Corporate Knowledge: November 23, 2012
The story of the San Antonio Spurs season so far has been the resurgence of Tim Duncan. A few years ago Duncan’s game appeared to have plateaued, and the Spurs set for their at long last decline.
Though able to still score at a decent clip, Duncan no longer commanded double teams from the post as he once did and his overall efficiency was no longer able to anchor the Spurs’ 4-down offense. Worse, in a playoff series loss to the Phoenix Suns, Duncan was exposed defensively in pick-and-roll situations.
Since that playoff series, Duncan has returned from each summer a little lighter than the one before, with more flexibility and improved range.
No longer a dominant low post threat in a league that has begun phase it it out, Duncan transformed his body and his game.
“He’s never been a leaper, so to speak, but he’s always been a really fundamentally sound individual,” Coach Pop said. “He’s expanded his game — kind of like Michael [Jordan] learned to shoot more instead of dunking everything — Timmy’s learning to knock down the jumpers on the elbows and on the wings because he’s not going to go down in the post and amaze people every time anymore.”
— Gregg Popovich, via Andrew McNeill
The results have been amazing. Duncan is once again anchoring the Spurs on both sides of the ball (hiding, or at least deflecting attention from, the early season struggles of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili). His numbers have not only sustained, some have actually improved upon career norms.
If the season were to end today (I know, it’s only eleven games in, but humor me here), Duncan would have his highest true-shooting percentage in six years (56.4), his highest PER (27.4, good enough for second in the league behind LeBron James), defensive-rebounding percentage (30.5), steal percentage (1.7) and block percentage (6.7) of his career, as well as the lowest turnover percentage (7.9) he’s ever had. He’s been a monster on both sides of the floor, but his defense has been most impressive. Duncan is currently averaging more blocks per 36 minutes (3.2) than in any other season of his career.
And Duncan isn’t the only Spur evolving. According to Zach Lowe over at Grantland, the Spurs have deviated some from the dominant offense they displayed last season. With the bigger picture in mind, Popovich is seeking more diversity to counter better defensive game plans in the playoffs.
But Popovich, as always, has long-term goals in mind. Chief among them: An offense that isn’t overly dependent on Ginobili, Parker, Duncan, and the pick-and-roll. The Spurs are getting more of their offense this season from cuts and off-ball screens, per Synergy Sports, in part because they’ve introduced non-pick-and-roll sets designed to produce those kinds of looks.
This is nothing new. Popovich has always used the early parts of the regular season to mix and match rotations, perhaps allowing for some early season struggles in exchange for finding the best possible version of that year’s team. The Spurs’ annual second half surge isn’t the product of a light switch going on or off, but rather Popovich weeding out what does or doesn’t work and setting his rotations.
The most obvious tinkering is along the frontcourt, where Duncan is the only constant on any given night. If you read Lowe’s article, it notes Bonner’s absence from the rotation as the Spurs seek playmaking from all five positions on the court. While Bonner’s presence amplifies the Spurs’ regular season offense, focused defensive game plans have always been able to negate him in the playoffs. Blair, Splitter, and Diaw are all solid passers and infinitely more mobile offensively.
One of the unexpected byproducts, however, has been Tiago Splitter’s rebounding taking a dive (Bonner, for all his faults, does a better job of boxing his man out than Diaw). Defensive rebounding has become a problem this season. Something sure to get worse with injuries to both small forwards.
J. Gomez from Pounding the Rock looks in-depth at Splitter’s rebounding issues:
So why was Splitter a good rebounder last season and not this one? The answers are simple: one, he played almost exclusively with Matt Bonner who, for all his many faults and limitations, is much more consistent than Diaw in sealing off his man and rotating on time, and two, Splitter is contesting much more aggressively now.
Tiago is averaging career highs in blocks per 36 minutes and block percentage, and while his numbers don’t even come close to Duncan’s, he is often helping the team protect the rim as well as Duncan does. Against the last three opponents, the Spurs allowed the same or lower percentage at the rim with Splitter on the court. The difference, other than the fact that Duncan is often surrounded by better rebounders and defenders, is the often underrated ability that Big Fun has to contest and remain in position to rebound.
And finally, go to Gothic Ginobili for Aaron McGuire’s fantastic profile feature on Manu Ginobili escaping death:
But he stood, captivated. Death sees your thoughts and your soul, without exception — he saw things the way that his prey saw things, as though partial to a silver screen show of thoughts and dreams that only Death and his targets could experience. It was as though Ginobili had believed so readily, so truthfully, so morbidly that he’d brought his phantasms to life. And there he stood, besides a willowy Duncan and a semi-transparent Nowitzki. Kidd, Kobe, Garnett — the signed jerseys on his wall — all seemed to rise from the ground around Ginobili. He joked — if only to himself — and the ghosts of the living laughed with him.
And then the games began.
It was a driveway. A street. A court with no discernable dimensions. There were no fouls, there was no referee, there were only shots and passes. Ginobili would cross over behind a bush, the shrubbery a clearly-immobile screen to lose Bryant’s coverage. He threw a pinpoint pass to Duncan, who made a 40-foot basket as though he was centimeters from the rim. There were images, moments, and fragments of time. And then the seminal moments of Manu’s young life began to cycle. His first Euroleague title, as he drained baskets over Elmer Bennett and finished off a hard-fought Game #5 victory. His Olympic Gold, and his dizzying 29 point performance over a USA team that had no answer to his brilliance. His array of clutch shots and backbreaking threes to help the Spurs past the defending champions in 2005.