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The Spurs Have One of the NBA’s Best Lineups—on the Bench

San Antonio’s second unit is absolutely crushing opponents, fueling an unlikely playoff push in the West and offering a glimpse of what the next iteration of the Spurs will look like

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The list of the NBA’s best lineups often maps fairly neatly to the top of the standings. These carefully curated five-man units represent the cream of the league’s crop—all marquee names and central-casting role players anchoring teams with a real shot of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. This season, for example, the lineups that have outscored opponents by the largest number of points are the preferred starting fives of the 76ers, Jazz, Clippers, and Lakers—the teams with the four best records in the NBA.

There are outliers, though. Sometimes it’s a unit propped up by the heroics of a singular superstar, like an injury-wrecked Blazers lineup that rests on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. Sometimes it’s a five-man lineup that suggests a team is starting to find its identity, like the Kings’ small-ball lineup that runs De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and rookie Tyrese Haliburton alongside Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes. And sometimes it’s one that makes you do a double take, refresh the page a couple of times, and make sure you really read that right.

Case in point: The Spurs’ second unit of Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, Jakob Poeltl, rookie Devin Vassell, and holdover starter Dejounte Murray is absolutely hammering teams.

That five-man unit has torched opponents by 52 points in 82 minutes—tops of any lineup on a surprising San Antonio squad that sits at 16-11, fifth in the ultra-competitive West. In fact, the lineup boasts the eighth-best mark in the entire league.

To be fair, it’s not exactly shocking that the Spurs have a good bench. That’s been one of their calling cards since before Vassell was born: San Antonio has finished in the top 10 in bench net rating every season since 1998-99, with 16 top-five finishes and seven seasons leading the league. (Having that Ginobili guy around didn’t hurt.) Nor is it breaking news that San Antonio’s recent starting fives built around veterans DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have struggled: Lineups featuring that tandem were outscored in 2019-20, and have been rinsed by nearly 10 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions this season. (As I mentioned in my All-Star reserves column, those ugly splits hang largely on Aldridge, whose declining speed and quickness have made him a glaring defensive minus.)

We’ve seen Gregg Popovich use his bench as a change of pace to lift San Antonio out of holes before. You might recall him turning to a Mills–Marco Belinelli–Davis Bertans–Bryn Forbes unit a couple of years back to shake the Spurs out of the starters’ midrange morass with an infusion of ball movement and 3-point bombing. This year’s model, though, has been whooping ass on the defensive end—before four positive COVID tests put the whole team on ice for a week, anyway. The Murray-Mills-Gay-Vassell-Poeltl lineup has vise-gripped opponents to the tune of 80 points per 100 possessions in its limited run. To put that in context: The league-leading Lakers defense allows 106.5 per 100. So, yeah: Pretty good!

It’s a unit built to suffocate. Murray stands 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and already has an All-Defensive second team nod under his belt. Vassell stands 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and has from the start of the season looked like every bit the plug-and-play defensive difference-maker that draftniks projected; he leads the rookie class by a mile in defensive box plus-minus, and is one of only three players averaging more than three steals and one block per 100 possessions. These are a pair of long, tenacious, smart individual and team defenders who can guard across the positional spectrum and wreak havoc in passing lanes.

The 32-year-old Mills isn’t quite as disruptive as he was earlier in his career, but in addition to everything he brings on the offensive end—13.2 points and 2.7 assists in 25.4 minutes per game, a blistering 46.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s—he remains an active, energetic pest on defense. Gay continues to age gracefully in his Millsap-esque third act, using his size and savvy to capably defend power forwards and centers (plus the occasional 3, here and there) and help out on the glass, grabbing more than 20 percent of available defensive rebounds. Gay and Mills work in concert, rotating on a string and interrupting opponents’ flow; the full quartet combines to generate 12 deflections per 36 minutes of floor time.

They also funnel everything toward Poeltl, whom San Antonio retained for the relative pittance of three years and $26.3 million in restricted free agency last offseason—and who remains the best defensive big man that nobody ever talks about. (Well, except Spurs fans and herbs like me.)

Poeltl ranks ninth in the NBA in blocks per game and fifth in block percentage, rejecting 5.8 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts. Opponents shoot just 53 percent at the rim when the 25-year-old Austrian is patrolling the middle, a full 10 percent below league average; he has been, by far, the stingiest basket protector among defenders to contest at least 100 up-close shots.

If Poeltl hadn’t become an abhorrently, historically bad free throw shooter—after making nearly 60 percent at the line during his final season in Toronto, he’s now down to 31.6 percent, one of the 10 worst charity-stripe marks ever among rotation players—he’d be a linchpin starter. Virtually every public-facing impact metric pegs Poeltl as a massively valuable defensive player: He’s an interior deterrent who can hold his own when switched out onto the perimeter, and his penchant for keeping his blocks inbounds fits perfectly into the M.O. of a unit that seeks to turn defense to offense.

Poeltl’s former team, the Raptors, force turnovers on a league-leading 16.7 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions. The sample is small—just 175 non-garbage-time plays—but the Spurs’ top bench lineup is forcing them on a staggering 21.7 percent. Those defense-to-offense swings get Mills, Murray, and Vassell out on the break and into the open floor; this group adds 4.2 points per 100 to San Antonio’s offense in transition, a really useful boost for a Spurs offense that ranks just 18th in offensive efficiency, and scores at a near-bottom-five rate whenever DeMar DeRozan isn’t on the floor. String a few of those stop/turnover-runout-bucket sequences together, and deficits can get erased, ties can become leads, and leads can become wins.

It’s a lineup construction that just makes sense. Poeltl acts as the fulcrum, the screen-and-dive rim runner, and the rim protector. Gay is the playmaking 4 who can stretch the floor (36.6 percent from long distance on 4.3 attempts per game), work either end of the two-man game, and put the ball on the deck to get to the rim. Vassell is an immediate 3-and-D floor-raiser—39.7 percent from deep on 2.4 tries per night to go with all that defensive disruption—who can slowly develop his off-the-dribble game because Mills and Murray are around to shoulder the shot-creation load. Mills provides the off-ball activity and knockdown shooting to give everyone else space. Murray brings the quick-twitch playmaking dynamism to break down opponents off the dribble and get defenses in rotation. What the lineup lacks in superstar talent, it makes up in harmonic synergy—a testament to how putting the right pieces together can produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a very Spurs-y notion.

Pop can pepper other players into lineups like this, too. The return of Derrick White from a fractured toe adds another ace defender who can run point and shoot; in time, maybe 2020 draftee Tre Jones could slot into that sort of role, too. DeRozan reprising his role from the bubble and sliding up to play small-ball 4 creates more space for Keldon Johnson, who is averaging 14.5 points, seven rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game in a breakout sophomore season, and Lonnie Walker IV, who was a bit overtaxed as a starter but remains a live wire off the dribble and raises hell on the wings. In theory, Trey Lyles seems tailor-made for Gay’s role (though, in practice, he’s rarely cracked the rotation this season); 2019 first-rounder Luka Samanic is still just 21, but he’s fresh off an impressive stretch averaging 22 and 11 in the G League bubble. There are pieces to play with here, and they might fit together pretty damn well.

In the short term, what the Spurs already have in-house was good enough to get them on a roll; they won eight of 11 before their recent COVID-19 outbreak, with the league’s fifth-best defense and no. 8 point differential in that span. Whether it’ll be good enough to keep them on the path to a playoff berth remains to be seen; ESPN’s Basketball Power Index simulations give San Antonio about a 36 percent chance of postseason play, while FiveThirtyEight’s model puts the odds at about 73 percent. (Having to resume play with a half-dozen players still out probably won’t help those odds too much.)

The bigger-picture question, though, is how the Spurs’ front office will approach rounding out the roster moving forward. San Antonio is two and a half games out of fourth place in the West; it’s also three games out of 10th. As trade season kicks into gear, will the Spurs try to see what their expiring-contract veterans—DeRozan, Aldridge, Gay, and Mills—might bring back? Or, emboldened by their pre-shutdown form, might they feel confident enough in what they have to consider buying rather than selling? If they stand pat, those vets will all hit unrestricted free agency after the season; if none are re-signed, San Antonio is “projected to have over $50 million in room in 2021-22,” according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. It’ll be difficult for the Spurs to shop at the top of a market in which a ton of teams will have a lot of money to spend; if DeRozan is willing to come back at a reduced (but likely still very high) rate, that might be as good a way to spend some money as any scenario San Antonio can reasonably entertain.

Still: If the Spurs’ brain trust can find a young power forward who could approximate (and ideally improve upon) what Gay provides, and another defensive big to platoon with Poeltl (ideally one who doesn’t miss 70 percent of his free throws), they could have the beginnings of something special—a team with the spine of a top-10-caliber defense, and a bunch of offensive perimeter talent to go with it. After a few years searching for what’s next after the abrupt ending of the Kawhi Leonard era, it feels like the Spurs have found something—if not a fully fleshed-out identity and framework, then at least a path toward crafting them. Getting there will take a lot of development, and at least a little luck. But with a bit of both, the Spurs might just stick around the top of those lineup rankings—not as the outliers who seem like they don’t belong, but as one of the heavyweights firmly in the thick of a title chase once more.

All stats through Monday night’s games.