Same old Spurs proved to be a good thing on opening night against the rebuilt and reloaded Wolves.
The NBA got into full swing Wednesday night as 22 teams were in action. The Spurs and Wolves squared off in the second half of an ESPN doubleheader, and though it’s too early in the season to glean anything conclusive about either team, it’s fun to see how teams measure up in the first games of the year.
Here are three takeaways from San Antonio’s 107-99 win over Minnesota.
The Wolves must balance their stars
The fit of Jimmy Butler, Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins is not particularly clean at the moment. Though Butler and Towns are top-20 players and Wiggins is a talented scorer, the three still need to jell together. Minnesota’s offense had a my-turn, your-turn feel, and featured players standing around when others had the ball.
Wiggins scored 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-6 on three-pointers. With Minnesota’s other two stars accounting for so much of the team’s offense, Wiggins will have to learn to be effective in other ways. With his pogo-stick athleticism and desire to attack the rim, Wiggins can become a more effective cutter, slicing to the rim when defenses get a little too worried about Butler and Towns. He shot confidently on catch-and-shoots Wednesday night, and if he can provide above-average shooting and spacing around Butler and Towns, the Wolves’ offense fundamentally changes.
Towns is already one of the most versatile offensive players in the league. He didn’t look to stretch his range against the Spurs, taking just one 3-pointer, but he has that kind of range. It feels safe to assume Towns will take another offensive leap this year. Most of his question marks lie on the defensive end, where he remains unreliable. He takes unnecessary gambles and lunges on the perimeter and provides little rim protection. Most of his rotations Wednesday night were late, and he brings neither the instincts nor the effort to anchor an above-average defense (right now). Tom Thibodeau should help remedy that, as should Butler, but Towns will need to come into his own on that end of the floor to justify the long-term expectations for himself and his team.
Butler is the team’s best player, and his game will likely change the least despite being the newest player on the team. He was quiet Wednesday night, scoring 12 points on 12 shots to go along with four rebounds and three assists. His integration into the offense will pose challenges for Towns and Wiggins, but will have to alter his game to accommodate them as well.
Rudy Gay, healthy again
Not historically thought of as a Spursy player, Gay signed a two-year, $17 million deal this summer. Gay scored 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting, including a few strong dunks in transition, and showed no physical limitations coming off of a torn Achilles. He showed a fairly firm grasp on San Antonio’s offensive and defensive schemes and earned minutes down the stretch as part of the Spurs’ crunch-time five.
Gay’s production off the bench will be vital for the Spurs, especially with Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely. San Antonio doesn’t have a ton of individual shot creation outside of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and Gay should pose problems for wing defenders on second units. Gay offers some theoretical lineup flexibility for Gregg Popovich, who will have to unearth viable small-ball looks to match up with the rest of the West’s best teams.
Gay can play the four next to Leonard, and though he’ll be overmatched defensively against some teams’ closing lineups, his athleticism and floor spacing will be valuable alongside Leonard and Aldridge. He won’t generate as much offense himself once Leonard comes back, but until then, the Spurs will need him to soak up some of that scoring production. After that, look for him to remain a crucial part of San Antonio’s rotation.
New year, same Spurs
One of the strongest rebuttals against Leonard’s MVP case a season ago was the Spurs’ excellent production and efficiency when he was off the floor. Wednesday night, we saw why that’s the case every year for the Spurs.
San Antonio does not beat itself. The Spurs do not have lapses or miscommunications. They defend their home court and they generally out-execute teams that aren’t as good as they are. Their ability to do this consistently for two decades is what makes them arguably the greatest dynasty in NBA history.
They’ll need Leonard, obviously, to seriously challenge for the Western Conference championship. He’s one of the four best players in the NBA and maybe the only Spur who can hang with the Warriors on both ends of the floor.
But no one knows when he’ll be back, and the Spurs shouldn’t — and won’t — rush him. Until he returns, the Spurs machine keeps chugging along.