Last week’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers guaranteed the San Antonio Spurs will be under .500 heading into 2020.
It’s the first time since 1997 that San Antonio will have more losses than wins heading into the new year.
A majority of the NBA is now available for trade, and more players will become available on Jan. 15. That gives the Spurs five weeks to determine the best way to complete their roster for the rest of the season.
The issue moving forward is which direction should the Spurs pursue to finish out the season? The Western Conference has devolved into two, maybe three, championship contenders, four teams over .500, and everyone else.
San Antonio is currently five games under .500, three games worse than the same mark as last season. But in the 2019-20 season, 13-18 is a few percentage points out of the eighth seed.
The task at hand is something entirely unfamiliar to this front office.
Head coach Gregg Popovich is nearing the end of his coaching tenure in San Antonio. R.C. Buford’s new duties involve more than the day-to-day basketball operations of the Spurs. And new Spurs GM Brian Wright has been a ghost to the media since Dejounte Murray’s contract extension announcement.
So what’s the next step?
San Antonio’s deficiencies are most glaring when looking at the veterans on this roster.
DeMar DeRozan is averaging a career-high 53 percent on 2-point field goals, which is really the only shot DeRozan ever takes. But with the game on the line, DeRozan continues to prove he’s unreliable. In the last five minutes of games with the game within five points or less, DeRozan is shooting 36.7 percent from the field and 45.5 from the free-throw line. At under three minutes, those numbers plummet to 27.3 percent and 44.4 percent respectively.
To make matters worse, the top five lineups San Antonio uses that feature DeRozan all have a negative Net Rating, which combines to -28.3 over 472 minutes.
While some of his offensive numbers going down can be attributed to the return of Dejounte Murray, it’s clear that DeRozan has regressed slightly under Year 2 of Popovich than most players. But pinning the bulk of issues on DeRozan is unfair.
LaMarcus Aldridge is in those same five lineups with DeRozan that are a sieve defensively. Aldridge is also averaging 0.905 points per possession on post-ups, shooting just 42 percent on post-up attempts. Last season, Aldridge averaged 1.04 PPP and shot 51 percent posting up.
Fresh off another 2-year contract extension, and before his breakout performance against the Detroit Pistons, Rudy Gay was shooting a career-low 30.1 percent on 3-pointers after his career-high 40 percent last season.
Bryn Forbes is attempting a career-high 10 field goals per game, yet shooting 41 percent from the field, the lowest since his rookie season. And lastly, Marco Belinelli is shooting a career-low 35.6 percent for the season, which is six percent lower than last year.
San Antonio’s roster construction is an issue moving forward. Out of the 15 roster spots, two are occupied by rookies in Austin.
Two more are being taken up by DeMarre Carroll and Chimezie Metu, who have racked up their fair share of “Did Not Play – Coaches Decision” this year. That leaves 11 players on the regular roster to contribute on a regular basis moving forward, and not counting any two-way players.
Derrick White has seen his role go through a few changes this season with San Antonio’s struggles. Dejounte Murray is still getting acclimated coming off his torn ACL. Though this is his fourth season in the NBA, Murray hasn’t even started a combined 82 games yet. Lonnie Walker IV is in the revolving door of Pop’s doghouse. Trey Lyles was in that same doghouse earlier this season.
While fans may clamor to tank or play the younger players, there isn’t a surefire solution to what ails the Spurs.
John Hollinger stated earlier this season that no other team has the assets the Spurs do between youth and draft picks to improve their roster. But that ideology involves adding a piece to the current core of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, which isn’t ideal.
Zach Lowe recently mentioned Gay and Aldridge could be the more tradable ‘stars’ in silver and black, but with both players in the midst of a season-long slump, their value isn’t as high as it should be.
Plus with Gay at 33 years old and Aldridge at 34, the only real valuable asset for either would be future salary cap relief and some draft picks.
DeRozan’s been linked to the Orlando Magic, but a 30-year-old guard who doesn’t defend well and can’t stretch the floor is low on the desired list. Not to mention his pending $27.7 million player option for next season.
The ‘Spurs Way’ built on 23 straight years of success won’t be torn down because this roster of 17 guys isn’t performing to their full powers. Nor should it be.
If the goal is to be competitive, or even just slightly more successful than they are now, then a move to improve this roster should be made. Even with their recent success, the Spurs haven’t won consecutive games since the beginning of December.
But with restless fans, an unexciting team, and no singular fix in sight, how likely are Popovich, Buford, and Wright willing to deviate from their plan?