Young Backcourt Will Spark San Antonio Spurs in 2019-20

So long as head coach Gregg Popovich remains in place, the San Antonio Spurs are a veritable lock to win 45-plus games and make the playoffs.

After all, they’ve done so in each of the past 23 years (not counting the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign, during which they went 37-13 in the regular season).

Although seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan will carry the load for this year’s Spurs, a trio of young guards can serve as the complementary foundation to fuel yet another 50-win season.

Fourth-year guard Dejounte Murray missed the entire 2018-19 season after tearing his ACL during a preseason game against the Houston Rockets. However, a team executive told Keith Smith of RealGM that Murray is progressing well in his recovery.

“Everything is looking good,” the executive said. “We’re confident he’ll be back. It was so sad because he was poised to have a big year. But all that talent is still there. He’s a great kid who works really hard.”

Sep 30, 2018; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray (5) steals the ball from Miami Heat small forward Derrick Jones Jr. (left) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Murray displaced longtime starting point guard Tony Parker in 2017-18 and averaged 8.1 points on 44.3 percent shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists across 21.5 minutes in 81 games (48 starts). While his per-game stats might not scream future superstar, his 3.60 mark in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus—which ranked ninth leaguewide that season—does.

Armed with a 6’5″ frame and a massive 6’11” wingspan, the 2016 No. 29 overall pick has the physical tools and basketball IQ to be a versatile menace on defense. His offensive game remains a work in progress—he shot only 26.5 percent on 34 three-pointers in 1,700-plus minutes in 2017-18—but having the likes of Aldridge, DeRozan and Rudy Gay around will help hide his weaknesses on that end of the floor.

In Murray’s absence last season, fellow No. 29 overall pick Derrick White emerged as his potential long-term partner. Similarly, his per-game output—9.9 points on 47.9 percent shooting, 3.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 25.8 minutes across 67 contests (55 starts)—doesn’t do justice to his two-way upside.

His 36-point tour de force against the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Spurs’ opening-round playoff series showed flashes, however.

White put his full array of offensive gifts on display that night, repeatedly creating off the dribble and slashing to the basket for crafty layups. He likewise isn’t a high-volume three-point shooter—he knocked down just 33.8 percent of his 142 attempts from deep during the regular season last year—but he proved to be a tough one-on-one cover nevertheless.

And like Murray, White is a nightmare on defense. He finished with the third-best DRPM last season of any point guard, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks’ George Hill and Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry.

When the Spurs pair Murray and White together, godspeed to opposing guards who have to score against them.

Meanwhile, rising second-year guard Lonnie Walker IV should add the offensive punch to this backcourt.

His rookie season went off the rails when he suffered a torn meniscus in the preseason, which delayed his regular-season debut until early January. He played only 118 minutes with the Spurs last season, tallying 45 points on 34.8 percent shooting, 17 rebounds, nine assists and seven steals in total.

Walker logged most of his time in the G League with the Austin Spurs, where he averaged 16.6 points on 43.9 percent shooting in 27.3 minutes across 29 contests. He knocked down 35.8 percent of his 3.3 three-point attempts per game, too.

He especially looked poised to take a major second-year leap at Las Vegas Summer League.

“The key upgrade came from his pull-up game, which was a glaring weakness at Miami when he shot just 18-of-70 on dribble jumpers and 4-of-15 on runners in the half-court,” Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman wrote. “This month, Walker’s pull-up was the go-to weapon that elevated his scoring attack.”

Apr 3, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV (1) controls the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Malik Beasley (25) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Walker will be competing for backcourt and wing minutes with Murray, White, DeRozan, Patty Mills, Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli so he might not carve out a huge role as a sophomore. But if the strides he took at summer league portend a potential breakout season, Popovich will have no choice but to see whether the Miami product can sink or swim in a larger role.

The Spurs won’t enter the 2019-20 campaign with much hype. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook gave them 40-1 odds to win this year’s title, tied with the Brooklyn Nets (sans Kevin Durant) and Indiana Pacers, while FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections pin their playoff chances at only 19 percent.

To some extent, that skepticism makes sense.

Murray, White and Walker are all relatively wet behind the ears. Murray has an entire season of rust to shake off, while Walker has yet to be tested against much NBA-caliber competition. It won’t be easy for Popovich to find enough minutes for those three and the veterans such as Forbes, Mills and Belinelli.

The Western Conference may be tougher than ever, too.

After an offseason chock-full of notable player movement, the Spurs will likely be vying for one of the West’s final few playoff spots against teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves.

Unlike most of the Western franchises, the Spurs didn’t make a big splash this offseason. Veteran forward DeMarre Carroll may be their most notable addition after Marcus Morris reneged on his agreed-upon two-year, $20 million deal to join the New York Knicks instead.

Maintaining the status quo might give the Spurs an advantage in the regular season, though. Whereas many of their counterparts will be working to integrate major pieces—or sort out entirely new rotations—the Spurs have continuity on their side.

“Sometimes continuity matters a lot,” a team executive told Smith. “And after a lot of change last year, we’re looking forward to bringing back the same group.”

Aldridge and DeRozan figure to shoulder a majority of the offensive load, but Murray and White could form a two-headed defensive hydra of upside in the backcourt. Sprinkle in some microwave scoring from Walker off the bench, and San Antonio may have the recipe for another under-the-radar 50-plus-win campaign that leaves us saying, “I can’t believe they did it again” when we all should have known better.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Early Bird Rights.

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