The San Antonio Spurs will look new and improved on defense
While the loss of Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, and DeMar DeRozan will hurt the team immensely from a scoring perspective, the team will also be upgrading significantly from what they had on the floor.
In the case of DeMar DeRozan and Patty Mills, the Spurs are gaining significant defensive switch-ability and flat-out defensive upside with the loss of both players. In DeRozan’s case, you’re subtracting one of the worst statistical defenders in all of basketball, posting a defensive RAPTOR of -2.9, with an asset like Devin Vassell, Thaddeus Young, or Al-Farouq Aminu taking DeRozan's usual matchup on that end while performing at a higher clip.
In the case of Patty Mills, you’re subtracting one of the worst pick and roll and spot-up defenders in the league. At a near 65-percent frequency rate combined in both defensive scenarios, Mills ranked in the 18th percentile when defending the pick and roll ball handler while placing in the 32nd percentile when his matchup spotted up.
Moving forward, Mills' absence will give players like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker, and others the opportunity to see more time on the floor and match up with opposing backcourts, which will be a win for San Antonio on that end of the floor.
Rudy Gay also placed poorly as a spot-up defender, finding himself in the 48th percentile. That mediocre statistic comes after one of his better defensive seasons in his career, with some defensive statistics landing in his favor. But to the eye, his defensive inefficiencies were evident and hurt the Spurs throughout the course of the season, both on and off the ball.
Having the likes of Keldon Johnson, Luka Samanic, Young, and Aminu take on matchups that would normally be delegated to Gay will elevate the team's defense going forward, providing more versatility, higher lateral quickness, and footspeed.
With the subtractions of San Antonio’s veterans, they can trot out lineups that better fit the modern style of defense going forward. There are plenty of patterns for success when it comes to the Spurs and their defensive upside, especially in lineups that we’ve seen before.
For example, this past season, the San Antonio Spurs occasionally played a lineup of Rudy Gay, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson, and Derrick White. Though this lineup didn’t see much playing time, the Spurs boasted a defensive rating of 96.9 when this unit saw the floor.
In another case, the Spurs ran Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Jakob Poeltl, and Lonnie Walker. In this set, the Spurs posted a defensive rating of 97.1. Again, while this lineup didn’t see a ton of in-game action, the evidence is clear that it worked well more often than not.
Essentially, replacing veterans that were a net negative on defense with younger players that are net positives on defense will help to build a foundation of success. Furthermore, it will make scoring on the other end of the floor far easier. Whether those buckets come from quicker play in transition, off of turnovers, or by simply holding their opponents to low-scoring games, their philosophy this season will come from the same principle. Defend at a high level and live with the results offensively.
This philosophy has worked for teams like last season's New York Knicks, who made the playoffs for the first time in several seasons. While the Knicks were a top-five team defensively, they posted the 22nd best offensive rating last year. A similar philosophy must and likely will be adopted this year for the Spurs, as they will keep games in front of them due to their high level of defensive upside.
This, alone, should be good enough to keep the Spurs out of the bottom-five teams in the NBA. Their talent combined with their versatility and youth will give them a consistent effort night in and night out.