3 Biggest matchup problems for the San Antonio Spurs in Orlando
By Ethan Farina
These three players can give the San Antonio Spurs real problems in the bubble
For the longest time, the San Antonio Spurs were known as one of the preeminent defensive teams in the league. But the losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green quickly revealed that the team’s defense wasn’t as solid as we had all hoped and they ended up with the 5th worst defensive rating in the league this year.
You can put a lot of the responsibility for the Spurs lackluster defense on the guys on the perimeter. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are two of the best defensive guards in the league and Lonnie Walker shows promise but they can’t do it alone.
Conversely, the Spurs frontcourt saw some of the best defensive numbers of their careers. Both Jakob Poeltl and LaMarcus Aldridge posted some of the best defensive numbers of their careers, with the former rising to become one of the leagues most dangerous, albeit criminally underutilized, shot blockers.
Now, with Aldridge and Trey Lyles, Poeltl’s impact on defense is going to be even more important. The good news is that the Spurs coaching staff seems more inclined than ever to lean more on the young guys like White, Murray, and Walker. This could lead to a wider variety of lineups that should help improve the team’s overall defense.
Looping more guys into the perimeter rotation should help the Spurs on that end but their shallow frontcourt could end up being a real problem. There isn’t an intimidating defender outside of Poeltl in the group and that’s an issue.
With that in mind, here are the three players the Spurs will face over the next eight games who could give them problems.
Next: A versatile big man
Jaren Jackson Jr. will be a problem for the San Antonio Spurs
Even under the most ideal circumstances, Jaren Jackson Jr. poses a big problem for most NBA teams. He’s one of the few young big men in the league who can hurt you down low with his post game, put the ball on the floor and attack the rim, and also knock down an impressive amount of long-range shots.
At just 20 years old, Jackson has already become one of the leagues most dangerous big men from behind the arc. He was hitting nearly 40 percent of his 3-pointers this year while attempting 6.3 per game. This isn’t just a guy spotting up from behind the arc for the occasional long ball, he’s a volume shooter from deep.
The problems arise come up because of the Spurs shallow depth up front, combined with the Grizzlies variety of big men, and magnified by Jackson’s versatility.
If the Grizzlies decide to play Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas together the Spurs are likely going to put one of Jakob Poeltl or Tyler Zeller on Valanciunas. And it’s unlikely that they’re going to play Poeltl and Zeller together, that would kill their ability to space the floor, so we can infer that one of Rudy Gay, Chimezie Metu, or possibly Luka Samanic would be guarding Jackson on the perimeter.
Now for the brilliant basketball analysis – none of those options favor the Spurs. Metu might have the speed and size to stay with Jackson but he’s also very inexperienced at the NBA level and Jackosn is significantly better than the competition he has been facing. Even with a small window, Jackson’s got the wingspan to simply fire over Gay from behind the arc. And if Rudy does close out hard, Jackson can easily put it on the floor and fly towards the rim.
If Jackson is playing as the Grizzlies center the Spurs will have to weigh letting Poeltl or Zeller stay with him out on the edge or give up their only solid rim protection and leave the cup wide open for Ja Morant to attack. We’ve got all the faith in the world in Murray and White’s ability to stay with Morant, but he’s still one of the most explosive players in the league and he’s going to find his way to the rim regardless of who is guarding him.
Next: The other part of The Process
Ben Simmons is a matchup nightmare for the San Antonio Spurs
Joel Embiid may have taken ‘The Process’ for his nickname but the other gem of Sam Hinkie’s tankapalooza might actually be more problematic for San Antonio. The Spurs really don’t have a great way to guard Ben Simmons.
Don’t get me wrong, Embiid is a problem. But he’s a problem that San Antonio can at least gameplan for better given how good of a defender Jakob Poeltl is. There aren’t any defenders in the league who can neutralize Embiid, but at least Poeltl will be able to hold his own against him. The Spurs don’t have anyone who can say the same for Simmons.
Simmons in transition is the Spurs nightmare. They have absolutely no answer for that. Frankly, no one in the league really has an answer for that.
Even in halfcourt situations the same problems that came up with Jaren Jackson Jr. come up when we’re talking about who guards Simmons. Even though he functioned as the 76ers point guard the Spurs will still have to put someone like Rudy Gay or Chimezie Metu on him. And he’s simply too fast and too powerful for either one of them to handle.
We’ve discussed the idea of Keldon Johnson spending some time at power forward but let’s briefly compare the physical measurements of the two. Simmons is a muscular 6’10 and 230 pounds, Johnson is 6’5 and weighs 211 pounds. You don’t have to be a brilliant basketball mind to see the issues there.
There has been some discussion around Simmons’s allegedly improved jumper but it’ll take more than a few videos of him knocking down open jumpers in an empty gym to convince me that it’s a real threat. Until he’s able to hit anything outside of 3 feet away from the rim the Spurs’ best chance is to sag off of him, cover open shooters, and let him clang shots off the rim.
How the heck are the Spurs supposed to guard Zion Williamson?
Water is wet, the Pope is Catholic, and the San Antonio Spurs have absolutely no one who can guard Zion Williamson. These are just facts.
Zion didn’t make his rookie debut until late January but when he did finally take the floor he made an impression quick. His debut game against the Spurs was one of the most exciting of the year, with Zion knocking down four 3-pointers and sending the Pelicans crowd into a frenzy. The Spurs would ultimately win that game, the only one the played against Zion, but that didn’t deter the dominant rookie from taking an Infinity Gauntlet of abilities to the rest of the league over the rest of the regular season.
After the nailbiter against San Antonio, Zion spent the remainder of his rookie year physically abusing every defender he came up against. Just watch this sequence against the Golden State Warriors.
Zion misses the free throw, grabs his own rebound, misses the layup, then rips the just rebounded ball right out of poor Damian Lee’s hands, and finishes through contact for the and-one. There just isn’t an answer for that kind of quick second jumping and strength.
Like Simmons, Zion is too strong and too fast for the Spurs defenders. Even when Jakob Poeltl was guarding him, Williamson frequently found ways to either elevate over him or explode past him on the way to the rim.
One possible answer could be for the Spurs to focus their energy on denying him the ball but if they try to deny the ball to him in the low post he can easily pivot and head straight up for an alley-oop from of one of the Pelicans skilled passers. Deny the alley-oop and you’re leaving a post-up opportunity on the table where he can either back you down or spin around you for an easy layup or dunk.
There is no easy answer for how to guard Zion. The Spurs should use their lone matchup with him and the Pelicans to try out new ways to slow him down and see what works. He’s going to be a problem for the league for a decade-plus, no one’s ever going to be able to neutralize him but maybe, just maybe, they can find ways to disrupt his game.
There are plenty of other players that the San Antonio Spurs will run into over their final eight games that will be tough to guard but these three stand out as the biggest matchup problems of them all.