The San Antonio Spurs were the 12th seed (27-36 slate) in the Western Conference standings when the regular season of the National Basketball Association (NBA) was postponed due the COVID-19 pandemic. It seemed like they were set to miss out on the Playoffs for the first time since the 1996-1997 season, but suddenly, they were given a little bit of hope when the NBA decided to include them in the restart for the seeding games.
There will be a play-in between the 8th and 9th seeds if they are four games apart, with the higher seed getting a twice-to-beat advantage. This is where the Spurs and the pack-chasing Portland Trailblazers (29-37), New Orleans Pelicans (28-36), Sacramento Kings (28-36), Phoenix Suns (26-39) come in.
The 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies were at 32-33 before the restart, but are now in danger of losing their spot. As of this writing, the Pelicans and the Kings have bowed out of contention. Both teams have struggled to pick up wins in the restart as they lagged behind the other three teams in the race.
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and the rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony were expected to lead the Trailblazers to at least a play-in scenario when play resumed and they have not disappointed. Meanwhile, the Spurs and the waxing hot Suns are looking like two different teams during the restart in Orlando, Florida.
The Spurs entered the bubble without three of their starters (Bryn Forbes, Trey Lyles, and LaMarcus Aldridge), but have coped very well as they are within striking distance of pulling-off a play-in scenario.
Sneaking into the Playoffs and extending their postseason streak to an NBA record 23 consecutive seasons is surely an outstanding accomplishment for this Spurs group given the difficult circumstances, but this might be secondary to long time head coach Gregg Popovich and the entire organization.
The future is now
Due to the injury bug, Popovich has been forced to put veteran DeMar DeRozan, a natural 6’6 shooting guard, to the power forward position as a replacement for Lyles. This specific move by Popovich has indicated that he is embracing the small ball approach – which perfectly suits his young core – and at the same time, tinker with a new rotation.
Promising combo guards Dejounte Murray and Derrick White have played sparingly together before the restart, but with 27-year-old Forbes out due to a quad problem, the pair have seen their minutes played together increase.
White has slotted in seamlessly alongside Murray in the starting backcourt as he has provided a lot of positives for the team. The contributions of the former 2017 first-round pick on the defensive end has been superb as he is able to guard and switch assignments from the 1-spot to the 4-spot.
Meanwhile, on the offensive end, he is able to assist in the ball-handling and playmaking duties of Murray and DeRozan. White can set-up plays for his teammates and also create shots for himself.
But the most eye-catching aspect of White’s game in the bubble has been his three-point shooting. White was shooting 35% from the three-point territory, an acceptable percentage for a player that really doesn’t rely heavily on long-range shots.
Now in the restart, White is shooting 43.75% beyond the arc while attempting 3.5 three-point shots per game. That’s a better shooting percentage than their designated knock-down shooter Forbes (38.8%). Basically, he has replaced and surpassed Forbes’ shooting production and added a much well-rounded game to the players in the starting line-up.
Another promising guard that has shown up in the bubble is Walker, who was inserted into the starting line-up to take up the small forward position. The 6’5 sophomore was knocking on the Popovich’s door all season long for more minutes and he has certainly delivered in the restart.
Not counting his flat showing against the Philadelphia 76ers, Walker has been producing the goods on the offensive end. His 11.6 points per game may not be as high compared to the others, but he has been a great initiator as well.
The third player replacing an injured starter (Aldridge) may not be as flashy as the other two, but he has been a reliable presence under the post. Jakob Poeltl has shown glimpses of what he can do with more minutes and has held his ground despite being the only traditional big man in their line-up.
With White, Walker, and Poeltl now in the starting five, all of a sudden, bench minutes have opened up. Veteran back-up point guard Patty Mills has taken a back-seat during the restart as Popovich has opted to only play him in three out of the six games so far. The bulk of his minutes are now being divided between two rookies in Keldon Johnson (29th overall pick) and Quinndary Weatherspoon (49th overall pick).
Both rookies have spent most of their time with the Austin Spurs, the G-League affiliate team of the franchise, this season and have only received meaningful minutes in the bubble. The latter is a combo guard whose game revolves around scoring buckets, while the former has two-way potential at the small forward spot.
Weatherspoon feels like another solid second-round steal for the Spurs, but it’s Johnson who has impressed more so far. The 20-year-old rookie is fearless on the offensive end, while his hustle and grit on the defensive end will definitely earn him rotation minutes next season. His outside shot needs work though, but with Filipino-American assistant coach Chip Engelland still with the team, he’ll most likely develop that sooner rather than later.
Last but not the least, is the Spurs’ second-year two-way player Drew Eubanks. He went undrafted back in the 2018 NBA Draft, but has found a home in San Antonio. Ever since last year, he has been switching between NBA and G-League in his duties, but has yet to receive significant rotation minutes under Popovich.
Now with Poeltl joining the starters, he has rightly earned his place as the team’s back-up center due to his energy on both ends of the floor and his rebounding ability. Despite having a two-way contract, he has moved ahead of 2018 first-round pick Chimezie Metu and newly signed veteran Tyler Zeller in the pecking order, which says a lot about his work rate and game.
Regardless if they reach the Playoffs this campaign, the Spurs can use their performance in the bubble as a springboard towards their future. By putting DeRozan at the power forward spot, it allowed Popovich to unleash Murray, White, and Walker in the same line-up without benching their best closer. This has unlocked several possibilities for the team which might affect their free agency plans.
Sharpshooters Marco Bellineli and Forbes will be unrestricted free agents once the team’s journey in the bubble ends. With an abundance of guards and wing players, the Spurs may opt to let the pair go. The former sadly doesn’t fit the team’s timeline, while the latter might finally receive his biggest payday due to his spacing ability.
Poeltl, Eubanks, and Weatherspoon, on the other hand, will be restricted free agents. Eubanks and Weatherspoon might stick around if offered the right contract, but it will be a challenge for the Spurs to keep Poeltl if he accepts a massive offer from another team. Though, a qualifying offer of about $5M from the Spurs might be the best for both parties if Poeltl lacks enough suitors.
Metu will have a team option, but the biggest piece of the Spurs’ offseason will be on DeRozan’s decision on his player option. He may choose to opt-in (over $27M) and play one more season in San Antonio or decline it and hunt for one last big long term contract.
Then again, if DeRozan picks up his player option, his name on the rumor mill might resurface yet again if the organization decides to fully commit to the youth movement for the 2020-2021 season.
Murray, White, Walker, Johnson, Poeltl, Eubanks, and Weatherspoon looks like a nice young core going forward so don’t be surprised if the Spurs jettison their veterans (Aldridge, Mills, and Rudy Gay will all be contract expirees once the new season begins) for players who will fit their new timeline and help them rebuild on the fly.