Not many people picked the San Antonio Spurs to make the playoffs before the season started, especially after a rough 2019-20 campaign ended their two-decade postseason run. Yet as San Antonio gets ready to play its first game in 10 days on Wednesday night after NBA health and safety protocols left the team without enough players to suit up, it'll be doing so as the fifth seed in the West with the eighth-best record (16-11) in the league.
To say the Spurs have been a pleasant surprise is an understatement. Prior to the season, we projected they would win under 30 games due to the expectation that San Antonio would lean heavily on veterans who were past their primes, and young players weren't ready to win yet. We were wrong, and clearly underestimated the power of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs organization ... once again.
San Antonio is on pace to win 40 games right now, with a 70 percent chance of making the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight, and has fared better than other teams who many expected would be more successful. While they've only played 27 games, the Spurs clearly look much improved from a year ago. Here are three reasons why this team has been proving everyone wrong this season.
1. DeRozan's All-Star-level play
Demar DeRozan's play is where the Spurs' success begins. While he's averaging fewer points per game (19.8) this season compared to recent years, he's also averaging the most assists (6.9) of his career. He's taking the fewest shot attempts (13.4) since his rookie season, but his passing has elevated his teammates and made San Antonio a far more versatile team.
The attention he draws on offense has opened up scoring lanes:
... and good looks from deep for his teammates left and right:
DeRozan's passing has led to him being able to pick his spots more when he looks to score, and relieve some of the defensive pressure on him to create more space. He's also cut down on some of those inefficient long-range 2s, but still ranks among the league's best mid-range scorers. His usage rate (24.2 percent) is the lowest since his second season in the league, which signifies that he doesn't have to do everything under the sun on offense like he was tasked with in his previous two seasons with San Antonio. The four-time All-Star has found a better balance between knowing when to score and knowing when to get his teammates involved.
He's transformed from a high-volume, low-efficiency player to one with an effective field goal percentage above 50 percent for two straight seasons. He's also quietly become one of the better clutch scorers in the league this season, ranking 13th in the league in clutch points made.
Statistically speaking, this isn't DeRozan's best season, but his all-around offensive game has led to incredible success for the Spurs. If he played in a bigger market, he might've also been named an All-Star once again.
2. Young players taking advantage of opportunity
DeRozan wouldn't be racking up all those assists if it weren't for the young players on the team knocking down shots. The Spurs haven't really been known to prioritize youth over the years, so it's pretty surprising to see that their young guys have been one of the keys to their success this season.
Two of the Spurs' top three scorers this season are under the age of 25, with Dejounte Murray averaging career highs across the board (15.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists) and Keldon Johnson having a breakout season (14.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists). DeRozan still leads the team in points per game, but his passing has led to more ball movement on offense this season compared to 2019-20.
Instead of leaning heavily on DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge to shoulder a brunt of the offensive load, several of the younger Spurs are getting more opportunities to make shots.
|Player||2019-20 FGA||2020-21 FGA|
Not only are the younger players getting more opportunity, but they're excelling. Murray is having the best season of his career after an ACL tear in 2018 significantly slowed down his development through last season. Now he's leading the Spurs in rebounds and steals (1.6) per game, and is establishing himself as a tough, defensive-minded guard in this league. He uses his length to disrupt opponents on defense, and he's regained some of his speed and athleticism that made him so special before his ACL tear.
Elsewhere on the roster, Jakob Poeltl has established himself as an interior presence on defense, allowing just 0.895 points per possession around the basket, which ranks in the 85th percentile in the league, and sixth in the league among centers. Lonnie Walker has become one of San Antonio's best 3-point shooters this season in 22 games as a full-time starter (37.4 percent from deep), as his offensive game is slowly starting to develop.
The Spurs' offense as a whole has given the younger guys more space to create and opportunity to perform, and they've certainly exceeded expectations this season. One young gun, though, certainly stands out amongst the rest ...
3. Keldon Johnson's ascension
For some unknown reason, Johnson managed to fall down the draft boards in 2019, and the Spurs are probably extremely grateful that he was still available when they selected him with the 29th pick overall. After a rookie season in which he spent the majority of his time down in the G League and only played in nine of San Antonio's games, Johnson is now a regular starter, putting up nearly 15 points a night for the Spurs.
At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Johnson is a ridiculous force on both ends of the floor. He's relentless in his pursuit to grab a rebound, whether that's on an offensive putback ...
... or fighting for a defensive board with extreme intensity to limit second-chance opportunities.
He's also become great at soaring in from the perimeter to grab an offensive board untouched:
Given his height, it's a pretty impressive feat. Johnson is built "country strong" as teammate Derrick White likes to say, and uses that strength to finish nearly 60 percent of those shots around the basket. His effort to crash the boards basically every single time on both ends of the floor is one of the reasons the Spurs are a top 10 rebounding team in the league.
Johnson's play doesn't come with a ton of flash, and he does a lot of little things that tend to not make highlight reels, which is why his fit on the Spurs makes so much sense. He was given more opportunity this season by Popovich, and so far he's lived up to the task.
The Spurs still certainly have their issues -- perimeter defense being one of the big ones -- but they've still managed to pull out wins against tough opponents this season, including the Lakers, Clippers and Trail Blazers to name a few. There's still a ton of basketball left to be played, and San Antonio will begin a stretch of games where it will still be without several players due to health and safety protocols. However, don't be surprised if the Spurs clinch a playoff spot at the end of the regular season because after doubting them, they've been quietly proving everyone wrong.