The Pelicans, flush with optimism following a 4-0 start, have digressed to mediocrity with losses to the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, and Portland Trail Blazers over the past week. New Orleans (4-4) can salvage a troubling road trip with two games remaining on their jaunt out West, and next on the list is legendary head coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs (5-2).
The Spurs record may be a bit misleading on paper, as two of their wins came against the embattled Lakers by a combined five points, and victories over the Wolves and Mavericks by a combined nine points.
However, the Spurs sluggish pace (25th) could give the Pelicans trouble, as their slow developing offensive sets in mid court can bring defenses to their breaking points. Put simply, the Spurs like to win time of possession, and they like to run on offense.
If you look at the 10 teams that cover the most distance offensively, you’ll find just one (Sacramento) that’s also in the top 10 in possessions per game. At the top of that list is the San Antonio Spurs, running a league-high 10.36 miles per game on offense despite (or, rather, on account of) playing the fourth-lowest number of possessions per game.
At 114.6 points per game, the Spurs can handle their own in the scoring column, all the while utilizing an unconventional attack in today’s NBA that has all but eliminated the deep ball, shooting just 22 per game (29th). Much of this can be attributed to the successful early play of Toronto Raptors’ record-holder, the newly acquired DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan’s 28/7/6 leads the Spurs and has found his perfect fit.
But don’t discount the effect of former Blazer, LaMarcus Aldridge. Just two years ago, the consensus had Aldridge’s game as a quickly dissipating property. However, Popovich managed to talk to him out of his trade request, and now the Spurs are finding their function offensively with the former Longhorn.
The Spurs’ offensive rating is 14.6 points higher with LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor. (That’s the second highest of the team’s rotation players, just behind DeMar DeRozan’s 15.5.) And it’s despite Aldridge shooting only 44.3% so far this year, which would be a career low. He’s averaging career highs in offensive rebounds (4.3 per game) and assists (3.1 per game), but putting up “just” 20 points per game on 18 shots, with a handful of second chances and some dimes, doesn’t seem like enough to have close to the same impact as DeMar’s 28/7/6. Which means LMA has found ways to impact the bottom line that aren’t showing up in the box score.
Defense, as it turns out, is this unit’s bug-a-boo. The 18th rated defense in the NBA lacks the foot speed to close out in the paint (22nd), and slow the fast break (27th). With injuries to back court mates, Derrick White and Dejountae Murray, and summer league standout Lonnie Walker IV, the Spurs have frankly a bunch of slow footed dudes who lack the athleticism necessary to slow down the Pelicans and their fourth rated pace.
But this squad still has serious flaws—more serious than we’ve seen from any iteration over the last two decades. As covered in more detail here, the Spurs are struggling immensely on the defensive end, hemorrhaging 114.5 points per 100 possessions with a rotation that isn’t bound for much improvement. Even when Derrick White (plantar fascia) and Lonnie Walker IV (right knee) are healthy, the season-ending ACL tear suffered by Dejounte Murray might be too much to overcome.
Now all of this is null and void should the Pelicans limp into the AT&T Center Saturday night, but the Pelicans received some better news on Friday afternoon.
Darius Miller could return and Anthony Davis is 48 hours removed from nearly being in the lineup against the Trail Blazers. And in case you haven’t been watching, the Pelicans are pretty good with AD on the court.
The New Orleans Pelicans have the firepower to take care of their Southwest rival, when healthy, and should run up the score on their Texas neighbor and get back into the win column if things go to plan.
Let’s Geaux Pels!
What: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio Spurs
Where: AT&T Center
When: Saturday, November 3, 2018, 7:30 p.m. Central
How: FSNO, FSSW, 99.5 FM WRNO