The first stretch of the Rodeo Road Trip was full of difficulties and took a brutal toll on the San Antonio Spurs playoff hopes.
The Rodeo Road Trip is an annual right of passage that every iteration of the San Antonio Spurs must endure. As this year’s group journeyed around the Western Conference, taking on some of the best teams in the league along the way, we did our best to keep expectations relatively low.
We knew that the near month-long road trip would test the Spurs and push the limits of their playoff candidacy, but it’s been somehow more frustrating than expected. The Spurs have won just one of their first six road contests. Their lone win of the RRT came on Tuesday night on the back of Dejounte Murray‘s career-best night.
The Spurs get a break now, one they desperately need. As no players are taking part in All-Star Weekend, the whole team will have quite a bit of time off to decompress and then refocus on what they need to accomplish in the second leg of the road trip.
San Antonio’s losing skid in the first leg of their journey around the conference delivered a beating to their playoff chances but they’re not totally out of contention yet. They face the Utah Jazz and then get a rematch with the Oklahoma City Thunder to close out the trip once their back from the break.
It’s been frustrating but during this time we’ve also learned a bit more about this team’s intention for the rest of the season, and what the future of the San Antonio Spurs may look like. Here are three key takeaways from the first stretch of the Rodeo Road Trip.
Next: Playoff hopes fading fast
Spurs playoff hopes rapidly fading
It wasn’t a shock to see the Spurs hold off on making a move at the trade deadline but it was a bit of a surprise. According to former Spurs reporter Jabari Young, the team had been looking to move DeMarre Carroll and Marco Belinelli in order to re-tool for a playoff push. They had also reportedly had some interest in Rudy Gay but other teams thought they were overvaluing him.
The result, the same roster they started out the season with, with the same results. San Antonio opened the road trip by dropping five games in a row, including a frustrating pair of losses to the Sacramento Kings and Denver Nuggets. Before the Spurs set out on their trip around the conference we touched on how the road trip would make or break their playoff hopes. They’re not broken yet but it’s close.
They’re now 23-31, five games out of the eighth seed, and even with the New Orleans Pelicans. But while the Spurs struggle, the Pelicans are surging. Led by their once in a generation rookie, Zion Williamson, New Orleans has won six of their last eight and are pushing for the playoffs.
With seasoned veterans and a historically great coach, it’s too early to close the book on the Spurs playoff hopes but their margin for error is slim. We’re very close to seeing the legendary run of playoff appearances come to a close.
A silver lining, the Spurs could be lottery-bound for the first time in over two decades. This isn’t too strong of a draft class but there are still talented players to be found in the top-ten. Additionally, going back to the lottery for the first time since Tim Duncan was drafted could be exactly the motivation the team leadership needs to begin a full-scale rebuild.
Next: DeMar DeRozan sitting out isn't the worst thing
DeRozan sitting out isn’t the worst thing for the Spurs
I want to preface this by saying that, right now, DeMar DeRozan is the San Antonio Spurs’ best player and the team is better off when he is healthy. Defensive lapses aside, he brings a stand-alone ability to score that most of the team cannot replicate. But DeRozan missing the last two games of the first stretch of the road trip wasn’t the worst thing for the Spurs.
DeRozan sat out the games at Denver and Oklahoma City dealing with back spasms and Lonnie Walker got the start in his place in both games. Walker’s two starts were heavy on highlights but relatively light on substance. He only scored ten points across the two games and frequently looked like more of a bystander than an active participant on offense.
that reverse ?
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) February 11, 2020
With Lonnie’s insane athleticism and ability to contort around the rim you can pencil him in for at least one highlight-reel moment per night and he delivered on that end. Stringing these highlight moments together for a solid overall performance is the next natural step in his growth. If the Spurs continue to lose it would be nice to see Gregg Popovich take the reins off Walker and let him start a few more games. If you’re not making the playoffs you might as well give the young fella some run.
Lonnie wasn’t the only one who benefitted from DeMar’s absence. Derrick White averaged 16 points, 3 rebounds, and 6 assists in the two games where DeRozan was out. Without DeRozan on the floor, White had to step up his aggression and playmaking. The results speak for themselves. He set two new season-high marks for assists in a game (8) and made free throws (10).
Again, the Spurs are a better team when DeRozan is healthy. At least for now. The flashes we’ve seen from Walker and White indicate that if the Spurs do decide to part ways with DeRozan this summer that they’ll still have plenty of help at his position to carry them forward.
Next: Dejounte Murray is built for stardom
Dejounte Murray is built for this
Lonnie Walker and Derrick White both took advantage of DeRozan’s absence over the last bit of the first stretch of the road trip but they still weren’t the most impressive of the Spurs guards. That title goes to Dejounte Murray. Murray showed out over the last three games and reiterated what we’ve all known for some time, that he’s built for the NBA and has all the makings of a future star.
Over the final three games, Murray averaged 19 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 1.7 steals, and less than one turnover per game. His 25 point performance, a new career-high, against the Thunder helped San Antonio secure their first win of the road trip. Murray spoke with the Spurs broadcasters after the game and focused on how much better he can get.
— FOX Sports Southwest (@FOXSportsSW) February 12, 2020
As Murray mentioned in the clip above, this is really only his second full season of playing as the Spurs primary ball handler. He spent much of his rookie season in Austin and lost all of last season to injury. After working back from injury and through a minute restriction we’re now seeing the complete guard that Murray can be when he’s totally healthy and confident in his body.
We all knew that Murray could rebound and set up his teammates but what’s been most impressive over the road trip has been his reduced turnovers and improved shooting. He’s only turned the ball over twice over the past six games while also racking up an impressive 28 assists over the same period. A 14:1 assist to turnover ratio, are you kidding me?! Go off, young king.
*Clip courtesy of NBA.com, h/t 3Ball*
Murray has also shown off his improved three-point shooting. This was the final key in his game, could he expand his range outside of the paint? The answer is an emphatic yes. Murray is knocking down mid and long-range shots with confidence. That added threat will continue to force opposing guards around screens to stay with him. And once he’s got a step on you it’s over, he’s slashing to the rim and finishing.
DeRozan’s absence opened up more possessions for Murray to have the ball in his hands. He can make magic happen when he’s given the opportunity. His 19/8/7 split might not be sustainable but it’s certainly not out of the question. If the San Antonio Spurs want to make the playoffs they’ll need him to continue to play at an incredibly high level.
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Their record wasn’t what we had hoped for but there are still plenty of positive things to be taken away from the first bit of the San Antonio Spurs annual Rodeo Road Trip. Even if this season ends in disappointment, the future of this team looks bright.