Season 50, Game 37
San Antonio 102, Charlotte 85
30-7, 2nd in the West
Fun fact: the Spurs are closer in the standings to the 1-seed Golden State Warriors than they are to the 3-seed Houston Rockets.
Another fun fact: the Spurs currently rank 1st in the NBA in defensive efficiency and 4th in offensive efficiency. The only team that compares? The Golden State Warriors, who are the inverse (1st in offense, 4th in defense). With these numbers, the Spurs are 2nd in Net Rating (the difference between the two efficiency numbers, and one of the clearest indicators of playoff success), only trailing the Golden State Warriors. They are closer to the 1st place Warriors than they are to the 3rd place Raptors (who they just beat by a rather healthy margin).
All of this is to say: the Spurs are still pretty, pretty, pretty good. After an offseason arms race between the Cavs and the Warriors, when it seemed like the rest of the NBA was being left behind (and an offseason when the Spurs lost their two-decade franchise player and seemed prepared to take a mini-step backwards), the Spurs are still right there, knocking on the door and pushing the “greatest team ever assembled”.
To be sure, the Warriors are still heavy favorites. And the Spurs’ regular season success hasn’t always translated to post-season success in recent years. But nobody thought the Spurs would be in this position at this point in the regular season, yet here we are again, on pace for 64-66 wins and threatening to steal the 1-seed from the Warriors.
There are plenty of reasons why the Spurs are still great. Kawhi is one of the most dominating players in the league, LaMarcus seems to have rounded back into his “Top-20 Player” form. Pop is Pop. The team still develops talent incredibly well, and gets the absolute best from every player on the roster. Even with more roster turnover than usual, the system and culture is so firmly entrenched that the Spurs almost have a built-in advantage over 95% of the rest of the league.
But there’s been another, more surprising reason the Spurs have remained strong: the big man rotation.
Coming into the season, the biggest question mark on the roster was big man depth. After LaMarcus, it was all questions, guesses, and hopes. Gasol is a champion, All-Star, and sure fire Hall-of-Famer. But it was safe to wonder if his best years were well behind him. David Lee had washed out of his last three teams, and it was fair to assume he was washed up. Dwayne Dedmon was a tantalizing prospect with crazy athleticism, but could barely see the court in dysfunctional Orlando; what could he offer the Spurs? And Davis Bertans was a European prospect that we’d all heard about, but what were the chances he’d actually produce?
All five big men have been nothing short of spectacular in their roles, turning the question into an unquestioned strength.
After a slow start, LaMarcus has been his usual All-Star self lately, playing with an aggression and passion we’ve never seen from him in San Antonio. Pau Gasol still has struggles on the defensive end (though the coaching staff has done a wonderful job minimizing them), but his offensive productivity has been critical. His midrange jump shot is money, he is extending his range to 3 efficiently, and his passing out of both posts fit the team perfectly.
Lee might be the biggest surprise. After being usurped in Golden State by Draymond Green (and this change almost directly leading to the Warriors super team we see today), Lee wasn’t able to find a home in Boston or in Dallas, two teams notorious for being able to fit just about anybody. His career seemed teetering towards retirement. But his willingness to recommit himself to his conditioning and accept a role off the bench has enabled him to find a spot here in San Antonio. As a willing passer and smart cutter, his fit on the second unit is perfect. His defense has been better than we could ever hope, his athleticism has been surprising, and he is a wonderful teammate.
Which brings us to Dedmon and Bertans, and Saturday’s game against the Hornets. It’s no secret that Dedmon is my favorite role-player on the team. I love his energy, his willingness to do the dirty work, and his contentment and self-confidence in his role, with no seeming desire to venture out of it. He runs hard, he rebounds, he defends like crazy, and he attacks the rim on offense. His presence alone brought the “alley oop” (since most Spurs fans are probably unfamiliar with this, it’s a play in which one player lofts a pass to the rim for another player, who leaps, catches it, and ‘slam dunks’ it in one motion for the easy score) to the Spurs playbook, and we all thank him for that.
The Hornets game was almost a perfect encapsulation of his role. In 23 minutes, he was a perfect 6-for-6 for 15 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, crazy energy, and great defense. The entire dynamic of the team shifts when he is on the court, in a really positive way.
If Dedmon’s game was a microcosm, Bertans game was a tantalizing glimpse. Davis’ role on the team has been up and down, but mostly he’s been an end-of-bench player. While a pro for years overseas, he is an NBA rookie in a new country, and the coaching staff is bringing him along slowly. He was billed as a sharp shooter, but he also has surprising athleticism on both ends of the court and is a secretly really solid defender.
Against the Hornets he was the match that lit the game on fire: 21 points on 6 shots in just 18 minutes. 21 points on 6 shots is almost impossible. You have to not only be a 3-point marksmen, but you have to be aggressive enough to draw a lot of fouls. Bertans did both: 4-for-5 from deep, 7-for-8 from the line.
And one really nasty dunk for good measure.
As he said after the game, he likes to keep his athleticism secret. But word should soon be out. While his most productive role on the team might still be as a stretch big shooting from deep, he is far more than a one-dimensional player. He has a chance to grow into a huge piece for this team alongside Kawhi in years to come. (This is where we mention that Bertans came to the Spurs via the George Hill-Kawhi Leonard trade, as if that deal wasn’t lopsided enough.) Hell, he has a chance to be a huge piece off the bench this season.
If he can crack the Spurs suddenly deep and potent big man rotation.
The Spurs play Milwaukee in San Antonio Tuesday night. The Bucks are the darlings of the NBA right now, so let’s hope the Spurs take them seriously and get the win.
Go Spurs Go.
Featured photo credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports