For the San Antonio Spurs to set a new record for consecutive playoff appearances, they’ll need to find the right balance of minutes for their young backcourt.
The San Antonio Spurs are on perhaps the longest run of sustained success in the history of the NBA. San Antonio has made the postseason every single year since 1998, advancing past the first round in all but six of those 22 seasons and winning five NBA championships along the way.
The Spurs were of course driven to much of that success by the combination first of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, then of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and finally, Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Last season was the first since 1989 that the Spurs played without any of those five players, and it’s not necessarily a coincidence that it was only the fifth time during those 30 seasons that they failed to win at least 50 games (or the lockout-shortened season equivalent), and also just the second where they finished the year with a below-average defense.
The Western Conference heading into the 2019-20 season appears to be as deep as it has been in recent memory, and if the Spurs aren’t able to actually improve from where they were last season, they might be in danger of missing out on a playoff run for the first time in more than two decades. Luckily for their sake, they’re returning this season with only two of 10 players who played at least 500 minutes on last season’s team absent from the roster (Davis Bertans and Dante Cunningham), while they have added four potentially useful players in free agent forwards DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles, returning-from-injury point guard Dejounte Murray, and now-healthy sophomore wing Lonnie Walker IV.
Carroll and Murray, in particular, should be able to help the Spurs shore up some of the defensive issues they experienced last season. Carroll has long been one of the more solid 3-and-D players in basketball, and his ability in recent seasons to shift up a slot to the 4 should benefit the Spurs by enabling them to turn even more often toward the kind of flexible, small-ball lineups they rarely used prior to the last few seasons but have proven valuable with Rudy Gay in the fold. And when we last saw him on the floor, Murray was arguably the best defensive point guard in the league, despite being in only his second NBA season at the time. (He finished that season with the league’s best Defensive Real Plus-Minus among point guards, with his 3.60 mark checking in 50 percent better than that of the next-closest player.)
In Murray’s absence last season, second-year point guard Derrick White slid into the role and showed that he too is a high-level defender, and one who actually has a bit more to offer offensively than Murray does, due to his ability to actually threaten the defense from outside the paint. The young guard duo makes for an intriguing potential pairing for Gregg Popovich, as he can have them share ball-handling duties while also giving the Spurs plus defenders at both backcourt slots — a rarity in the modern NBA. But just as two plus defenders in the backcourt is a rarity in the modern NBA, so too would be using two guards who have below-average usage rates and profile as below-average (or worse) perimeter shooters.
For that reason, it seems likely that Popovich will still want to find time for Walker —‚who is the best shooter among the team’s trio of young guards and looked so spectacular in NBA Summer League that the Spurs actually shut him down early — as well as holdovers Patty Mills (39.3 percent from 3 in eight seasons with San Antonio), Bryn Forbes (41.3 percent on 643 attempts over the past two seasons) and Marco Belinelli (37.6 percent for his career). You have to provide at least some sort of space in which LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan can operate, and with Bertans no longer in town, the Spurs are going to have to get it from their backcourt.
That’s where they may run into a bit of an issue. Murray and White seem like their backcourt of the future, with Walker potentially joining them on the wing if he proves he can handle defending larger players. But DeRozan is currently the team’s co-lead scoring option, and he’s going to soak up a lot of minutes on the wing. That means they need to get some of the shooters on the floor; and that means finding minutes for Mills, Forbes and Belinelli, who have more of a track record in that area (and, presumably, more of Popovich’s trust) than Walker. There just, well, might not be a way to get all of these guys the playing time they deserve.
Consider: White, DeRozan, Mills, Forbes, and Belinelli accounted for 87.4 percent of all perimeter minutes played by Spurs players last season. Walker was injured for much of the year and played just 118 minutes, while Murray missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Even if Murray plays just the 1,743 minutes he soaked up two years ago, there are already more than 1,000 minutes that need to be cut from the other five players. And that’s before accounting for any increase in playing time Walker might earn, as well as the fact that both Murray and White will be in the rotation from the jump this season, rather than taking some time to work their way into the lineup.
In all likelihood, there are simply not enough minutes to go around for all seven of these guys. Even in a scenario where they do find a way to make sure they all play and contribute, there are still likely going to be a handful of minutes where Popovich uses Gay or Carroll at the small forward position when he’s got two bigs on the floor. This is one of those things that you’d call a good problem to have, but it’s certainly something to watch out for as the Spurs attempt to shape the rotation that will bring them to the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year.