The San Antonio Spurs are playing .500 basketball so far, but they may need to make some changes to earn a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference.
As usual, the Western Conference is as stacked as it’s ever been this season. Heading into Saturday’s slate of games, 10 teams are sitting at .500 or better compared to six in the Eastern Conference. The San Antonio Spurs have been predictably unpredictable so far, dropping games to the bottom-dwelling Minnesota Timberwolves and a severely undermanned Rockets squad while also being the first team this season to defeat both L.A. teams on one road trip.
To snatch a playoff spot, the Spurs will certainly need to create separation from the .500 mark at some point, as going 36-36 won’t be enough with so many contenders in the mix. Considering this is supposed to be somewhere between a rebuilding and transition year for the Silver and Black, is a postseason spot too ambitious?
Judging from the effort and promise San Antonio has shown so far, there’s no reason to believe they can’t finish between sixth and eighth in the West when all is said and done. They have an effective closer in DeMar DeRozan, a budding star in Keldon Johnson, a point guard coming into his own in Dejounte Murray, and a more-than-capable supporting cast.
Still, there’s plenty of room for improvement as the Spurs look to avoid more confounding losses in the shortened season. Here are three things I’d like to see Coach Popovich consider tinkering this year.
Next: No. 1
1. The San Antonio Spurs should find minutes for Tre Jones to showcase his defense
One thing that became wildly evident in San Antonio’s humiliating loss to the Rockets on Thursday was the defensive hole they have at the backup point guard position. Yes, FIBA Patty Mills has graced us with his presence more often than not this season, but there come times where his weakness defensively can be devastating.
After the Spurs built a nine-point lead with less than five minutes remaining against Houston, Mills remained to close the game, consistently being blown by or outmuscled by the likes of Sterling Brown and Jae-Sean Tate. For the most part, Patty has been able to make up for these issues with hot shooting this season.
Still, there come times Patty’s firepower isn’t worth being burned as often as he does by bigger, more powerful guards. Overall, the Spurs have enough offense to not require 27 minutes from Patty like they received Thursday.
Although he’s the same height as Mills at 6-1, Tre Jones has credentials to back up that he’d make more of an impact on defense. Jones was named to the ACC Al-Defensive Team in both of his seasons at Duke, earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2020.
Coach Popovich deserves a lot of credit for experimenting so far this season by inserting Keldon Johnson into the starting lineup while also giving rookie Devin Vassell 16.3 minutes per game. He may feel that the point guard position is too important to take a chance on yet another rookie, but I feel like a Krzyzewski-coached guy isn’t your ordinary rookie.
When the Spurs need to preserve a lead or are getting killed by a particular guard, Jones could be an answer.
Next: No. 2
2. The San Antonio Spurs should run a defensive death lineup for stretches
In a semi-rebuilding year, there’s no better time to begin looking at different combinations on the court. Normally, playing a five-man lineup of pure defensive specialists would be a nightmare on the offensive end, but San Antonio has enough two-way players to make such a lineup work.
This one seems unlikely for Coach Popovich to try, but if the Spurs really want to get crazy with their defense, they should roll with this small-ball lineup for some stretches:
PG – Dejounte Murray SF – Derrick White SG – Lonnie Walker PF – Devin Vassell C – Keldon Johnson
At first glance, the lack of size in this lineup should be worrisome, but it’s not like these guys are slouches on the glass. Keldon Johnson is a beast on the boards, averaging a team-high 7.3 rebounds per game while Dejounte Murray is right behind him with 7.1 per. Derrick White was also grabbing 4.3 of his own in the Orlando restart last season.
The Spurs will also be giving a few inches up at the center and power forward positions, but that’s where doubling and quick feet can come into play. This lineup could switch at all positions while always having the option to speed back to the other end for transition buckets.
When White makes his return to the court, I’d love to see how these guys play together all at once.
Next: No. 3
3. The San Antonio Spurs should give Devin Vassell a chance to be clutch
Are you sensing a theme here? Although the coaching staff has given the youth movement plenty of work this season, I think they could go even further. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Devin Vassell just knows how to play basketball. Even more than that, he knows how to play winning basketball.
Vassell isn’t going to light up the scoreboard, but he makes several impactful plays per game that you might not notice if you’re not paying attention. After San Antonio’s recent loss to Houston, Gregg Popovich had glowing remarks for Devin’s game, explaining how he always seems to know what to do on the basketball court. Vassell finished the night with 12 points, three boards, and three steals.
Yes, he’s a rookie, but Vassell is already showing Ginobiliesque flashes of turning the tide of a game with off-the-ball plays. He’s learning more each day and seems to be doing so at a rapid pace. The time will come often that the Spurs need to cling to a lead in the waning minutes of a game, and Vassell is just the kind of guy that can help that happen over guys like Rudy Gay or Patty Mills.
Devin makes plays. Giving him a chance to seal games over veterans could go a long way toward his confidence as he grows into his own.