The San Antonio Spurs are talented enough to compete for a playoff spot, and deep enough to endure the wear-and-tear of a full 82-game season. Gregg Popovich remains one of the very best coaches in the NBA. Their bench is packed with veterans who are superb in their roles like Patty Mills and Rudy Gay. But right now, it’s San Antonio’s stars who are dragging them down.
If the season were to end today, the Spurs would be in the lottery. They sit No. 9 in the West at 5-6, and they might be even worse than their record shows. Two of their wins (against the Wizards and Blazers) came by just one possession. On the year, their net rating is -1.8, only 11th-best in the West and worse than the Magic, Cavaliers and Thunder.
The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is up for grabs with the Warriors plummeting due to injury and the Trail Blazers struggling to win despite Damian Lillard’s MVP numbers. But Spurs fans should be worried. The team opted to compete instead of rebuild when they traded Kawhi Leonard, and it isn’t working.
What’s wrong with the Spurs?
At the heart of the issue is the team’s supposed best players. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan have superstar pedigrees, but neither has played up to them this season. It’s the same issue that plagued San Antonio last season into just the No. 7 seed and a knockout during the first round of the playoffs.
On the surface, it looks like the pair are producing. DeRozan and Aldridge both post good raw numbers. DeRozan is averaging a team-high 20 points per game on 51 percent shooting with five assists, and Aldridge is posting 18 points and six rebounds on 52 percent shooting. But they haven’t resulted in winning basketball.
The Spurs are losing by a wide margin when either of these guys play. When Aldridge is on the floor, the Spurs are outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions and when DeRozan plays, they’re outscored by nine points per 100 possessions.
Broken down even further, it’s their play on the defensive end that’s hurt more than the offense. The Spurs are about even scoring the ball when DeRozan plays or sits — which is still a problem for someone paid to be a superstar — and the Spurs are scoring 3.9 fewer points per 100 with Aldridge playing. But on the defensive end, it gets so much worse. Opponents are scoring seven points per 100 possessions more with Aldridge in action, and nine points per 100 possessions more when DeRozan plays.
There’d be less reason to panic if this was merely happening in the opening month of the season. But this is a problem that stretches back to last season, too. The Spurs were 0.8 points per 100 possessions worse when Aldridge played last year, and 4.4 points per 100 worse with DeRozan.
This tandem isn’t working.
Can the Spurs fix this?
The Spurs still might make the playoffs because they have an excellent head coach. But Popovich will have to make tough decisions along the way.
San Antonio has a very strong bench that needs to play more frequently. The team’s second-most used lineup includes Derrick White, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl. In a 49-minute sample size, they run a quicker-paced offense by more than seven possessions than the starters, and share the ball better, with a 67 percent assist percentage. It makes sense given this unit’s ability to stretch the floor better than one with two stars who can’t shoot well from range. Poeltl and Gay are also much stronger defensive options that Aldridge and DeRozan.
This bench group outscores opponents by 0.8 points per 100 possessions, while the starters (Aldridge, DeRozan, Trey Lyles, Dejounte Murray and Brynn Forbes) have instead been outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions in a 120-minute sample size. They’re the only five-man group in the NBA to play more than 100 minutes together yet hold a negative net rating.
Pop is going to have to get creative with his lineups, because this starting unit isn’t working. DeRozan and Aldridge aren’t playing well together, and even last year, the two only hardly posted a positive net rating when they both shared the floor (0.5 points per 100 possessions.) The short-term answer probably involves staggering their minutes with Gay and Poeltl’s.
What about trades?
No matter how Pop plays with this lineup, the Spurs aren’t a championship contender. This group is going to compete for a playoff spot, but it’d probably be shocking for them to win a series against the top-heavy West, and that’s not what the Spurs are used to.
The solution is easier said than done, but for San Antonio to remain a serious competitor, they should deal either DeRozan or Aldridge. This is the hole San Antonio dug itself after dealing Leonard for much less than his worth.
Kevin Love’s name is sure to float around the trade deadline, and Cleveland could sell despite a surprising start. Maybe a deal involving Aldridge and a player like Lonnie Walker or Keldon Johnson along with picks would be enticing. San Antonio could also look to sell off their stars for future assets. Aldridge and DeRozan are each only locked up through next year (with DeRozan holding a player option for the 2020-21 season he’ll likely exercise).
There is no simple out for the San Antonio Spurs. But with Aldridge at 34 years old and DeRozan at 30, the product you’re seeing is unlikely to get a whole lot better. Losing debatably the best player in the world is just so hard to bounce back from.