The San Antonio Spurs already look like a better team than they were last season, but they’ll need to make some changes to take that next step.
The start to the NBA season has been unusual, to say the least. For starters, numerous contenders have been blown out by 40-plus points while the Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns are a combined 8-2. For the San Antonio Spurs, who now stand at 2-2 after Wednesday’s loss to the Lakers, results have been a mixed bag.
The Spurs’ quick 2-0 start to the season was impressive given the fact they were short Derrick White and down late in game two against a tough Raptors squad. The biggest surprise of the season, Coach Popovich’s decision to start Keldon Johnson, has paid off well so far. Though he’s been frequently outmatched in size, Johnson is more than holding his own against guys like Pascal Siakam and Zion Williamson while still attacking relentlessly on the other end.
Matchups with the New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers humbled the upstart Spurs, who valiantly hung in there in both contests but couldn’t quite execute enough down the stretch. All in all, a .500 record is about what many expected San Antonio to be hovering around throughout the season after they didn’t make much noise in the offseason following a tough 2020.
Still, something in the energy the young guys are bringing to the court mixed with the fight we’ve seen in this team so far tells me things might be different in 2021. The Spurs could’ve easily been blown out in either of the last two games and probably would have last season. I just don’t see that quit in this year’s team.
San Antonio has a tough January ahead that could make or break our expectations for a possible return to the playoffs that includes two more matchups with the Lakers and games against the Clippers and Celtics. As the calendar flips to 2021, here are some ways the Spurs can improve their chances of treating the Alamo City to some postseason basketball this year.
Next: No. 1
1. Lock Keldon Johnson in the gym with Chip Engelland
The biggest revelation of the Orlando bubble last season was the emergence of Keldon Johnson. There had been flashes of what he could do in limited minutes before, but his all-around game was in full force.
Despite missing the preseason, Johnson was given the starting small forward spot from the jump this season, much to the delight of Spurs fans everywhere. I was fully on the hype train after seeing his stellar play on both ends of the court in the NBA restart, and it looks like Gregg Popovich felt the same way (as hyped as Coach Pop is capable of being, anyway.)
Derrick White and DeMar DeRozan were the only other major threats when it came to attacking the basket relentlessly last season. Lonnie Walker and Dejounte Murray certainly had their moments but weren’t as efficient at finishing as they needed to be.
Enter Keldon Johnson, whose tough finishes in traffic have become commonplace, even over guys like the 7-foot Jonas Valančiūnas.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/12/23/0022000017/55/4687708c-0930-41df-16e4-567ffa6bab4c_1280x720.mp4
Johnson has been superb at getting to the basket, but smart teams will undoubtedly adapt to his tendency to barrel into the paint — something the Lakers did well on Wednesday. By backing off and taking the charge or contesting heavily, Los Angeles held Keldon to 3-of-9 shooting on the night.
We know Johnson’s stroke is there, as he shot a staggering 64.7 percent from three in eight games in the bubble. Having him work closely with Chip Engelland wouldn’t be about correcting a hitch in his shot. But Chip has helped even all-time great shooters like Steve Kerr fine-tune their form.
Making sure Keldon has a reliable 3-point shot could bump his role on the team from important to vital. Given his ability to finish, having to guard him at the arc opens San Antonio’s already devastating offense even more.
Here, having a green light for Keldon would’ve resulted in a wide-open 3-point attempt instead of a nearly impossible shot over Anthony Davis.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/12/30/0022000060/339/5473c1f9-4ffc-35bf-54be-c48febef271d_1280x720.mp4
Unlock Keldon Johnson’s jump shot, and you just might see the Spurs continue to climb up the rankings of the league’s best offenses.
Next: No. 2
2. Reduce LaMarcus Aldridge’s role significantly
Gregg Popovich may be stubborn at times, but he’s been much more willing to make some necessary changes this season. Slow-it-down, grind-it-out offense is a thing of the past, and that affects the Spurs on both ends of the court.
The old-fashioned big is becoming rarer each season, with almost every guy at the five-spot now equally as able to bury the longball as they are to drive past you off the dribble. This transition has made LaMarcus Aldridge a liability defensively, particularly on the pick and roll.
Christian Wood, while extremely talented, shouldn’t be looking like a superstar time and time again as he did when matched up with LaMarcus in the preseason. That was only a sign of things to come, as Aldridge’s struggles continued mightily when guys like Ja Morant or Brandon Ingram got to the hoop.
While he still has plenty left in the tank offensively, his lack of sideways mobility is being exploited time and time again by just about everyone he matches up with. Jakob Poeltl, on the other hand, has turned into a reliable rim protector during his stint in San Antonio.
Should the Spurs bring LaMarcus off the bench? Probably, but Coach Popovich almost certainly would never do that. Nevertheless, his leash on Aldridge needs to be tighter when San Antonio is getting beaten to the cup repeatedly.
Next: No. 3
3. The San Antonio Spurs have terrific defenders — now use them
This one isn’t so much about a change needed as much as it is about assuring the Spurs don’t lose sight of their identity. With the three DE’s, Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, and Devin Vassell, San Antonio has a fine nucleus of young defenders to rely on when it comes to getting stops. Mix in Keldon Johnson and an ever-improving Lonnie Walker, and there’s no reason the Spurs can’t be a top 10 defense in the league.
With the exception of rookie Vassell, Popovich is already playing his best defenders heavy minutes, with Murray, Walker, and Johnson getting 29 minutes or more of action nightly. With White’s return Friday, I would expect that that affect Walker’s starting spot and overall minutes most of all, which will only boost San Antonio’s bench even more.
When it comes to the bigs on the team, Coach Pop also seems to be realizing Poeltl needs more time to make his defensive mark on games. Last season, Jakob averaged 15.4 minutes less than LaMarcus by a count of 33.1 to 17.7. So far this season, that disparity is just 4.7 (26.0 to 21.3).
The calling card of the Spurs in their prime was always their lockdown defense. While they no longer have Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen to lean on, their defensive personnel is the best it’s been in years. It’s time to use them.