San Antonio Spurs: Five pertinent questions from the unfinished 2019-20 NBA season
By Dylan Carter
Since the 2019-20 season was cut short, we got left hanging on some key questions regarding the San Antonio Spurs’ remaining regular-season games.
Besides the hiatus itself, the 2019-20 regular season will be remembered as one of steady turbulence for the San Antonio Spurs. The team couldn’t seem to find much positive consistency, clawing at the eighth seed of the playoffs until the unceremonious halt that is the hiatus stopped them in their tracks.
Even though things weren’t going the Spurs’ way when the season was put on pause, there were still a handful of thought-provoking questions to ponder through the final 19 games of the regular season. San Antonio battled it’s way back into the playoff conversation by earning a convincing win against the Dallas Mavericks in the final game before the season was suspended.
Rookie Keldon Johnson began carving out a larger role, forward Trey Lyles heated up, the tandem of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White began playing together more often and the team’s adjustment to center Jakob Poeltl’s injury were just a handful of storylines we tracked before everything went dark. Now, we’re left with lingering questions about how the season will play out.
With those questions front-and-center on our minds, we’re going to pose a few inquiries that we were looking forward to seeing as the season played out. Being a non-playoff team for the first time in 22 seasons brings a ton of intrigue regarding how the organization proceeds both on and off the court.
Many of these questions could only be answered by the decisions made by head coach Gregg Popovich, so we can’t answer them for you. However, we can discuss the routes that these inquiries might have taken had the season continued as planned. We’ll start by pondering how one very special rook plays in an extended role.
Next: Does Keldon Johnson get more minutes?
1. Does Keldon Johnson carve out a legitimate role?
During the last four games that the Spurs played, rookie Keldon Johnson played just-under 67 minutes of legitimate game-time for Popovich’s squad. The 20-year-old from the University of Kentucky averaged seven points, 2.8 boards and 1.3 steals in 16.7 minutes per game while hitting an alluring 62.5 percent of his shots and 2-of-4 three-point attempts.
More so than the numbers will indicate, Johnson looked up to the challenges posed by elite competition. He’s a confident, young wing whose physicality and athleticism shine through his underappreciated ability to score on the drive and expanding knowledge of the game.
One moment in particular during the last game of the season saw Johnson guarding MVP candidate Luka Doncic one-on-one, muscling the sophomore around and forcing a turnover. Johnson rocketed up the court on the fastbreak and dished the ball off to veteran Marco Belinelli for a triple.
Out here turning DEFENSE ➡️ OFFENSE!#GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/3JOBmhOzSM
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 11, 2020
This is just one small example of the ways Johnson can positively influence his team by putting his mind and body to the test against any competition. He’s got some dog in him, which is going to earn Popovich’s respect and eventually, a significant role with the team.
Whether or not Johnson maintained that role through the home stretch of the season is undetermined, but you’d have to think Pop would at least consider playing him more often. When Johnson’s number is called, he can be depended on and the Spurs would’ve benefitted from that level of competitiveness in their playoff hunt.
Next: Would Derrick get the starting nod?
2. Does Popovich put Derrick in the starting five?
Let’s be frank: Starting shooting guard Bryn Forbes should probably have been coming off the bench this season. Though skilled in his three-point shooting and shot creation, Forbes is a net-negative no matter what role he dons because of his complete inability to play defense against players at his position.
With that in mind, it’d make sense for Coach Pop to play his best guards, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, on the court together. We’re already well aware that White is deserving and capable of playing well in the starting five, as he slotted in for the injured Murray last year.
Previously, concerns about three-point shooting and spacing made Forbes an ideal player to start at the two-guard, but Murray is up to 37.8 percent from deep this year while White is at 35.6 percent. They can each space the floor for the team’s leading scorer in wing DeMar DeRozan and help make up for his mediocre perimeter defense.
With these two sharing the floor, San Antonio’s assist percentage rockets up to 66.2 percent, meaning the team is setting each other up for buckets much more often than they normally would. This is a 7.8 percent increase from the Spurs’ season average as a whole.
The team is also much better with its two best perimeter defenders on the floor. San Antonio allows 6.9 points per 100 possessions fewer with White and Murray on the court together compared to the team’s average output as a whole. For reference, the team’s defensive rating with Forbes on the floor compares to White is 115.5, which is worst than the league’s worst defensive team, the Washington Wizards.
Even if it meant minimizing the role of one of his favorite players, Pop might’ve eventually decided enough was enough and started White above Forbes.
Next: Can they save the playoff streak?
3. Do the Spurs keep the playoff streak alive?
One question loomed above the Spurs all season long was whether or not the illustrious playoff streak would stay alive. Being that their 22-season streak is the longest active playoff run for any team across the four major American sports leagues, all eyes are on Coach Pop and the Spurs to make NBA history by pushing the league record to 23 seasons.
Currently tied with the Philadelphia 76ers, formerly the Syracuse Nationals, San Antonio had a tall task with an outdated roster led by a former All-Star in his late thirties and a player known for his woes in the postseason. The Spurs fought to shed the misconception that they were no longer playoff-bound by working their tails off, but it doesn’t seem like it’d be enough.
However, there’s always the chance that they could make history.
The Spurs’ remaining strength of schedule is relatively weak compared to its opponents’ and they’d face their competition on multiple occasions. By the time the season ended, San Antonio was four games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and only half of a game behind the ninth-seed Portland Trail Blazers.
Many critics believe the Spurs were bound for failure this year, but we simply don’t know how the remaining 19 games would’ve played out. It’s feasible that San Antonio finishes with a record nearing, at or even above .500 in the win percentage. They may still have the opportunity to do so if the season resumes in the coming weeks and a determined, healthy Spurs squad emerges.
Next: Does the rotation favor vets or youth?
4. Would the Spurs cut back on the veteran’s playing time?
So let’s say things continue trending downward and the Spurs are officially eliminated from the playoffs; Does that mean that we see a lot less of players like Marco Belinelli and Rudy Gay? After a team misses the postseason for the first time in over two decades, they’re probably going to cut bait with at least a few of the vets.
Allotting a significant portion of the team’s playing time to younger, less experienced players is a better use of that playing time than lugging out the same veterans who got you bounced from the postseason. Ramping up the activity of players like Luka Samanic, Lonnie Walker IV and Jakob Pöltl upon return from injury would be a better use of that time.
This would also likely produce fewer wins while helping the team’s youth to better grapple their roles in the NBA. It’d probably help the Spurs to inadvertently get a better draft pick in the process. If they got eliminated from the playoffs then playing for pride would be a waste of time since older players like LaMarcus Aldridge are putting their bodies at risk for nothing.
It’d also give the Spurs a clear indication of where they’re at. Showcasing some of the young talent helps them improve trade stock if they want to get back into the playoffs as soon as possible or provide valuable experience for players who need it.
San Antonio would never blatantly tank, but I’d bank on them trying more of their youth.
Next: How do the young bigs fare?
5. What do the Spurs get from Metu and Eubanks?
Since Poeltl was sidelined when the league shut down, we were in line for an increase in playing time for the Spurs’ young bigs in two-way player Drew Eubanks and sophomore tweener Chimezie Metu. They’re both impactful players in different ways with Metu being the most likely of the two to help the team in meaningful situations immediately.
For whatever reason, Popovich has been reluctant to play Metu in extended minutes thus far in his career, but he’s coming along very nicely in the G-League. The 23-year-old is averaging 18 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per game for the Austin Spurs while hitting 54.9 percent of his shots and 37.9 percent from three-point range.
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Injecting the lineup with a floor-spacing athlete who has a fiery competitive spirit like Metu could do dividends for a Spurs team grasping for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Though he mostly plays against garbage time competition during his NBA minutes, he’s been thrown into a few game situations and stepped up to the challenge. San Antonio is 3.8 points per 100 possessions better with Metu on the floor.
Eubanks, on the other hand, has been thrown into the fire a bit more lately. He picked up minutes as a starter with Poeltl and Aldridge injured at the same time, proving that he’s not quite ready to make that leap but could become a serviceable backup with the right amount of time and grooming.
Having either one of the Spurs’ young bigs in the lineup would be an enticing experiment that the team could learn and grow from. If they’re underperforming then Pop could pull them; It’s as easy as that! It’s a better option than playing Rudy Gay at Center for 25 minutes per game.
This would have been the time to figure out if these young bigs are worthy of roster spots or significant roles in the 2020-21 season.