Maybe it’s time for the Spurs to change their starting lineup

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs

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In this week’s round table, the PtR staff discusses whether Pop should consider a change to the starting unit, break down the problems with the defense, and much more.

It’s been a tough week for the Spurs. After an inspired win against the Thunder they played arguably their two worst games of the season and logged back to back home losses against the Celtics and Grizzlies. Then they traveled to Minnesota and lost again.

San Antonio is now below .500 going into a road-heavy part of the schedule, so things could get worse. It’s not time to hit the panic button yet, but the problems on defense and whether there needs to be changes to the rotation merit some serious discussion.

PtR contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to get into those topics and offer their thoughts on Tony Parker’s jersey retirement ceremony and on the load management controversy in this week’s edition of our round table. Please let us know what you think in the comments.

The Spurs’ defense was expected to improve this season, but that hasn’t happened yet. What’s the main reason behind the struggles on that end?

Marilyn Dubinski: I think it’s a matter of personnel getting to know each other better with new line-ups. Dejounte Murray is excellent playing 1-on-1 defense, but he’s still learning when to help or stick to his man and not to gamble for steals, which if he misses leaves everyone else scrambling and out of position. LaMarcus Aldridge may not be built to be the lone rim protector (although he’s decent at it), and no matter how much effort they put in, Bryn Forbes and DeMar DeRozan have ceilings as defenders. I’m willing to give them more time to gel, but I’ll admit I thought they’d be better.

Mark Barrington: It has a lot to do with the lineups not working together. At the beginning of last season, the defense was a lot worse whenever Derrick White got into the game, even though he’s a good individual defender. Once the team adjusted to him, they started being a lot better with him on the floor. I think the same thing will happen with Dejounte. Marco Belinelli has been taking his lumps from the fans, and they’re mostly deserved, but I can see signs that his effort on the defensive end is improving. I think a combination of that and maybe less time on the floor for him should help the team’s defensive rating.

Bruno Passos: A combination of the personnel that’s on the floor and mental miscues. Every game seems to have at least a couple of instances where a breakdown is followed by two or three guys with their hands in the air, looking at each other to figure out what went wrong. Those issues should be fixed with time, but there will still be players out there who ball-handlers aren’t afraid of attacking, which probably puts a realistic ceiling on how good the team can be on that end.

Jesus Gomez: Poor communication and inconsistent effort. There are so many small breakdowns in the half court that are completely avoidable, but because one player decides to, for example, not switch when he’s expected to, the entire team pays for it. Ideally that would improve with time, so I’m more worried about the lack of effort, especially getting back on defense. The Spurs have the 12th lowest turnover percentage in the league but allow the seventh most fastbreak points. Teams are pushing the ball off misses and makes and way too often the Spurs stay back to complain to the officials or jog back with no sense of urgency. That needs to change, fast, because this team doesn’t have the defensive talent to take plays off.

J.R. Wilco: Here’s how bad things are right now, it seems easier to name the good things the Spurs are doing on defense than it is to name all of the bad things — so I choose E: All of the above.

The Spurs keep having slow starts and are being outscored by over seven points per 100 possessions in the first quarter. Should Pop consider changing the starting lineup?

Dubinski: If they don’t improve soon it wouldn’t hurt to try something different. The question is what move should he make? Offense seems to be the main culprit behind the slow starts, so replacing Trey Lyles with Rudy Gay seems like the most logical solution there (and it might get Gay going as well, although he has been coming around the last few games). Replacing Forbes with Derrick White helps the defense but potentially hurts the offense. Pop could go bigger by replacing Forbes with Gay or DeMarre Carroll, but that’s another more defensive-minded move (which still may not be a bad thing). It really comes down to which move(s) would actually swing the pendulum without hurting the second unit.

Barrington: Trey Lyles is starting to show some signs of offensive aggressiveness at the start of games, and that might be what they need. LaMarcus Aldridge needs to be involved in games from the start, but attempts to start off games by forcing the ball to him are making everyone else passive. The team needs to take a flexible approach and take what the defense gives them. If Dejounte Murray continues to struggle, it might be time to let Derrick White start since he does a much better job with defensive discipline and running a halfcourt game on offense, although he’s not going to get the steals and fast break points that Murray does.

Passos: Something probably needs to be done, although I can see Pop not rushing into it and wanting to address some basics in execution first. Still, this lineup feels like a hedge to avoid being weak on paper in any one particular area, and I’d like to see them lean towards an identity that boasts better defensive chops, more shot-creating, or more versatility on the perimeter.

Gomez: I don’t see an adjustment that would fix things immediately, so I think they should keep the starting lineup as it is, for now. If they are going to change things, starting Gay seems like the best bet to jump start the offense. Whether it should be at small forward, so that DeRozan can go back to feasting on smaller wings, or at power forward, where Gay is at his best at this point in his career, is the big question.

Wilco: My heart says, “Yes! Start White immediately.” But my head knows that Pop isn’t likely to risk DJ’s development until it’s certain that a) Murray is the problem, and b) he’s not going to be able to fix it anytime soon. So, I’m contenting myself with watching Lyles make one smart basketball play after another and hoping the days that beautiful basketball will return to the starting unit.

What was your favorite part of Tony Parker’s retirement ceremony?

Dubinski: I certainly had a lot, as has been highlighted. I didn’t expect to laugh so much, but it somehow ended being very funny and entertaining. In that sense, I guess my favorite part would be the funniest moment, which for me had to be Tony’s “ OMG! I’m playing with Bruce Bowen!” story. The parts that tugged at my heartstrings the most was either when he was giving a shout out to all his back-ups (and seeing how many were in attendance!), reassuring fans that the Spurs are in good hands with Murray, and the “Go Spurs Go”.

Barrington: Man, I was so bummed at the poor effort at the game, I had to turn off the TV after the final buzzer. I’m going to watch the replay now.

[Much later] I’m really glad I took the time to watch it. It’s hard to pick out one particular thing about the ceremony, but it was just the respect and love among all of the people involved in making something so much greater than themselves. I got emotional at the end, because the years that he, Timmy, and Manu were together were so special, and I doubt I will see anything like that ever happening again in my lifetime. Tony finishing with thanking his family was the perfect way to wrap it up. Go Spurs GO!

Passos: It was probably seeing the gathering of so many figures from the past and present all together for a few hours. It really gives a sense of scope and breadth to how good the Spurs were with Tony Parker and the Big Three when you see David Robinson or Michael Finley and Dejounte Murray or Kyle Anderson and realize they all shared the floor and won games with Parker.

Gomez: It was a fun ceremony in general. Pop taking the mic out of Sean Elliott’s hands was hilarious. The bats showing up was just perfect. If I had to pick one moment it would be when Manu thanked Tony for having his back when he was a rookie. It was such a good moment because it clashed with how fans perceived their relationship early in their careers, especially here in Argentina. It turns out Tony didn’t hate Manu, after all.

Wilco: The blank face Timmy was wearing the entire time Tony was talking to him and Manu. What was he thinking? Was he messing with Tony? Was he trying to make him forget what he wanted to say? I couldn’t figure it out and still can’t imagine what was up with that. I mean, he didn’t even smile when Tony was chuckling and obviously wanted some positive feedback. Just fascinating stuff.

The Spurs have a road-heavy schedule ahead. How many of the next six games can we expect them to win?

Dubinski: Man, that’s tough with this team because they’re so unpredictable. They should arguably be 2-1 on the road but blew it in Atlanta, but other than that it’s hard to judge if this team still has road woes. I’m assuming they do because they’ve been so inconsistent regardless of where they’re playing this season. Looking at the schedule, I’d be pleasantly surprised if they won 4 of those 6 games, proud if it’s more, but not shocked if it’s fewer.

Barrington: Optimistically, I think they win 3 of the next 6. I would be very surprised if they’re over .500 at the end of this road swing.

Passos: It’ll be tough. I know it’s just 5 of 6 played on the road, but a SEGABABA in San Antonio really makes the home game feels like a pit stop along a grueling 2-week trip. I’ll go with 3 wins, at home against Portland, at Washington and at New York, but we know so little about this team so far that I can see things swinging a few games one way or (gulp) the other.

Gomez: They should beat the Knicks and the Wizards. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them lose to everyone else, but I’m going to be optimistic and say they at least get a couple more wins, likely against the Magic and the Trail Blazers.At least that’s what I’m hoping for, because after the road trip they’ll return to San Antonio to face the Clippers, Lakers and Wolves. The schedule doesn’t get easier any time soon, so they’ll need some road wins.

Wilco: If they win more than two, I’ll be beyond surprised.

Load management has become a controversial topic around the league, as even a rookie recently got a game off for rest. Is this the natural progression of a trend the Spurs helped set or are teams starting to be too cautious now?

Dubinski: I don’t really blame the Spurs because they used it on aging veterans in an era when there were a lot more back-to-backs. That being said, the entire sports world has begun looking for ways to keep athletes safer and improve their long term well-being: something the leagues can’t really argue with since they can be held liable down the road if they knew they were endangering their employees. There is a point when teams are becoming too cautious or just taking advantage, but if the league really wants to curb it, they’ll need to make costly changes, like shortening the number of games to eliminate back-to-backs all together. At this point, I think they’d prefer the “load management” controversy that comes with playing 82 regular season games.

Barrington: There are too many games in the NBA, and they’re played too close together. Any athlete can benefit from well-planned rest days, if they’re combined with a recovery plan. It would be an interesting statistical study to see if rest days reduce injuries more than just the amount proportional to the reduction in games played. I would guess it is something that you could measure and would be statistically significant. I don’t think there’s any doubt that occasional rest can help performance, in any profession.

Passos: Most decisions in this league are just about cost vs benefit, and teams are probably seeing the long-term value of rest against the hit you take in missing a player, even if it’s a young rookie, in the odd game here and there. The Spurs were definitely ahead of the curve here although, as with most things, I think other teams would’ve caught on eventually. It’s possible some teams are being cautious — we’re seeing a number of freak injuries, like bone breaks, that don’t relate necessarily to wear and tear already this season — but it also makes sense to err on the side of caution when it comes to health, for basketball players and normal humans, too.

Gomez: I think it makes sense to prioritize long-term health. If the Grizzlies believe resting will help Ja Morant survive his rookie season better, they should rest him. Someone like Kawhi Leonard, who has a chronic condition, should obviously get breaks to make the pain manageable. None of that should be too controversial. Ultimately I think teams should work closely with the league to give as much notice about rest days as possible, so that fans don’t get completely blindsided by them. Beyond that, there’s no solution that doesn’t involve tweaking the schedule, which would be hard to do.

Wilco: Yes, the Spurs started it, and the rest of the league is following suit because it’s a good idea to handle your stars with care. Players regularly take games off in every other sport that has a ton of games, don’t they? One day, I think fans will think it was weird to look back at a time when every player was expected to play every NBA game.

Maybe it’s time for the Spurs to change their starting lineup
Maybe it’s time for the Spurs to change their starting lineup

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