The Spurs Need to Tank the Season

This is not the San Antonio team we have grown used to under Gregg Popovich, but they're not far off from getting back there.

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Dec 7 2018, 2:15pm

Photo by Jason Szenes/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

The world made so much sense last year whenever you read the words that Synergy used to grade how well the San Antonio Spurs performed on defense. Against post-ups they were “excellent.” In transition, isolation, and stopping putbacks they were “very good.” The sky was blue. They made the playoffs. But watch them now and all that feels like it took place six million years ago. Today, markers like “poor,” “below average,” and “average” dominate the page.

Not to bury the lede—this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who read every word up until now—but San Antonio has the worst defense in the NBA. That’s right, the same franchise that’s enjoyed over two straight decades of playoff basketball by surrounding their own hoop with a silver and black bunker fortress—the Spurs had a top five defense in each of the past six seasons—is now a disheveled mess. (Since Gregg Popovich’s first full season as San Antonio’s head coach—so long ago that Frank Sinatra was still alive—they never finished with a defense that was worse than league average. Right now they’re 5.0 points per 100 possessions higher than the league average.)

While plenty of deserved criticism has focused on their stubbornly antiquated shot chart—the Spurs take the league’s fewest amount of threes and shots at the rim while launching more long twos than anybody else—it’s defense where they struggle to breathe. On that end, Popovich’s troops are undisciplined, be it in the open floor (they’re allowing 1.49 points per possession after a turnover, which is lower than the Washington Wizards, and if you’ve seen the Washington Wizards play this year you know this is the red alarm to end all red alarms), timing a double team in the post, or simply containing the ball. They’re consistently a step slow helping the helper or unnecessarily over-helping in the first place:

The Spurs are regularly surrendering astronomical point totals, be it 140 against New Orleans, 139 in Utah, 135 in Milwaukee, 128 in Minnesota, or 136 against the Rockets, or 121 against the Lakers. All those games are within the past 17 days. They’re getting worse as the season rolls along, not better. And if almost any other organization was currently playing like they are, regardless of preseason expectations, they would be written off as a lottery team, which brings me to the point of this entire section: maybe the Spurs should tank.

Yes, they are technically only two games back of a playoff spot, but in front of them in the standings are the Rockets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Kings, and then every other team in the Western Conference except Phoenix. According to Tankathon, only the Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, and Oklahoma City Thunder face a more difficult schedule from here on out, too. (It’s a bit silly to place too much validity in this fact before Christmas, but still, it exists!)

FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs a 2.0 percent chance to make the playoffs. They don’t have a point guard, any two-way wings (fatal in today’s league), and are missing the foundational on-court leadership that was forever provided by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. As Kawhi Leonard resembles an MVP candidate in Toronto, DeMar DeRozan mirrors most of his All-NBA production from a year ago but is also 6-for-32 behind the three-point line. Pau Gasol is 38 with a stress fracture in his foot.

So what are their options? Should they conduct a firesale, trade DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, then head into next season aggressively rebuilding around Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, their own two first-round draft picks plus whatever they get back in trades for their two best players? It’s too early for that. The impact Murray’s torn ACL has had on this team can’t be overstated and the Spurs should be curious about how they’ll look with DeRozan, Aldridge, and Murray all healthy next season. Add Walker IV, their own picks (if the season ended today they’d be eighth and 30th overall), and a couple more outside shooters, and the Spurs should bounce back, hopefully with a more modern offensive identity.

But it’s not like the rest of their books clear up this summer. Patty Mills, Davis Bertans, Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, and Jakob Poeltl are all under contract in 2020. Instead of selling off Aldridge and DeRozan, dangling Rudy Gay or Belinelli in an attempt to get younger while increasing their shot at a higher pick makes sense. What doesn’t is heading the other way, trading an asset for more immediate help just to make the playoffs.

With the amended lottery system set up to help bad-but-not-terrible teams leap into the top four, San Antonio can get lucky without pillaging its roster. They can use this crucial turn of misfortune to their advantage by turning it into a bridge towards the future, when Murray, Walker, and the draft assets they already have hopefully turn into something special. Until then, the Spurs as we knew them no longer exist. Such is life in the NBA.