As one of the worst defensive teams last season, the San Antonio Spurs need to get back to their roots and be defensive-minded in the 2020 NBA Draft.
There’s never been a run like that of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. One of the most well-respected individuals in professional sports, Popovich kept the Spurs in the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons after assuming head-coaching duties in the late 90s. After years of sustained success, the changing tides of the NBA caught up to Popovich this season.
None of these changes was as prolific as that of the modern defensive scheme. In today’s game, it’s more important than ever to have defenders who can switch on multiple positions. This doesn’t align very well with the current day Spurs roster considering their lack of multi-positional defenders at the three frontcourt positions.
Their star players, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are and always have been offensive specialists. Being in the Spurs’ system has helped each player cover up some of their deficiencies, but not enough to help the team overcome their lack of defensive identity.
That ultimately resulted in the Spurs’ first NBA Draft lottery appearance since picking Tim Duncan at No. 1 overall in 1997. They have a chance to take a swing at a prospect in a range we’ve never seen from this modern iteration of San Antonio. In many regards, it’s the most exciting part of the season for Spurs fans. The last time the San Antonio Spurs had a rookie near the lottery, No. 15 pick Kawhi Leonard became an NBA superstar. San Antonio selected Leonard because of his undeniable defensive profile.
Using this next pick, the Spurs have a chance to strike gold once again. Justifying the selection will be easy — anyone that San Antonio deeps viable at the eleventh pick will instantly garner attention from the basketball world. Even so, this is a chance for the San Antonio Spurs to advance their defensive profile. As seen through the competitive drive of rookie Keldon Johnson this past season, high-energy defenders are what the Spurs need in their next draft pick.
One player to consider is Florida State forward Devin Vassell, who’s athletic profile and high motor make him one of the best defensive prospects of the year. The draft community is high on his upside, meaning there’s a significant chance that he doesn’t fall to San Antonio. If he does, Vassell could end up being one of the best defensive players in the game. Not only would this be great for his career trajectory, but it would be the most impactful way for the Spurs to use their pick.
Why the San Antonio Spurs need to draft a defender.
This season, the San Antonio Spurs ranked 24th in the NBA in defensive rating at 112.6. This was the worst defensive performance in the Popovich era. Much of this had to do with their inability to defend the 3-point line. Many of their players were beat off the dribble by capable playmakers at various positions.
Only one of their starters, point guard Dejounte Murray, is generally considered a good defender. The rest are considered average at best with starting two-guard Bryn Forbes finishing his season as one of the worst statistical defenders in the entire NBA. The unrestricted free agent is sure to have his role reduce next year if he returns to the team.
Prioritizing plus defenders is the only way for this team to maximize its best draft asset in years. Other players to look out for include Isaac Okoro, Patrick Williams and Onyeka Okongwu. Each of these forwards has a baseline of defensive excellence for San Antonio to build off of. Some require more development than others, but each has something to bring to the table immediately. Perimeter defense is very important for this team, but San Antonio has invested in that area over the years. The best way to turn that corner is to play the young guards.
Drafting another guard could bode well for the team, but it doesn’t help to fix the logjam in the backcourt. The likes of Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Murray and Johnson are at various stages in their development, but each brings something unique as a high upside perimeter defender. The same cannot be said for the team’s forwards.
Shot-blocking doesn’t seem to be an issue for this group. Many of their perimeter players are good at anticipating opponent’s layups and deflecting shots when possible. Likewise, center Jakob Poeltl is a shot-blocking menace who is likely to return to the team next year. To his credit, Aldridge has steadily improved as a rim protector in each season with San Antonio. At 35-years-old, it’s a sight to marvel, but it’s not one to bank on in the long term.
Therefore the positions that should be emphasized at the draft are small forward and center. After drafting Luka Samanic at No. 19 in 2019, adding a defensive-minded frontcourt piece to play alongside him is in the San Antonio Spurs’ best interest.
No matter what happens in November’s NBA draft, you can bank on the spurs making a smart decision. If historical context is any indicator of what’s to come, San Antonio will be home to a stud in no time.