4 Unanswered questions from San Antonio Spurs shortened season
By Ethan Farina
As the NBA season was cut short we were never able to get full answers to these four questions about the San Antonio Spurs.
Cut short in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, we were never able to get the closure on the San Antonio Spurs season that we had hoped for. The NBA could still choose to resume play, potentially in fanless arenas, but right now we’re all left with a lot of questions about what could have been.
Over the course of the season, a lot of our key questions about the Spurs were answered. Would Dejounte Murray return to form? Yes, a thousand times YES. Would DeMar DeRozan start shooting three’s? Ha, no. Would San Antonio’s historic playoff streak stay alive? More on that one later.
Even as the Spurs struggled through one of their most trying seasons in the past twenty years, we were able to learn quite a bit about what the future could hold for the franchise. We now know that Lonnie Walker has legit 20 point per game potential and that Derrick White‘s breakout season wasn’t a fluke.
There’s still so much more that those final 19 games could have shown us. Here are the four biggest unanswered questions from the San Antonio Spurs’ shortened season.
Next: A potentially dynamic backcourt duo
What could Derrick White and Dejounte Murray do together?
From preseason on, it was clear that Gregg Popovich was going to stick to his guns and stagger the minutes of his two main point guards. Derrick White would lead the second unit and Dejounte Murray would roll with the starters.
As the Spurs’ defensive weaknesses grew more and more apparent, we heard louder and more frequent calls from fans for Pop to scrap his original plan and play White and Murray together. This sentiment was eventually picked up by both of the two guards. Both White and Murray eventually spoke out to the media about their desire to share the court more often.
In typical Popovich fashion, the Spurs head coach completely ignored the request from fans and did what he thought was best for much of the season. But he gradually relented, playing his guards together more often in the final weeks before the season was suspended.
DJ and Derrick shared the court for 102 minutes across 38 games this year. In that time they posted a net rating of -1.3. Maybe Pop’s hesitation to play the two together was warranted. But it’s a small sample size, and they haven’t had the chance to play together often, perhaps they just need more time to build on-court chemistry.
On its face, the pairing of Murray and White looks to be a potential nightmare for opposing backcourts. White led all shooting guards in total blocks and continued to play impressive man to man defense. Murray was one of the league leaders in both passes deflected and total steals. These two can clamp up any guard duo in the league on the right night.
As two of the Spurs’ most important young players, we hope to see these two share the court more often in the future.
Next: What can Luka Samanic do?
Luka denied garbage time minutes
Seeing the San Antonio Spurs drift further and further away from playoff contention was a strange sight to see, but it did come with an interesting potential silver lining. The further playoff contention drifted away, the closer we got to seeing Spurs rookie Luka Samanic soak up garbage time minutes.
If we had ever gotten to the point of the season where San Antonio was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention we would have likely seen Samanic finally get serious playing time. Pop has his usual stance of “rookies only play when their 100 percent ready” but if the team’s playoff hopes were already over, what was there to lose?
We did get to see Samanic make his NBA debut earlier this month against the Brooklyn Nets. In that game, Tall Luka was held scoreless but did show off other parts of his game that surely had to have excited Spurs fans. He passed the ball well, moved well when he had the ball in his hands, and, even though he didn’t connect on any of his attempts, his shot looked smooth.
We’ve seen enough of Luka in the G-League to build the excitement around the unicornish rookie. He’s had moments where he looks like he’s got star potential. Combined with the other Spurs rookies and young players he could be something special in a year or two.
He’s still got a long way to go, he really needs to spend this summer working on his body and trying to pack on as much muscle as possible. Even though we may not be able to see Luka at the NBA level again this season we have to hope that those 12 minutes in early March will be enough to stoke a fire under the young forward.
Next: Did the Spurs get another draft day steal?
Keldon Johnson is the latest gem from the 29th pick
Death, taxes, and the San Antonio Spurs finding gems with the 29th pick. These are unavoidable, I don’t make the rules, this is just how things are. At that late in the draft, most teams are just hoping to land a role player, a middle of the bench guy, but San Antonio has been nailing it over the last few years.
It started with Dejounte Murray in 2016, Derrick White was next in 2017, and in 2019 the Spurs lucked out and Keldon Johnson slid down into their open arms. After taking home the SEC Freshman of the Year award for his performance at Kentucky, Johnson was a projected lottery pick. That he slid all the way down to the Spurs is shocking.
We’re not the only ones surprised by Johnson’s draft-day slide, John Calipari shared our sentiments when he spoke to Jack Pilgrim of Kentucky Sports Radio shortly after the draft. But like us, Calipari quickly saw how lucky Johnson was to be coming to the Alamo City.
“He ends up going to San Antonio, which is the best team,” he said. “We’re talking Hall of Fame coach (Gregg Popovich), an organization that does unbelievable work developing young players.”
The Spurs famed development program looks to be at it again. After dominating the G-League for much of his rookie season, Johnson was very impressive in his limited NBA minutes. He showed the same bullish attacking ability that helped him be so successful with the Austin Spurs and played outstanding defense for stretches at a time.
He’s much closer to being ready to play NBA minutes than Samanic, it’s not out of the question that Johnson could take on a large role next season. With a full offseason of work under his belt, he will probably be ready for it. It looks like the Spurs have found another gem at pick 29.
Next: What happens to the Spurs playoff streak?
Did the Spurs really miss the playoffs?
If the season really ended today, the San Antonio Spurs would miss the playoffs. If the NBA decides to jump right into postseason play, the Spurs will miss the playoffs. But if the NBA decides to resume regular-season games, or get creative with playoff seeding, we could see San Antonio find a way to keep the streak alive.
If they resume regular season play, this extended break could be exactly what San Antonio needed to get right. It would be difficult to go right into pressure-packed games in empty arenas, but that’s what the Spurs would be walking into.
They’re four games out of the eighth seed. Not insurmountable, but a hefty gap to make up. But some members of the team feel confident in their ability to turn things around.
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Rudy Gay spoke out, saying how optimistic he felt about the Spurs’ ability to go on a winning streak and return to the playoffs.
Personally, I doubt the NBA picks back up with regular-season games. Going that route would put a serious time crunch on the 2020-21 season start. The league would either have to deal with players coming back with very little rest, condense the 20-21 season, or push the start date back. Resuming play with the playoffs seems much more likely.
If that is the case, getting creative with the seeding could be the opportunity the Spurs need to get back into the playoffs. A play in tournament has been talked about before on this site, and others are posing the idea as well. Just recently on the Road Trippin’ podcast, Richard Jefferson and LeBron James were talking about the idea.
The idea is that the final four teams in contention for the eighth seed would all play a mini play-in tournament for the final playoff spot. The exact details of the tournament would take some ironing out but it’s an interesting idea and would certainly bring the NBA back with a bang.
It’ll be a shame if the NBA season really is over. If the league does resume play it certainly won’t have the same vibe as before. But if things do pick back up, maybe we can get some closure on these unanswered questions surrounding the Spurs.