Summer League knows that Walker is capable of great things as a scorer, but his lengthy frame and immense bounce make him a prime candidate to defend positions one-through-three.

The same concepts apply in the front court. Players like Aldridge, Carroll and Rudy Gay need to be more aware of their surroundings and play aggressively on the ball to ensure the steal rate increases from last season to the next. Gay has grown tremendously as both an on and off-ball defender since coming to San Antonio and his passion for the game drives him to continue learning. Because of this, Gay could very well improve his concentration on defense to put up some greater statistics in related categories.

The most underrated of San Antonio’s athletes is Jakob Poeltl, but not in the traditional sense. Utilizing his massive frame at seven-feet-tall with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, the 23-year-old showed off his upside as a physical defender in the postseason against Nikola Jokic. He’s not light on his feet whatsoever, but Poeltl is a force to be reckoned with near the basket.

When channeled correctly, improved athleticism leads to stronger close outs on jump shooters and an increase in defensive counting stats.

Next: Applying ferocity in the paint

SALT LAKE CITY, UT – DECEMBER 04: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs blocks the shot by Joe Ingles #2 of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT – DECEMBER 04: Jakob Poeltl #25 of the San Antonio Spurs blocks the shot by Joe Ingles #2 of the Utah Jazz (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)

Applying ferocity in the paint

Last season’s Spurs did a solid job of defending the interior, as shown by their 46.6 points allowed in the paint per contest which ranked sixth in the league. This was due in large part to the tandem of Aldridge and Poeltl asserting their dominance on the low block.

By pivoting in and around the painted area, Poeltl altered shots frequently last season. He understands the confines of his role and executes it nicely – anchoring the middle of the floor so his teammates on the perimeter have a better chance to lock in on shooters. Operating under the assumption that the Spurs will keep one of Poeltl or Aldridge at the center position for the majority of each game, Pop will rely on these two to apply vigor in the paint.

In order to make this work, the duo needs to keep out of foul trouble. It’s rare to see LaMarcus foul out of a game, but Poeltl is much more likely to commit shooting fouls because of his physical nature – Aldridge relies more on finesse and timing. Because of the shooting foul concerns, weak-side defenders at the small forward position need to keep aware of their surroundings because they’ll have plenty of chances to assist in locking down the paint by swooping in for unsuspecting blocks and shot contests.

All eyes are on DeRozan, Gay and Carroll. As the suspected small forward, along with Lonnie once his time comes, this trio must remain aware of their surroundings and anticipate the motions of their matchups. For as much of the responsibility lays on the shoulders of San Antonio’s bigs, denying shots in the paint is a team-effort.

For as much help as DeRozan provided to the Spurs’ season, this is one area where San Antonio missed Danny Green last year. He’s always had a knack for sticking with players as they cut to the basket, blocking a few shots along the way. Improved shot blocking and awareness from DeRozan would do dividends for the Spurs’ defensive growth next season.

Next. 15 greatest defenders in Spurs franchise history

It’s going to take improved concentration and a heap of team chemistry to get the job done, but the Spurs have a serious opportunity to return to their top-notch defensive ways real soon.

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