San Antonio Spurs: Checking in on 3 expectations versus reality
After 11 games, we can finally address an important question about the San Antonio Spurs: How are they meeting our expectations of them so far?
While it’s early and we’re still only 15 percent through the 72-game slate, there’s enough early information to check in on some offseason expectations of the San Antonio Spurs. Now sitting at 6-5 after 11 games, let’s examine some ways they’ve met, exceeded, or failed to meet expectations.
Expectation No. 1: The Spurs will be an above-average, slightly above the middle of the pack team.
Reality: Yes, but with a major caveat
The Spurs are currently 6-5, placing them eighth in the Western Conference, as close to “slightly above the middle of the pack” as possible. But in the NBA, momentum is everything, and the Spurs are undoubtedly trending upwards by playing their best basketball of the young season.
San Antonio’s 125-122 overtime thriller over the Timberwolves gave the Spurs their first three-game win streak of the year after starting the season 2-4. Moreover, these were three quality wins, as they took down both L.A. powerhouses, first with a 106-103 win over the Clippers, followed by a 118-109 victory before the Minnesota win, a game where the Spurs remained poised until the end and hit clutch shot after clutch shot.
This is not to say the Spurs are already dark horse title contenders. The teams they played also were not playing their best basketball and were sporting stars still recovering from injuries or missing key players altogether. Still, this promising upswing has shown the ball movement, shooting, competitiveness, and poise are there for the Spurs to make a splash this postseason.
Next: Expectation No. 2
Expectation No. 2: DeRozan and/or Aldridge are on their way out
Reality: Still possible, but far, far less likely
This expectation was never a question of whether DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge could still contribute meaningful minutes or even star on an NBA team, but it was a question of team fit and ceiling. According to Basketball-Reference, the Spurs are projected to have a roster age of 26.9 years by February 1st this year, which is the 12th-oldest in the league.
This number is not necessarily alarming, but it does indicate that the 31-year-old DeRozan and 35-year-old Aldridge are on different career trajectories than the new wave of Spurs, who ideally would be growing together and garnering meaningful minutes in the process.
There were also well-documented floor spacing concerns last year, with many worried that a team sporting three starters operating from mid-range had a limited ceiling, especially offensively. At Pounding the Rock, Bruno Passos wrote about how DeRozan and Aldridge played average basketball over the past two years with the duo leading the team, obtaining a win percentage of slightly above 500.
This year, what we’ve been seeing is a completely different situation, starting with DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan has played arguably the best basketball of his career this year, averaging 21.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, and seven assists per game.
Perhaps more important than DeRozan’s continued growth as a playmaker is the fact that a career 28.4 percent 3-point shooter is shooting over 39 percent this year. This has dramatically changed how opposing defenses guard him and how much they can sag off on him to play help defense on his teammates.
This development makes it seem far less likely that DeMar will be moved. His continued growth also makes LaMarcus’s embrace of a smaller, more vocal leader-like role more likely, making it unlikely that moving him is a priority for the team.
Next: Expectation No. 3
Expectation No. 3: The San Antonio Spurs’ youth will be solid, if not major contributors
Reality: The Spurs’ young core has collectively exceeded expectations
Derrick White was supposed to be the star for the Spurs after anyone not named DeMar or LaMarcus this season. But in his absence, all of the other younger Spurs have stepped up.
Dejounte Murray‘s 16.2 points per game account for the second-most on the team after DeMar. While he has been excellent at the rim as expected, he has also showcased a growing off-the-dribble mid-range game and a serviceable-enough three-ball to the point that defenses need to account for him at all times.
All of that is aside from what Dejounte has been doing defensively. Playing ball-hawking defense, Murray is averaging 1.2 steals per game and only growing in his defensive presence.
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Lonnie Walker has been doing what has been expected from him: some good games, some struggles, but all the flashes of skill and athleticism we’ve come to expect from him.
Rookie Devin Vassell’s aggregate stats are not there and might not be there this year, but the three-and-D role the team was hoping he could play is something in which he’s excelled.
Vassell is shooting over 47 percent from beyond the arc and is routinely spending possessions guarding the opponents’ best perimeter players.
Despite his nasty habit of not realizing just how open he is sometimes rolling to the basket, Jakob Poeltl is still contributing.
Poeltl is averaging 6.1 rebounds in just 19.3 minutes a game and setting high-quality screens that are leaving shooters open frequently.
The biggest surprise thus far has to be Keldon Johnson. Johnson looks at ease starting in his second year, and while his averages of 13.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists have been impressive, it’s the intangibles that have stood out the most with him. The poise, efficiency, maturity, and energy he plays with is simply more than anyone expected from a 21-year-old.
It’s not often that Coach Pop calls a 21-year-old’s play “extraordinary,” but when he does, it’s normally warranted, and Johnson has certainly played up to the praise thus far.