Two games in, Spurs’ defensive struggles are apparent

Photo: USA Today

After losing Danny Green and Kyle Anderson in the offseason, the San Antonio Spurs’ perimeter defense was bound to be tested on whether or not they could remain a top-10 defensive unit with Dejounte Murray anchoring the perimeter.

But then, Murray was injured in the preseason and he’s likely going to be out for the remainder of the season, which really puts the Spurs’ defense on the verge of trying at least to end up better than league average.

Two games into the regular season, the Spurs’ defense is already showing that that end of the floor will be the one the Spurs will have to build up, where as in the past the defense has usually been the backbone of the team.

Offensively, with the addition of offensive weapons like DeMar DeRozan, Marco Belinelli, and a healthy Rudy Gay, the Spurs’ offense has been operating like a top 10 unit. Defensively though, as of 9:00 PM CST, they’re ranked 27th by allowing teams to score 116.7 points per 100 possessions.

With Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV all injured to start the season, the Spurs’ perimeter defense has been relying heavily on Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills to guard opposing point guards, DeRozan and Belinelli to guard shooting guards, and Rudy Gay and Dante Cunningham to guard small forwards.

Against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trailblazers, the Spurs have been outscored 127-111 in the backcourt. That’s accounting Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, and Tyus Jones for the Wolves, while also crediting Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Seth Curry, and Nik Stauskas for the Blazers. For the Spurs, those 111 points are the combined points of Forbes, DeRozan, Mills, and Belinelli.

Saturday, in the Spurs’ 121-108 loss to the Blazers, Lillard finished with 29 points and nine assists on 15 shots. McCollum finished with 24 points and two assists on 15 shots as well. After going back and watching the film of the shots Lillard and McCollum took, here were some of my findings.

Spot-up shots1/21/2
Cuts to the basket0/01/1
Dribble Hand Offs0/11/3

As you can see from the data above, most of Lillard and McCollum’s shots came from the pick and roll, or through isolations. In the pick-and-roll, the Spurs’ bigs (specifically Jakob Poeltl, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol) usually dropped back on the pick to make sure they covered the paint. With two deadly perimeter shooters in Lillard and McCollum, they had a field day being able to either use the picks to shoot an open mid-range or three point jumper as their original defender tried to get back into the play.

As you’ll see in the next chart below, Lillard and McCollum also used isolations against Forbes, Mills, and DeRozan on offense to take some of their shots either near the rim or from the outside.

Initial DefenderLillardMcCollumTotal

Forbes was dealt the tough task of having to guard an All-NBA first team player in Lillard for most of the night. While DeRozan had the challenge of guarding McCollum, he did hold McCollum to a tough shooting night when he was the primary defender. McCollum’s efficient baskets came when Forbes and Mills defended him.

Now, the question is what will the Spurs do going forward? As Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said Saturday night after the game, “we’re not disciplined defensively yet.” Popovich mentioned how a defense like the Spurs’, which is going to take time to develop, had trouble guarding one of the more advanced cohesive offenses in the league that Portland has.

The Spurs can try to remain patient, continuing to let Forbes and Mills hold down the guard position until White and Walker IV get healthy. In this case, the Spurs would have to be hoping White and Walker IV have the defensive upside when they return from injury to help out in guarding the perimeter.

When you look at the free agent market, the veterans out there such as Jarrett Jack, Jameer Nelson, and Ramon Sessions don’t have the outside shooting ability of Forbes and Mills, while it’s unknown how much of an upgrade any of those players would make defensively.

The trade route is another area to look at, and that comes with studying teams who are losing and who later might be looking toward tanking. On those teams, perhaps the Spurs could look to acquire a veteran either at the 1 or 2 on an expiring contract.  In time, maybe someone like George Hill, if Cleveland’s season doesn’t work out. Hill could be an example of the type of player the Spurs could seek through trade.

For right now, when the Spurs face versatile offensive guards like Lillard and McCollum who can score from the inside and outside, perhaps they can play smaller by giving more minutes to Gay, Bertans, and Cunningham at the 4, and giving less minutes to their traditional drop back centers in Gasol and Poeltl.

With more games upcoming, the opportunities will be present for the team to try to learn from their mistakes and with more possessions together, the Spurs can hope their defense starts to slowly get better.


    • I agree that Dinwiddie could help the Spurs. I’m not sure though that Brooklyn would trade him unless a first round pick is involved. He’s a key part of their rotation right now and though he’ll be a free agent this summer, they’ll still have his bird rights to try to re-sign him.


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