In a season of uncertainty, the San Antonio Spurs have been fortunate enough to be relatively healthy this season. Through 22 games, they’ve had a total of seven different starters. For comparison, the Washington Wizards have had 12.
Unfortunately, it’s become clear that the usual starters aren’t performing to their expected standards. The Spurs have routinely been digging themselves into holes early only to have to rely on their strong bench to bring the team back.
The Spurs’ starting lineup for most of the season has consisted of DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker, and LaMarcus Aldridge. While a fine lineup, this fivesome is struggling against other starters on a regular basis dramatically.
From the data, it’s obvious where the problem in this lineup lies: defense. While they’re scoring slightly more than the team’s average, their defense as a unit has been painfully ineffective.
The starting five is giving up 14 more points per 100 possessions than the team as a whole, leading to a brutal net rating of -12.5 per game. This lineup has been used for 219 total minutes, which has led to several seesaw battles with teams the Spurs should’ve put away much earlier.
The lineup Coach Popovich has used most often outside of the starters (82 total minutes) has been Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, and Devin Vassell. Their 108.9 offensive rating combined with their insane 80.0 defensive rating currently has them at a net rating of 28.9.
Given that four of the players in this lineup are bench guys, it’s important to note this lineup has likely been mostly playing against other benches, meaning there’s usually a talent dropoff. Still, the difference in efficiency is staggering. So what can be done about this?
The San Antonio Spurs should make these two changes
In the two games DeMar DeRozan missed, Walker thrived with his increased opportunities on offense. Against Minnesota and Oklahoma City, Walker averaged 24.5 points and 3.0 rebounds on 42.9 percent shooting from three. Both were far and away his best two games of the season.
Walker has a tendency to be too unselfish when there are several other offensive threats on the court with him, so a move to the bench would give him more chances to be aggressive.
Derrick White re-joining the starting unit doesn’t warrant much explanation. He’s the team’s best two-way player and his return to being a starter is likely inevitable once the coaching staff is convinced he’s 100%.
Given that he recently said he’s still feeling good and hasn’t had any setbacks, that time should be now.
The less likely but perhaps more important change to the starters the team should look at is relegating LaMarcus Aldridge to the bench.
Aldridge has had it rolling several times offensively this season, but the eye test and data both show he’s lost quite a few steps defensively. Teams are exploiting LaMarcus in several ways on pick and rolls, and they’re doing it repeatedly.
Aldridge’s slow closeouts and rotations are leading to wide-open looks from three and in the paint consistently. Jakob Poeltl, meanwhile, is defending the paint at an elite level.
Per @cleantheglass, opponents shoot 11.6% worse at the rim when Jakob Poeltl is on the floor (99th percentile).
— Paul Garcia (@PaulGarciaNBA) February 5, 2021
Again, Poeltl has mostly been defending bench bigs, but he’s also started four times this season and is still in the 99th percentile mentioned.
Give LaMarcus’s status on the team and what he’s earned, there’s very little chance Coach Popovich makes this move, but it should be an option if the Spurs start to hit a rut.