ANALYSIS: The Spurs' Gambit | San Antonio's offseason chess moves have been sneakily aggressive and boringly effective

After a lot of smoke, Popovich and the front office didn't make any explosive moves, but they didn't have to do that much to improve on last year's squad.

SAN ANTONIO — While it may be popular to say "the Spurs haven't done anything this offseason," it isn't true in fact or in spirit.

These words usually are expressed by frustrated fans who had their hearts set on seeing fireworks, haven't seen them immediately, and aren't watching the dull, methodical, necessary work that's happening on the ground.

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It would be like if you sat down to watch something you were told would be exciting, hoping it would be full of explosions and empty entertainment like The Mandalorian, and instead got The Queen's Gambit. But if you dig dramatic period pieces about troubled chess prodigies, this Spurs offseason is right up your alley. 

San Antonio could have started things off with a bang if they had traded one or more veterans like DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay or Patty Mills, perhaps to slide up in the draft for Onyeka Okongwu or Deni Avdija. There were even rumors that they could trade Aldridge to the Warriors for the second pick and James Wiseman, probably while taking on Andrew Wiggins and his rather expensive long-term contract.

The speculation led to hope for something uncharacteristically dramatic, hope that once dashed meant that for some fans, anything other than that specific outcome would be a disappointment no matter how good it actually was. If I had gotten hyped up to see alien bounty hunters with jetpacks and laser blasters, and instead I got pawn to d4, I would be bored and a little annoyed too.

Pop's Spurs are still playing textbook chess while other teams blow things up, or double down, or bet the house, or add the finishing touches, or do... whatever the Detroit Pistons did. 

It won't be a major national storyline, but it should be exciting to people who follow this team because this is one of the Spurs' most aggressive openings to a chess game in recent memory. It was as by-the-book and predictable as a Soviet Grandmaster or a mistake-less computer, but the predictable rule following just made it that much stronger.

The Spurs stayed at 11 to select one of the top wings in the draft in Devin Vassell, who has a high-level 3-and-D floor and can become one of the best players in the class if he grows physically and develops as a creator. He easily could have gone as high as the sixth pick, and he brings exactly what San Antonio needed.

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At 41, they took Duke's Tre Jones, who has everything it takes to at least be a backup point guard in this league for some time. He was the ACC Player of the Year and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and yet he fell out of the first round.

Vassell and Jones seem to be genuinely smart, humble and hardworking. That's a combination that typically goes far in this development system. They'll both be rotation pieces for years to come.

If you're not quite sold on them yet, here's an in-depth draft report card:

San Antonio Spurs select Devin Vassell with 11th pick in 2020 NBA Draft, Tre Jones at 41

When Spurs GM Brian Wright was asked on draft night about other offseason moves, he didn't say much, but he didn't have to. That's the thing about a good chess opening: once the first moves have been made, the next few good ones become rather obvious. Here's what I wrote after the draft and before the start of free agency as fans complained that there were too many guards:

The roster may look guard-heavy at first, but this draft indicates that the team will let the much-maligned pair of Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli walk, and re-signing Jakob Poeltl in restricted free agency should be a priority. It looks like Chimezie Metu, who just switched agents, is on his way out.

So far, all of those things have come to fruition, along with a few others:

Poeltl's deal is for three years and $27 million, fair for both sides. He impacts the game in ways that don't show up in the box score, does the dirty work on both ends and could be the starting center for this team by year two of the deal, or perhaps even sooner.

Jakob Poeltl to re-sign with San Antonio Spurs on three-year deal worth $27 million

The Austrian center said he was a bit nervous about going into free agency for the first time, and he's excited to be back in San Antonio. The goal is to build on his past two years here, and when I asked him, he made it clear that his goal is to start sooner or later.

"I definitely think so, that's my short-term goal here is to grow my role here and grow into a starting role," Poeltl said. "I think what we did in the bubble was kind of the first signs of that, with a very young team where a lot of young players had to share more responsibilities than they were maybe used to during the regular season. That's definitely what I'm trying to do and where I'm trying to get to in the near future."

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It's clear that there were internal conversations about his role moving forward when this contract was being worked out, and I asked him if the Spurs had said anything about dunking more, developing an outside shot, or anything else he'd need to do to earn that job.

"I don't want to go into too much detail," he said after a thoughtful pause, "but there were some conversations about my role and how the team was gonna look in the future, because that was a big part of my decision as well. I wanted to be on a team where I felt comfortable, where I knew I would get along and play well alongside my teammates, so that was definitely a part of the conversation."

Poeltl said he made a pretty quick decision to come back to San Antonio after those conversations, which indicates that LaMarcus Aldridge is not in the team's long-term plans.

Drew Eubanks is coming back on a three-year minimum contract as the third big man, and it was a forgone conclusion that the Spurs would guarantee Trey Lyles' cheap deal for $5.5 million after he grew nicely into the starting lineup as a stretch four with some defensive chops.

Spurs sign Drew Eubanks to 3-year contract, part ways with Chimezie Metu

San Antonio is reportedly bringing in Cam Reynolds on a nonguaranteed Exhibit 10 deal, which means the undrafted shooter will play in Austin. Keita Bates Diop, a 6'8" wing with huge arms who was a second-round pick in 2018, has agreed to a two-way deal. Neither figures to crack the rotation, but they're there as emergency depth if any unfortunate injuries happen.

Bryn Forbes has signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, who won't rely on him for nearly as many minutes, which will allow him to be a pure shooter off the bench. He can play that role well. He was asked to do too much as a starter in San Antonio, and his main strengths and weaknesses were redundant on a roster with Patty Mills. Ditto for Marco Belinelli, whose second stint in San Antonio seems over as well. 

Credit: Associated Press
It's been a frustrating season for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has guided the franchise to an NBA-record-tying 22 consecutive playoff appearances.

The "too many guards" talk on draft night ignored that these strong moves were obviously coming soon. Though it may seem underwhelming, you have to step back and look at the whole board to appreciate how assertive it actually is.

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Consider the actual Queen's Gambit opening, where one of white's first moves is to sacrifice a pawn. Doing so requires an immediate surrender of a piece, but you do it to develop your back-rank pieces and set up a much more threatening position.

Last year, we didn't get to see what some of those stronger pieces can do because they were trapped behind one-dimensional shooters, who were themselves weak points for the opponents to attack.

By simply letting Bryn and Marco walk, that opens up 40 minutes in the rotation for guys like Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson and even rookie Devin Vassell. Either Derrick or Lonnie likely will slide into the starting lineup spot vacated by Forbes, and Keldon probably will assume the backup small forward role that Belinelli held for much of the season.

Vassell should get more opportunities in the rotation than any Spurs rookie since Kawhi. Though there's not nearly as much time for him to get on the same page as his new teammates in a coronavirus-shortened offseason, he has an adaptable style that allows him to plug in and play with virtually any combination of other players.

Quinndary Weatherspoon, a combo guard who was drafted in the second round last year and spent nearly all of it in the G League, is back on a two-way contract. The Spurs waived Chimezie Metu and probably will cut Tyler Zeller as well while offering Tre Jones a guaranteed rookie contract.

Now that the roster is more or less set, we can talk about the lineup and rotation.

Guards:

  • Patty Mills - 6’0”
  • Tre Jones - 6’2”
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon - 6’3”
  • Dejounte Murray - 6’5”
  • Derrick White - 6’5”
  • Lonnie Walker IV - 6’5”

Wings: 

  • DeMar DeRozan - 6’6”
  • Keldon Johnson - 6’6”
  • Devin Vassell - 6’7”
  • Rudy Gay - 6’8”
  • Trey Lyles - 6’9”
  • Luka Šamanić - 6’10”

Bigs:

  • Drew Eubanks - 6’9”
  • LaMarcus Aldridge - 6’11”
  • Jakob Poeltl - 7’1”

The depth chart probably looks something like this:

1: Derrick White, Patty Mills, Tre Jones

2: Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Quinndary Weatherspoon

3: DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell

4: Trey Lyles, Rudy Gay, Luka Šamanić

5: LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poeltl, Drew Eubanks

This is quite clearly a better team than it was last year, and the Spurs didn't need to make a trade or land a splashy free agent to build a roster with much more upside and functional versatility on both ends of the floor.

Around Christmas, LaMarcus Aldridge proved that he can space the floor and defer as a pick-and-pop big man. If he plays in the flow of the offense like that and only posts up on mismatches, he's a wonderful complementary piece who can set up the young guns and still teach them a thing or two.

Credit: Photo by Antonio Morano bit.ly/XR79FT / Special to KENS5.com
Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge recorded his sixth double-double of the season in Thursday night's 118-105 win over the Brooklyn Nets, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

In the bubble, DeMar proved he can function more as a facilitator who gets everybody else into the flow of the game before getting after it as the go-to guy down the stretch. He's a four-time All Star for his shot creation, and if he takes an open catch-and-shoot triple or so per game, he can unlock a part of his game that he didn't bring last year.

They're former All-Stars on expiring deals with valuable but specialized skills, and they may still be attractive trade targets for teams that looked for a veteran bucket-getter or a stretch five in free agency and couldn't find one. Rudy Gay and Patty Mills are also vets in contract years whom other teams may value.

Especially as the season goes on and the trade deadline approaches, some front offices may feel pressure to add that extra "win-now" piece without jeopardizing future cap space. An aggressive (or desperate) GM might jump at the chance to dump some salary and swap a future pick or two to add a proven player at a position of need who can help to achieve an immediate goal. 

Though the return will probably be smaller at the deadline than it would have been on draft night, the Spurs still can flip these players for future assets, and most people who want that don't even particularly care what those assets are. Any return would be better than losing them for nothing in free agency.

The Spurs will certainly consider those trades, but they'll also see how good this team can be after an offseason that was far more effective than it was exciting. 

They dropped two of the league's worst defenders for two of the best in the draft, immediately turning a fatal flaw in roster construction into youth and strength. They doubled down on what they saw in the bubble and created more opportunity for the continued development of the young core and a more competitive team all at once.

DeRozan and Aldridge can run spread pick and roll/pop with a variety of athletic guards and wings who can space the floor around them and attack closeouts effectively. All of those guys shot above league average on three-point attempts last year, and they can all put it on the floor too. 

The other end will be switchable wings with long arms and fast hands where just a year before there were unprotected pawns waiting to get taken. This team should be formidable on defense and a nightmare in transition.

Keldon Johnson proved his NBA readiness in the bubble, and Lonnie Walker IV is poised to take on a sixth-man role off the bench. Lyles is an excellent fit with this starting unit, almost like a more refined Kyle Kuzma who knows what his job is and doesn't have nearly as many Instagram followers.

Poeltl will remain Aldridge's hyper-effective backup for now, though he showed in Orlando that he can start if Aldridge leaves for any reason at any time. He said he's talked to teammates like Derrick White about where this group can go, and they're excited about the defensive potential.

"I think that the sky is the limit for us," Poeltl said. "We have a lot of guys in that young unit that are not only able, but willing to go out there and guard, and work together on defense. I think our defense was one of our biggest improvements in the bubble compared to what we showed during the regular season. I think having guys out there that, like I said, are not only willing to put in the work, but almost take it personal if we get scored on, make it a big deal to get stops on defense. That's a big part, that's one of the main pillars we need for a good defensive team."

Dejounte Murray still has some room to grow as a shooter and decision-maker, but he's already made strides as a three-level scorer and a defender, and the Spurs committed to him with a four-year extension worth $64 million last summer.

A similar deal could come later on for Derrick White, who was San Antonio's best all-around player in the bubble. From clamping up, taking charges and busting teeth, to creating effectively for himself and others and shooting 39% on eight attempts per game from three, he was special.

Spurs beat Kings on White's two-way dominance and DeRozan's clutch play down the stretch

It took until October last year for the Dejounte extension to happen, so don't worry that Derrick's hasn't happened yet. My educated guess is that it's coming sooner or later, but probably at least a little later, after all of the dust settles.

The Spurs really haven't missed in the first round of the draft in the past five years, and before you say it, we won't be able to have real conversations about whether they missed on Luka Šamanić or not for at least another two years. The kid is going to start off next season too young to legally have a glass of wine with Pop at dinner, so it's definitely too early to call him a bust.

He was drafted as a 6'11" project player with unicorn-level ceiling if he can polish his game and add strength to his frame. He's the kind of big swing on a high-risk, high-reward prospect that many Spurs fans lament not seeing enough of from this front office. For what it's worth, his Austin highlights were fantastic.

The two years since the Kawhi trade have not been easy, but even in that trade they got their center of the future in Jakob Poeltl. They used the pick on a monster wing and all-time "how did he fall to the Spurs?" guy in Keldon Johnson.

Rev up 'The Mustang,' Keldon Johnson excites Spurs and fans after Orlando performance

And oh yeah, DeMar DeRozan, who is a thoughtful leader and an elite creator. He will look a lot better defensively now that he can check the worst guard or wing and jump passing lanes while Derrick and Dejounte apply pressure on the ball. That's much better than trying to compensate for weak defenders who always seemed to be around him last season.

This isn't some far-fetched sci-fi fantasy. We saw what it could be like in the bubble, along with most of the young core, and it predictably looked pretty strong. It seems that's what it took for the Spurs, all the way up to Pop, to fully commit to letting them loose. Now that they're already running, it's gonna be hard to slow them down.

Last year's struggles for the Spurs were compounded through no fault of their own by the Marcus Morris debacle, which sent Davis Bertans to Washington for nothing, where he earned a five-year deal worth $80 million. Mook went to the Clippers to blow a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets with Kawhi. The Spurs were left with DeMarre Carroll, who really didn't look good enough to play and is now off the team. 

Still, the Spurs salvaged that mess by signing Trey Lyles to the aforementioned extremely-team-friendly deal to start as a solid modern 4 for two years.

After barely missing the playoffs for the first time in over two decades, and then regrouping like this, it seems unlikely that it will happen again.

From the top down, San Antonio is clearly confident enough to be in a much more aggressive position than they were last season, when a reluctance to lean into the youth movement and away from one-dimensional shooters amounted to lineup and rotation mismanagement. That caused this team to be far less competitive than they could have been, both in individual games and in the playoff race as a result.

They figured enough of it out by the bubble after a hiatus of several months, but by then Aldridge and Lyles were out and it was too little too late. It was evidently a meaningful learning experience, and it helped shape the offseason that you saw unfold. Now it's time for the players and coaches to show what they've learned.

This team can push for the middle of the pack in the Western Conference bracket, but if it's clear out of the gate that it's not going to happen for whatever reason, the Spurs will probably look to sell at the deadline. That will accelerate the development of their current young pieces while acquiring new ones, focusing on the inevitable endgame.

Maybe the vets show clear regression, either in production or to the dinosaur style that made them All-Stars in the first place, a short time ago in a basketball galaxy far, far away. Maybe the kids can't hack it, (which I sincerely doubt). The West is as strong as ever, and it just might not work out. 

Hopefully there aren't any injuries, but it's a possibility in any athletic contest. It's worth noting that after the Spurs lost 62 games in one year due to injuries, they wound up using the top pick on Tim Duncan, who may have had a slight impact on the franchise's trajectory. He isn't assistant coaching or playing anymore, but you'd best believe he'll be handing out buckets in practice and teaching the kids exactly how he's doing it.

The 2021 draft class is billed as far more thrilling than 2020, and it's a good bet that the Spurs would do well developing any draft capital they can acquire through trading veterans and/or by losing a few more games as the young guys hunt, show flashes, get exposed, grow, and experience growing pains.

That could happen, but it's more likely that San Antonio will fight and compete. For a title? Probably not, but they'll still be a good squad that can go toe-to-toe with the best teams and apply pressure on both ends.

Some would tell you that any organization that doesn't believe they can knock off the Lakers in 7 games should throw in the towel before the season begins and get the best draft pick possible, but that goes against the very ethos of what this Spurs team has embodied under Gregg Popovich.

The entire point is to keep hitting the same rock in the same spot over and over again, even when for a frustrating period of time it seems fruitless. It's one of Pop's favorite quotes, from Jacob Riis:

"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."

San Antonio does not (voluntarily) build their team through major trades or free agency. Their roster construction in a smaller market depends on drafting well, developing talent and building team chemistry. They have a pretty decent track record with that sort of thing.

On court, their identity revolves around playing tough defense and creating good shots and then better shots for one another. Their past five drafts reflect that, and it looks like after years of liking and slowly building the group they have, they're finally ready to get the most out of it.

They're moving like a confident team that believes in what they've already put together, and they should.

They're intentionally built different and better this time around, and they started the offseason by setting themselves up for success this year and in the years that follow. Whether they trade any veterans or now, later, or never, the Spurs are still closer to a top-6 seed in the West than they are to a top-10 pick in the next draft.

Those who can't see it were so busy looking for the big move that they didn't see or couldn't appreciate the big-ness of all the little moves put together.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the Spurs went with a mundane, fundamentally perfect chess computer offseason instead of an action movie one. After looking at the full board, it shouldn't be disappointing either.

After all, this is the way.