The San Antonio Spurs have toyed around with many lineups this year, but what if I told you there’s a hidden trio that could save them from themselves?
Whether you like it or not, the San Antonio Spurs aren’t a playoff-lock like they used to be. At one time the pinnacle of playoff contention; an unrequited force of nature that the rest of the NBA aspired to be, head coach Gregg Popovich is working with a shell of what he once had and a group whose identity has yet to be unraveled.
As a casualty of this status, the Spurs’ young core has yet to be fully unleashed upon the NBA. Though the four major players – Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Poeltl – have settled into their roles in the rotation, none of them have full control of the offense. But maybe they should?
It’s no secret that the Spurs win games with their depth. Utilizing an adept second-unit with zippy ball movement and fast-paced action, San Antonio extends leads with its bench and rotates players throughout the contest to push back against the opposition.
However, this limits White, Walker and Poeltl to the bench, when statistics suggest that this trio should play together more often.
The three-man line-up of Poeltl, Walker, and White is one of the Spurs’ most potent both offensively and defensively, boasting a +23 net rating in 146 minutes across 14 games. They produce an offensive rating higher than the league-leading Dallas Mavericks at 118.7 – Dallas is at 116.4 – and a defensive rating lower than the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks (101.2) at 95.7.
You may be scratching your head in bewilderment at this one because it’s obvious to anyone who watches that none of these players are currently better than the team’s leading scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. However, this triad of two-way hounds epitomizes the classical Spurs qualities of unselfishness, team-first mentality and methodical execution.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to compare these players’ talent to that of the big three, but Derrick brings a little bit of Tony, Jakob brings a little bit of Timmy and Lonnie brings a little bit of Manu to the table.
Next: How do they positively influence the offense?
How do they positively influence the offense?
Let’s start with this: Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl are a match made in heaven on the offensive side of the game. As a lead floor general and improved decision-maker with the ball in his hands, White does an incredible job of generating offense in the pick-and-roll.
He is in the 92nd percentile of all pick-and-roll ball-handlers, ranking 8th in points per possession amongst players initiating a pick-and-roll at least three times per game. This places him above the likes of future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, former-MVP James Harden and rising star Luka Doncic. Needless to say, Derrick knows how to ensure buckets when coming off a screen.
Derrick can make use of a pick to set up a teammate with a pass or take advantage of his spacing by using his partner to distract the defenders. He uses screens, reads his opponent’s reaction and methodically executes his desired plan of attack from there.
Poeltl, on the other hand, averages 1.29 points per possession as the roll-man – an impressive feat considering his limited playing time in Gregg Popovich’s gameplan. The 24-year-old averages just 0.9 possessions as a roll man in each game this season. He places just-below the 81st percentile as a roll man, above noteworthy candidates like LA’s Montrezl Harrell and OKC’s Steven Adams.
I say all this to say, White and Poeltl could probably run the pick-and-roll over and over again until they’ve run up the score and get subbed out for Keldon Johnson and Drew Eubanks. But, they’re limited by their situation and have less opportunity to be themselves.
Enter Lonnie Walker, whose unruly athleticism is matched with a soft touch and elegant grace when attacking the rim. Earlier I mentioned that he has a little bit of Manu in him, which is because he’s the wildcard in all of this.
Let’s say Poeltl gets met by a wall of defenders in the paint on his way to the rack: Lonnie’s there for the bail-out jumper. Maybe Derrick can’t quite find a passing lane to get Jakob the ball? Lonnie flashes to the top of the key and uses the spacing that his teammates provided to get a bucket.
He can attack the rim for a putback, isolate if the play breaks down, hit a corner triple or reset the play. Lonnie can do anything he puts his mind to on the offensive end of the floor, and that’s what guys like Derrick and Jakob need in order to be themselves and play their game.
All three of these players are unselfish and accurate passers. They seem to have developed some strong chemistry playing alongside each other, both in practice and in-game over their two years together. Even though they don’t get many opportunities playing together, they know how to make good use of the time they do have and now that Gregg Popovich is allowing them to work alongside each other, the Spurs are turning a corner offensively.
Next: How do they positively influence the defense?
How do they positively influence the defense?
For as exciting as they’ve been scoring the ball, the Spurs’ young trio has been even more influential on the defensive end. Each of these players boasts significant size for their respective position and the intensity to match. They can keep up with players who they probably shouldn’t, and very rarely mail in a play.
White and Poeltl, in particular, do a great job of smothering their opponents – something Walker is still getting used to as he participates in his first season as a legit rotation player. However, Walker uses his length and athletic traits to his advantage as a defender, enabling him to interrupt passing lanes and initiate the fastbreak.
By pressuring their respective assignments and making the opposition uncomfortable, this trio generates turnover chances for one another to pick off steals or swat shots closer. On this play against the Atlanta Hawks, Poeltl and White defend a pick-and-roll perfectly, causing Kevin Huerter to rifle off an errant pass, setting up Walker’s steal and slam:
Again, Walker is the wildcard who’ll come out of nowhere to make a play that no one had seen coming, but he’s always going to be there when his team calls upon him.
Back to White, whose perimeter defense is some of the best that this great game has to offer. He uses his long reach to force his assignment into bad passes and uses his lower-body to position himself in front of whichever lane they look to attack.
But as an off-ball defender, White keeps his eye on the ball and always makes himself involved in a play. Whether it be as a weakside defender, rebounder or pickpocket, White is hard to avoid for any opposing ball handler. Poeltl and White both smother their opponents and Derrick has the wherewithal to force turnovers based on strong defensive stances from his teammates.
Last, but certainly not least, Poeltl’s shot-blocking oftentimes anchors the Spurs defensively. Players like to test him in the paint, knowing well that he’ll try to block their shot or, at the very least, alter it severely. This oftentimes results in fouls by the big man, but it’s a risk he has to take as an elite rim defender looking to make a name for himself.
Jakob is averaging a career-high 1.5 blocks per game, which translates to a whopping 4.3 per 100 possessions. That number ranks sixth in the NBA, and third for players logging at least 750 minutes through the first half of the year.
By looking at him, most people would assume he’s not light on his feet whatsoever. And yes, he has a hard time keeping up with quicker guards and small forwards, but Poeltl holds his own and makes up for speed with length and toughness. He’s also lucky to have scrappy players like White, Walker and the aforementioned Murray to help corral some of his more ferocious blocks.
Given Poeltl’s talent and chemistry with the players around him, Coach Pop should be daring and allocate more minutes to the budding star – especially given what’s looming in the summer.
Next: What comes next for these three budding stars?
What comes next for these three budding stars?
As I just alluded to, the Spurs have to make some serious decisions about their future this upcoming offseason. The most important and fiscally-significant settlement is regarding their potential-All-Star, DeRozan, and his upcoming player option. If he stays, San Antonio is locked into his leadership for next year and won’t have a whole lot of shifting around to do.
They also need to decide on the futures of guards Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli as parts of this ballclub. They contribute pretty heavily to the team’s logjam in the backcourt and allowing them to walk opens up more room for our trusty trio, as well as Murray, to take control of the team.
Just last week, I wrote about some reasons why it makes sense to part ways with Forbes, and part of that is because he dominates minutes that could be going to White and Walker.
But, more crucial to the subject matter at hand than the three previously-mentioned players, Poeltl enters restricted free agency and quite frankly I have no idea what kind of money he’ll make.
Centers simply aren’t as highly-values as they once were in this league and the market for Poeltl could be weak. Centers from the 2015 draft that were selected in the lottery have been paid pennies on the dollar for their services with only two of them remaining with the teams that drafted them: No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns and Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner.
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San Antonio should most certainly allow Poeltl to test the market as a restricted free agent, but he fits their mold and spent his career between two model organizations learning how to play the right way. He’s a hard-nosed, influential player with a good head on his shoulders and a great framework for the rest of his career.
The price of the deal is very important to the longterm outlook – in my opinion, a four-year deal in $30-38 million range would be fair for both parties as long as the Spurs start to utilize him more often – but one way or another he should be back on this team as part of the young core.
As for White and Walker, it’s extremely difficult to envision the Spurs letting them go any time soon with both players entering restricted free agency at the end of their respective contracts.
San Antonio is having a rough go of it right now, but these players should play together more often because they’re producing a solid outlook for the current while setting up for an incredible future playing alongside each other.
The short-term outlook for this Spurs team is bleak, but the future is as bright as it’s ever been.
*All stats and clips courtesy of NBA.com, h/t 3Ball*