The season is quiet. The draft is over, and free agency is almost over. There are still a couple of big trades to come, but for the most part, teams have built their rosters, and the Spurs are no different.
Some of the names may change on opening night, but now is a good time to look at how the depth chart looks to see what the team’s strengths and weaknesses are. To do this, we will go over the three main groups: guards, forwards and big.
Let’s start with the guards.
PG: Trey Jones – Josh Primo – Blake Wesley
SG: Devin Vassell – Malaki Branham – Josh Richardson
Tre Jones is the only pure point guard on the roster, and considering the lack of ball-handling in the starting lineup, replacing Dejonte Murray as the team’s starting PG could be the right move. Josh Primo will spend time as the lead guard, while rookie Blake Wesley can pick up the slack as the third string. At shooting guard, Devin Vassell should lock down the starting spot, with Primo backing him up and rookie Malaki Branham getting some minutes. Josh Richardson could fill the spot if the Spurs decide to go big at small forward.
Weaknesses: There is little shot creativity and outside shooting.
What’s immediately apparent is the team’s lack of proven, high-use shooting creativity. Assists for Vassell and Richardson accounted for more than three-quarters of their total production last season. Primo assisted more than two-thirds. Jones created a shadow on half of the buckets, which is better but not good. The rookies have carried heavy offensive loads in college but may struggle to make an impact early on. Wesley wasn’t effective even at low level and may take a while to grow. Branham’s pick-and-roll offense could be valuable against the offense, but it remains to be seen if he can take on a bigger role in the pros while getting more defensive attention. The biggest weakness on paper right now is the lack of an obvious and highly used option for the guard team to act as the engine of the offense.
That’s not all, unfortunately. Shooting outdoors can also be a problem. Jones has been a very reluctant shooter since college, and when he worked through the final two months of last season, he shot just 24 percent on 1.45 attempts a night over his final 20 games. Primo was a willing shooter, and his stroke looked good early on, but his results haven’t been impressive yet, as he only connected on 31 percent of his shots as a rookie. Wesley, meanwhile, shot just 30 percent from the outside in college. All three may struggle to play off the ball, making it difficult to at least play the two together. Vassell, Branham and Richardson should be better, but there are also some question marks around their shooting range. Richardson shot the best by a mile last season, Vassell was league average, and Branham wasn’t a sound shooter at Ohio State. Spacing can be a problem.
Strengths: Unproven, but depth is there
Despite some obvious issues, there are reasons for optimism regarding the driving force. Jones’ game can be more expansive than it seems as a primary ball handler, and the rest of the guards can provide shooting creativity by committee. Primo has the leading guards at the NBA level, and both Branham and Wesley worked as featured options in college, so they can’t be completely off the ball. There’s also an opportunity for both Vassell and Keldon Johnson to take a step forward as starters, easing the burden on the younger guys. Josh Richardson can pitch, though it’s not a good idea to rely on him. It can be difficult to know who will create on any given night, but with some mixing and matching, the guards should be able to create open looks as a team.
Likewise, there may not be any standout defenders among the guards — although Vassell could easily be one — but there is plenty of length and athleticism. Other than Jones, everyone else is 6’4″ or taller, with strong wingspans. Pretty much any combination should work. The team’s switch-heavy plans were sometimes difficult for the youngsters to master, which must continue, but simply having size can help. There are good ball defenders like Jones and Primo and disruptive team defenders like Vassell and maybe Wesley. In the end, it looks like the foundation is in place to build a good perimeter defense and it will be interesting to see what kind of pairs work well in the future. Spreading the offensive load among multiple players should allow everyone to exert effort on the other end, which is the type of movement that turns defense into offense.
Losing the star without replacing him with any veteran left the Spurs severely weakened at the point guard position. Murray was a solid first option on offense, and while he wasn’t as good on the other end as he was in his career, he was still an above-average offensive defender. No one currently on the roster can offer the two-way production that he does. There’s no getting around it: The guard play could be one of the Spurs’ biggest weaknesses next season.
The constant lack of talent should at least be mitigated by the entertaining performances of the talented young players. While the starters won’t get many runs early on, it will be fascinating to watch how Jones, Primo and Vassell develop. And on any given night, there is a chance for at least one guard to do something that shows their potential and helps the team compete.
With a little luck, it happens often enough to make most games fun.