The San Antonio Spurs can use the Conference Finals as a learning experience
For the first time in 22 years, San Antonio Spurs fans have had to watch the NBA playoffs without their team in it. It’s been a different experience for sure, but still an enjoyable one.
We’ve seen some amazing performances on both sides of the bracket. From late-game heroics by Luka Doncic to dueling young stars in Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, every playoff matchup has brought its own form of outstanding entertainment.
But the San Antonio Spurs shouldn’t be watching the Conference Finals simply for the entertainment value. They can also be taking something away from every team the league’s semi-final matchups.
The Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, and Denver Nuggets all found their way to the Conference Finals through different routes. Some lean on their defense, some will blow you out. Some built themselves into contenders through free agency and others preferred to develop their talent in house.
In any case, the Spurs can learn a lot from these four teams. Here’s what they can take away from each team in the Conference Finals.
Next: The Miami Heat
San Antonio Spurs don’t need a top-ten pick to reach the NBA Finals
As San Antonio Spurs fans, we take pride in the organization’s ability to draft and develop talent. The Spurs are damn good at making the most of their draft picks but the Miami Heat might be even better
The Heat are one win away from the NBA Finals and they’ve got there without leaning on a single top-ten pick. Jimmy Butler was the last pick in the first round, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo went in the late lottery, Goran Dragic was a second-round pick, and Duncan Robinson went undrafted. But here they are, giving the business to a team led by multiple top-five picks.
Credit to the Heat, they’ve taken two players in Adebayo and Herro who were locked into defined roles at Kentucky and helped them grow into great do it all players. They’ve unleashed Adebayo as a near-perfect version of the modern big man and put the ball in Herro’s hands more than John Calipari ever did.
The results have been outstanding. Adebayo has been rattling off 20 point 10 rebound games on a regular basis and Herro just cooked the Celtics, dropping 37 points on the way to a commanding Miami win.
The Spurs have been able to get the most out of their late first-round picks as well. Each of Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White all came with the 29th pick and look at the job the Spurs have done helping them grow into key players for the team. But now the stakes are a bit higher.
San Antonio isn’t picking near the back of the draft this year. No, they’re heading back to the lottery for the first time since 1997. In a draft class that’s perceived as lacking in star talent, the Spurs shouldn’t be afraid to take a chance on a player they’re high on. If they believe in their ability to develop players, and they definitely should, this is the time to take a risk and swing for the fences.
Next: The Denver Nuggets
The San Antonio Spurs need to find their next late-game closer
In a few years were going to look back on the 2020 postseason as the one that made Jamal Murray a household name. He was a star before, one of the best young guards in the league, but the run he’s been on in these playoffs has been something else.
Murray’s got two 50 point games and two forty pieces to his name so far. He joined Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Donovan Mitchell as the only players to have two 50 point games in the same series and was also the first player since Jordan to have three straight 40+ games in a series.
The man has been scorching hot. He’s officially in the Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson group of players that you simply cannot look away from when they’re heating up. They can go nuclear at any given moment and blow the doors off aDe lead or pull their team back from the jaws of defeat.
You don’t need a player capable of dropping multiple 50 point games in order to reach the Finals. Life’s a whole lot easier if you’ve got one of those rare stars on your roster, but it’s not a necessity. But you do need at least one player who you know can take over a game and lead your team to a clutch win. Right now that’s something the San Antonio Spurs are missing in their young core.
DeMar DeRozan has been the closer for the Spurs when they’ve needed him, but how much longer is that going to be the case? Someone from the young group needs to step up and emerge as the guy the team goes to when things get tough at the end of games.
Derrick White has looked like that player at times. The Spurs usually leaned on their veterans in clutch moments but when the did look to White the results were promising. He’s hit on 41 percent of his clutch field goal attempts over the past two seasons, on par with proven closers like Lillard and Devin Booker.
The next step is going to be for San Antonio to look to White near the end of games more often. He’s proven he’s capable of handling the moment but the offense doesn’t flow through him at the end of games as often as it should. The Spurs need to give him opportunities to prove that he’s the one who should lead them in the clutch or find another player who will.
Next: The Boston Celtics
The San Antonio Spurs could learn something from Boston about going small
Remember when an anonymous NBA scout said the Eastern Conference Finals would be heavily impacted by the Daniel Theis – Bam Adebayo matchup? This scout actually thought the matchup would be a wash, what a wild take.
No Bam’s been Bam, he’s been rampaging through the Celtics frontcourt just like he did to the Milwaukee Bucks and the Indiana Pacers before them. He’s just too good. The Celtics have had to respond by changing directions.
One of the best lineups that Boston has been able to put on the floor is the one featuring Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker. That’s a versatile but smaller group then they’ve used for much of the postseason. But they’re deadly, that lineup has hit on 62 percent of their shots from the field, 56 from behind the arc, and they’re outscoring their opponents by 7 points per 100 possessions.
They can switch everything, four out of the five are strong rebounders, and every one of them can hit open three’s and or set up one of the others. There are simply no bad options when they share the floor together. And not one of them is over 6’8″.
The Spurs could take a page out of the Celtics notebook and play smaller more often. They started to go in that direction in the bubble, DeMar was the team’s starting power forward, but carrying that style into next season should be a point of emphasis for San Antonio.
Bringing Luka Samanic in to play as a small-ball center in a lineup with Keldon Johnson, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker, and Dejounte Murray could be the Spurs version of what the Celtics are doing right now. It’s a lineup we’ve never seen before but playing those guys together could unlock some interesting possibilities down the road.
Next: Los Angeles Lakers
Depth is still going to be key to the San Antonio Spurs success
When the San Antonio Spurs were at their peak they were often able to win games but not falling behind while their stars were catching a breather. While other teams bench units would be content with not falling behind, the Spurs’ second unit regularly extended leads and put things away for the starters to finish off when they got back in.
In the Los Angeles Lakers, we’re seeing the opposite taking place. The Lakers are incredibly top-heavy and that’s not a bad thing by any means, I’m not trying to convince anyone that having Anthony Davis and LeBron James lead your team isn’t a winning strategy. But outside of those two, who on this Lakers team is remotely dangerous?
Kyle Kuzma gets his praise on Twitter but he’s been a complete dud from behind the arc and a revolving door on defense. The rest of the Lakers bench has been equally unimpressive. As a unit they’re giving away leads, losing by 1.3 points per 100 possessions.
Now, this isn’t a huge issue for the Lakers because they’ve got two top-five players, both of whom are capable of playing heavy minutes every night, leading their team. But it does reinforce the importance of having quality players on your bench.
For years the Spurs bench was regularly appearing in the top-four most deadly units in the league but they fell off a bit this year, finishing 8th in overall plus/minus. Someone on this team is going to have to step up and lead the second unit.
That was Derrick White’s role this year but he looks destined for a starting spot after his strong play in Orlando. Could it be Lonnie Walker’s turn to lead the bench mob? Keldon has made his case for a starting spot with DeMar, Derrick, and Dejounte, and Lonnie could thrive as the leader of the second unit.
The Spurs do need to find their next alpha dog, but they can’t ignore their second unit either. They were able to hang banners by leaning on their bench more often than other teams did, that’s a strategy that could lead them back to the playoffs if they play their cards right.
The Conference Finals have been incredible to watch but they can be more than just entertainment. If the Spurs come away from these games with a few ideas to improve their team than maybe missing the playoffs for one year isn’t so bad after all.