Short-handed Spurs offense to face temporary tweaks

San Antonio Spurs Trey Lyles LaMarcus Aldridge (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs Trey Lyles LaMarcus Aldridge (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /
San Antonio Spurs Trey Lyles LaMarcus Aldridge (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs Trey Lyles LaMarcus Aldridge (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

Legendary coach Gregg Popovich is renowned for evolving the offensive systems the San Antonio Spurs have used throughout the years. Considering the recent Spurs interlude, he may need to surprise us once more, even if only temporarily.

Having faced a tumultuous week that saw them postpone five games due to players being exposed to COVID-19, the Spurs are finally back in the fold. The Silver and Black, who opened the Rodeo Road Trip with a clean slate following impressive wins in Atlanta and Charlotte, heads to Oklahoma City in hopes to continue piling up wins and boost their standing in the Western Conference.

However, despite a pleasant run that includes five wins in their last six games, the Spurs face a tough challenge. With six players held out in the upcoming contest, San Antonio will be short-handed and lose a giant chunk of their offense.

The five players out due to COVID protocols (Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Rudy Gay, Devin Vassell, and Quinndary Weatherspoon) and DeMar DeRozan (out due to the passing away of his father) average a combined 63.6 points per game. Replacing that is a gargantuan task, especially for the Spurs, who only rank 21st in offensive rating. So how they can adjust on the fly?

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Gregg Popovich (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
Gregg Popovich (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images) /

Adapting the San Antonio Spurs’ offense

The Spurs coaching staff will be forced to install new facets in their offense to acclimate to the missing production. Not only that, but the changes may come completely left of center from the small-ball approach that has propelled the team so far toward success.

Playing at the ninth-fastest pace, San Antonio cannot be counted on to play as fast in the next string of games. Without White, Johnson, and DeRozan, three of the team’s fast break catalysts, scoring opportunities in the open court will be sparse. While DeJounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, Patty Mills and Tre Jones will help accelerate the pace of the attack, their sudden abundance of frontcourt options may shift the offense to be more dependent on the halfcourt game.

With LaMarcus Aldridge on track to return, Jakob Poeltl, Trey Lyles, Drew Eubanks, and Keita Bates-Diop available, as well as Luka Samanic recalled from Austin, the Spurs abruptly possess more frontcourt firepower.

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Playing big is not peculiar for Pop, who started Aldridge and Trey Lyles last season and Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl in 2019 to man the middle. However, the combination of traditional bigs has not been good for the Spurs brass.

While the LaMarcus-Jakob duo started in their last playoff series two years ago, it was very dependent on Aldridge’s creation and then-mobility, which netted him an All-Star berth. This season, that clearly cannot be a blueprint for success because of his drastic drop-off in production.

Aldridge, who is having his worst scoring season since his rookie season at 14.2 points per outing on middling efficiency, will almost surely double his shot attempts. This season, he takes only 12.5 field goal and 1.2 free throw attempts per outing, well below his career norms of 16 and 4.3, respectively.

However, with DeRozan and White out, LaMarcus may find himself on the block more. In DeMar and Derrick’s shared absences this season (at MIN and at OKC), Aldridge averaged 18.5 field goals attempted. Alas, only seven of his 37 attempts in those outings came from downtown.

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San Antonio Spurs Dejounte Murray (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs Dejounte Murray (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

Where will the San Antonio Spurs generate offense?

Another pattern that can be traced from past games is the starting lineup indication. Lyles clinched the void left by DeRozan in those contests, with Pop seemingly depending on the continuity provided by Lyles as a starter last season. The result in those contests was not good, as he recorded both negative spreads to a combined -14 rating (Pop is not a believer in plus/minus, but still).

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In that case, Popovich and company may have to dig deeper to find solutions. Mills, Murray, and Walker will eclipse their season norms in minutes, and Jones has been a tremendous playmaker for Austin as he averages 9.7 dimes per game in the “Gubble”, so his playing time will surely come.

However, those are players who cannot play sustainable minutes at the three. Sans DeRozan, Johnson, Gay, and Vassell, who have manned the three and small-ball four by committee this season, who can the Spurs rely on to hang with potent wing scorers?

Murray is the obvious choice, but he is only one player. Bates-Diop may find himself installed in that compromised tweener role. At 6-8, he possesses great size to slow down scoring forwards, even in short spurts.

Also, it might be tempting, but Luka Samanic, with due respect to his G League showings, is not a viable solution as a wing player.

However, he can certainly relieve Lyles if the latter starts in order to preserve spacing for the team’s remaining attackers. Eubanks offers near-zero value outside the paint and Poeltl is not exactly a savant on offense.

Going back to Tre Jones, the possibility of him starting seems substantial as Pop prefers to keep Mills in his gunner role off the bench and stabilize the depleted second unit. That being said, Jones is not a 3-point shooter and Murray prefers to operate in the mid-range and the paint, furthering the need for a stretch big in the starting lineup.

Spurs counting on Tre Jones against OKC. Related Story

It may be challenging for the next string of games, but it is also quite exciting to see how the coaching staff reconfigures lineups and offensive styles to ensure competitiveness amidst the absence of key players. Until then, we may see vintage Pop in his unconventional way of employing funky lineups.

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This is the man who once played Tim Duncan at the three in 1998. Something as crazier, if not moreso, may be in the cards.