For the first time in 20 years, the Spurs have started a season without Tim Duncan on the roster. It’s a new day for everyone. Duncan was an institution on and off the court, and his brand of selfless play — as well as his refusal to reveal any trace of his personality — helped define the Spurs as an organization. Replacing him in the locker room would have been difficult enough as an end-of-the-bench veteran, but he was still an integral part of the team last season, even at the age of 39. His retirement left a gaping hole in the middle of the defense, and most of the skepticism surrounding the Spurs this season centered on whether their new name-brand additions, Pau Gasol and David Lee, would be able to fill his shoes. The player no one outside of San Antonio counted on to help replace Duncan was fellow newcomer Dewayne Dedmon, who has been one of the early surprises of the season.
The Spurs signed Dedmon to a two-year, $6 million contract in the offseason, which might as well have been a minimum salary given the way NBA teams were throwing money around over the summer. Dedmon was a project few fans had even heard of. After going undrafted out of USC in 2013, he had cups of coffee with the 76ers and the Warriors before catching on with the Magic, where he spent the past two and a half seasons backing up Nikola Vucevic. It’s hard to make much of a splash nationally when you’re averaging less than 15 minutes a game on one of the worst teams in the NBA. The Spurs pursued Dedmon in large part thanks to the recommendation of assistant coach James Borrego, who had coached Dedmon during his time in Orlando.
Dedmon has always been the longest of long shots. He didn’t start playing basketball until the age of 18, when he joined his high school team as a senior. His mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, had long barred him from playing organized sports. Few players would have been able to overcome such a lack of experience, but all it takes is one look at him to see why coaches at every level of the game were willing to give him shot after shot. At 7 feet tall and 245 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Dedmon has prototypical size and reach for an NBA center, and he’s an incredible athlete who bounces off the court like it’s a trampoline. He can run and jump with the best of them.
The Spurs haven’t had a big man as athletic as Dedmon in years; you’d have to go all the way back to a young David Robinson to find the last one. They have mostly preferred to play more skilled guys next to Duncan, who was nominally a power forward and functionally a center for well over a decade. Dedmon has shown flashes of a midrange jumper, but the ideal role for his skill set is clear: run up and down the court, swat shots, snatch rebounds, set screens, and roll to the rim. Doing all that would have been difficult next to Duncan, who played closer to the rim and stopped shooting as many jumpers as he got older. For as great as he still was, Duncan was no longer much of a threat as a roll man in the two-man game, and none of the Spurs’ main big men last season were anywhere near as effective in that role as Dedmon. Though his limited minutes with the Magic restricted his opportunities in the pick-and-roll, he excelled with the chances he did get. Dedmon scored 1.38 points per possession as the roll man, putting him in the 96th percentile of players in the league, and behind only DeAndre Jordan in pick-and-roll efficiency among players who engaged in the play type on at least 65 possessions.
The Spurs and Dedmon are the perfect marriage of team and player. Dedmon gives San Antonio’s frontcourt the athletic dimension it desperately needs, while the Spurs have simplified the game for him and allowed him to do what he does best. The Spurs don’t ask him to do much on offense, but they also don’t need him to, not with all the shooting and skill that surrounds him. It’s the same story on defense, where Dedmon is blocking shots at a career-high rate. A rim protector can be more effective when paired with veteran teammates who understand the defensive scheme and can funnel penetration toward him. It was the blind leading the blind in Orlando, where Dedmon was moved in and out of the rotation on a rebuilding team that has never really figured out an identity in the post–Dwight Howard era. The Magic have seen several young players flourish once they left town; Dedmon could be added to the list if he builds on the production he’s had up to this point.
Through the first five games of the season, Dedmon is averaging 5.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks a game in only 17.1 minutes, making him one of the most productive per-minute rebounders and shot blockers in the NBA. Dedmon did not have a good game against Utah in San Antonio’s 106–91 loss on Tuesday, but his early output overall has been a net positive. His value to what the Spurs are trying to accomplish can’t be captured in a traditional box score, anyway. Dedmon has the best net rating on the team, with the Spurs outscoring their opponents at a rate of 36 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. The Spurs’ defensive rating of 82.3 when Dedmon is on the floor skyrockets to 108.1 when he’s off. Those numbers obviously have to be taken with a grain of salt at this point in the season, but they do reflect issues many anticipated with the roster. The Spurs starters are not defending well, and the aging duo of Gasol and Tony Parker have been two of the primary culprits. The difference has been the younger second unit headlined by Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons, who have been blowing opposing teams off the court. Dedmon is in three of the Spurs’ six most effective two-man pairings in terms of plus-minus, and Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge are the only starters in any of their top-10 pairings.
Of course, Gregg Popovich isn’t expecting either Gasol or Parker to be at his best in October and November. The Spurs pace their veteran players, in the hopes that they will be peaking in May and June. Like most coaches, Popovich tends to trust older players when the games start to matter, and it’s an open question how many minutes the Spurs’ younger players will be able to earn in the playoffs. As a rookie last season, Simmons didn’t play at all in their second-round loss to the Thunder, even though the Spurs desperately needed his size and athleticism on the perimeter to match up with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Pop tends to bring players along slowly, and a newcomer like Dedmon will have to secure the trust of the coaching staff.
Pop may not have a choice, though. If there has been a theme to the Spurs’ playoff defeats over the past two seasons, it has been their inability to match up with younger big men. Blake Griffin averaged 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 7 assists a game, while DeAndre Jordan shot 71.4 percent from the floor in the Clippers’ first-round victory over the Spurs in 2015. The Thunder turned the tide of their second-round series with the Spurs in 2016 by featuring a supersized frontcourt of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. With Duncan, Aldridge, David West, and Boris Diaw, the Spurs had one of the most skilled front lines in the NBA last season, but they just didn’t have the bulk and the energy to keep up with Oklahoma City’s muscle-bound Leviathans almost half their age. The Spurs cleaned house in the offseason, and Aldridge is the only big man still around.
Dedmon’s ability as a rim runner, rebounder, and shot blocker gives the Spurs a lot of options in a playoff series. He can cover for either Aldridge or Gasol at the rim on defense, and then subsist on dump-off passes and rim runs while they space the floor for him. The Spurs can also play much smaller and faster with Dedmon at the 5 and two-way wings like Kawhi, Simmons, and Danny Green spread out in front of him. Like all more traditional big men, it’s unclear whether Dedmon could stay on the floor in a potential playoff series against the new-look Warriors, a situation all contenders must consider over the course of the season. However, the Spurs have not faced the Warriors in the playoffs since 2013 — and that was before Draymond Green became a star and way before Durant decided to join forces. If they do meet again, San Antonio can’t count on Golden State being as disjointed as the Warriors looked in the Spurs’ opening night blowout, but for the first time in a while, they have lineups that can at least keep up with some of the more athletic units around the league.
In the last few seasons of the Duncan era, the Spurs could always count on out-executing their opponents in the half court. They were a regular-season machine in 2016, winning 67 games and posting some of the best defensive numbers in NBA history. However, when push came to shove in the playoffs (literally, in the case of Adams and Kanter) they just couldn’t keep up athletically. Dedmon represents a course correction. Instead of going solely with established veterans, the Spurs now boast one of the most athletic second units in the NBA. The Spurs have always been able to beat teams with size and skill. Now they can win with speed as well.