Thanks to DeMar DeRozan, Spurs Remain Relevant in Western Conference

    The Spurs don't miss the playoffs. At least not in the Gregg Popovich era. San Antonio has failed to qualify for the postseason just one time since

    November 27, 2018

    The Spurs don’t miss the playoffs. At least not in the Gregg Popovich era.

    San Antonio has failed to qualify for the postseason just one time since Popovich took over as coach and that was in his first season. Since then, the Spurs have been the model franchise for consistency and have five championships since 1999 to show for it. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker led the charge for much of the run with emerging stars like Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge making their mark along the way.

    But things took an uncharacteristically chaotic turn during the past offseason.

    Leonard suddenly wanted to leave San Antonio and Popovich wasn’t able to convince the All-Star to stay. The Spurs could’ve attempted to rebuild, given their first-round exit last year and increased competition in the Western Conference, but chose to remain competitive, trading Leonard to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a lightly protected first-round pick.

    Many wondered how DeRozan would fit in Popovich’s system and whether he could replace Leonard’s production. 20 games into the season, DeRozan is putting up monster numbers and keeping playoff talk alive in San Antonio.

    He’s one of four players currently averaging 24 points, six assists and six rebounds per game on at least 45 percent shooting. The other three: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. It’s not just the numbers either. The Spurs have gone 3-0 against the LA Lakers and Golden State Warriors this season and sit at ninth in the Western Cconference with a .500 record as of November 27. Considering that three games separated the third and ninth seeds in the West last year, every game matters.

    When it comes to DeRozan, his great start is less of an evolution and more of a return to familiarity. Popovich has allowed the guard to play to his strengths and given him more time at the small forward position, allowing DeRozan to return to his midrange comfort zone.

    DeMar DeRozan’s % of FGA By Distance to Basket (as of Nov. 27)

    0-3 feet 3-10 feet 10-16 feet 16 to 3-point line 3-pointers
    2017-18 19.9 16.8 24.3 18.6 20.3
    2018-19 23.5 19.2 25.8 23.0 8.2

     

    One year after throwing up 3s to help the offense flow better in Toronto, DeRozan has reverted back to his midrange chucking. This is a bit of a surprise given San Antonio’s reliance on floor spacing and three-point shooting, but the Spurs remain one of the most efficient teams in terms of 3-point percentage. DeRozan is also getting to the basket more often, leading to easier scoring opportunities.

    DeMar DeRozan’s Dribbles Per Shot Attempt (via NBA.com/stats)

    Shot Frequency With 3-6 Dribbles Shot Frequency With 7 or More Dribbles
    2017-18 33.9 23.5
    2018-19 36.2 30.2

     

    Because DeRozan is getting to the basket more and has gone back to his isolation-heavy style of play, he’s holding the ball more often. This could’ve been an issue in San Antonio’s system predicated on ball movement, but DeRozan is distributing the ball well. His assist percentage has gone up while his usage rate has remained the same. DeRozan is also making a concerted effort to grab more rebounds — especially on the defensive end — and his increased time at small forward has helped in this area.

    Despite his successes, there are still some concerns with DeRozan’s game.

    His defense is not at Leonard’s level, which has partially contributed to the Spurs’ defensive slippage. San Antonio is currently 12th in points allowed per game, a sharp decline from its usual top-5 position. Although DeRozan’s offense is electric, the Spurs are essentially the same team on that end of the floor whether he’s on the court or off it. At some point, DeRozan will have to shoot 3s again because opponents will cut off his lanes to the basket. The threat of an outside shot will force defenders to close hard on him, re-opening these lanes.

    San Antonio has five more games before a seven-game homestand in December. If the Spurs can enter that stretch near the .500 mark, they can make a significant push in the standings — and DeRozan will be the deciding factor in whether or not the franchise continues its historic dominance.

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