Can DeMar DeRozan Save ‘Too Young,’ Defensively Awful San Antonio Spurs?

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Can DeMar DeRozan Save ‘Too Young,’ Defensively Awful San Antonio Spurs?
San Antonio Spurs' DeMar DeRozan pauses on the court between plays in the second half of the team's NBA preseason basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 117-93. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Darren Abate/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The Toronto Raptors do not appear to miss DeMar DeRozan.

At 21-5, Toronto has the best record in the NBA after jettisoning its four-time All-Star to the San Antonio Spurs to acquire Kawhi Leonard over the summer. The Spurs, however, are not close to last year’s 47-win team that played most of the season without an injured Leonard. After their Wednesday night 121-113 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio (11-14) has the second-worst record in the Western Conference.

“It’s frustrating. This organization hasn’t lost like thisI haven’t lost like thisin a while,” DeRozan said. “So close against so many great teams, and [then losing] a few games in an embarrassing way sucks. But we’re all grown men. We have to understand the beauty of adversity is how you get out of it.”

The Spurs gave the Lakers all they could handle for three quarters before allowing 43 points to LeBron James and his teammates in the final period. The night before, they lost by 34 points in Utah to the Jazz. Last week, San Antonio was outscored by a combined 70 points in losses to the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves in back-to-back games.

“This sucks like hell to lose, especially when everybody is fighting so hard,” DeRozan said. “Luck is going to go our way. Everything is going to go our way … we’ve got to say positive and understand that as long as we keep at it, the basketball gods are going to turn in our favor.”

DeRozan might be an easy scapegoat for the Spurs’ struggles, especially with Leonard and the Raptors flourishing, but this isn’t all on the 10th-year veteran.

Former Spurs star Kawhi Leonard.

Former Spurs star Kawhi Leonard.Brandon Dill/Associated Press/Associated Press

Leonard joined a 59-win, top-seeded team while bringing noted defender Danny Green with him from San Antonio. The Spurs can’t boast the same level of continuity; they’re just not a good team defensively.

Per NBA.com, San Antonio held the fourth-best defensive rating through the 2017-18 season at 104.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. Through 25 games this season, the Spurs are second-to-last defensively at 113.4.

“They just don’t have the personnel to play the kind of defense the Spurs are used to playing,” Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News said. “They lose Danny Green, Kyle Anderson (who was an underrated part of their defense), and they still have one All-Defensive player left coming back in Dejounte Murray, who then blows out his knee in the preseason.

“You can’t lose that kind of personnel and replace them with DeRozan, Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes and expect them to keep it up. There’s only so much you can do systematically to cover that up.”

It’s not that San Antonio has been poor offensively. The team is 10th in the league with a 109.2 offensive rating, up from last year’s 107 (17th overall). DeRozan is averaging 24.3 points per game along with career highs in assists (5.9) and rebounds (5.6). He’s shooting his best percentage from the field since his rookie season at 48.1 percent.

He’s still the same high-volume scorer who doesn’t hit three-pointers. His woeful 17.6 percent mark from behind the arc comes on just 1.4 attempts per game. The Spurs are a unique team in the modern basketball era, built around a pair of mid-range scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan. Yet as a unit, they’re surprisingly among the elite three-point shooting teams at 38 percent (fourth overall), but they’re 29th in attempts (24.4 per game).

“It’s been a problem lately in some of these losses where they lost by 30. They get down 10, 15, 20, and they’re trying to chip back into it with twos,” McDonald said. “The math just doesn’t add up, but that’s who they are. You’re not going to turn DeMar DeRozan into Stephen Curry. You’re not going to turn LaMarcus into prime Dirk [Nowitzki].”

Steady contributors Rudy Gay, Dante Cunningham, Davis Bertans, Patty Mills and Forbes are all shooting at a high level from deep this season, with Mills the lowest of the group at a solid 39.3 percent.

DeRozan is just getting up a lot more attempts than his teammates (19.2 per game), followed by Aldridge at 15.7. Together, they take almost 40 percent of the team’s shots. DeRozan has six made three-pointers on the season; Aldridge has none.

It’s not modern, but the issue with the Spurs isn’t on offense.

“[Scoring] should be the easy part,” Gay said. “The biggest thing is defense right now.”

They’re not getting stops in transition, allowing 14.2 fast-break points and 49.6 points in the paint per game. Both rank 21st overall. As a group, they don’t block many shots (4.1 per night, 27th overall), and they generate a league-worst six steals per game.

“Our defense is definitely our main focus. We’ve got to pick that up,” DeRozan said. “We need to win quarters defensively, not letting guys score 25-plus points. We have to understand that when we have bad quarters scoring, we can rely on our defense to keep their scoring at a minimum.”

That sounds good, but it’s what every team is going to say. The Spurs need to actually start doing it consistently.

Rudy Gay shoots over Al-Farouq Aminu.

Rudy Gay shoots over Al-Farouq Aminu.Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press/Associated Press

“They’re too young. They’re too inexperienced,” a member of the San Antonio staff said of the team’s role players, like Derrick White, Bertans, Forbes and Jakob Poeltl, who came with DeRozan from Toronto.

“We’re learning,” Gay said. “We just can’t finish a game out.”

The good news for the Spursif coach Gregg Popovich can find a workable two-way rotationis they’re only two games behind the eighth-place Dallas Mavericks (12-11). They have plenty of time to make a playoff push.

“I know we’re going to be really, really tough to beat. Just right now in the moment, it seems like we’re not,” DeRozan said. “The effort is there … we just need to chip at it one game at a time, and before you know it April will be here. As long as you keep that positive mindset and keep working hard, we’ll be on the right side of the win column.”

If the Spurs can run off a few wins in a row, they’ll start to climb in the West. DeRozan can be their best scorer, but he needs to become more of a leader defensively to make his mark.

He’ll never be Leonard, who won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award for two straight seasons, but he’s still an elite scorer. Yet unless he and his teammates find ways to get stops more effectively, DeRozan isn’t going to carry the Spurs to their 22nd straight playoff berth.

               

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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