The Spurs’ frontcourt is lopsided

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You know that silly debate whether Tim Duncan is a power forward or center? It kind of matters now.

The Spurs are 2-1, but through three games they’re a below average defensive team. Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair are playing relatively poorly. This is not a statistical judgment. It’s one of those we-watch-the-games judgments. During the opening three games of the season, the Spurs’ starting frontcourt tandem of Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair has simply underperformed against expectation. The season is young, but the Spurs have at least one important problem to solve.

Offensively-speaking, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair are centers. They’re three players who, all things being equal, should play on the block. The Spurs’ offensive spacing goes to hell unless they have one frontcourt player spacing the floor for the other. This is why Matt Bonner is so effective in San Antonio, and why the Spurs miss him more than most fans realize.

What we’ve seen from this season’s early action bears this out. Tim Duncan is shooting a lot of long twos. Too many longs twos. DeJuan Blair is dramatically underperforming after a sizzling preseason. Last season, statistician Wayne Winston carefully demonstrated that DeJuan Blair is best paired with Matt Bonner, as their two-man APM is very strong. Blair plays well alongside Duncan if the Spurs are running a three guard set. Winston’s 2009/10 numbers show that Blair functions best alongside a floor stretching big or as the lone big in small ball sets.

On the defensive end of the court, Tim Duncan’s man is routinely the guy who comes out to set the pick. Opposing teams want, more than anything it seems, to get Tim Duncan switched on quick guards. Meanwhile, teams are able to exploit Blair’s height on the low block.

Long stretches of Duncan-Blair introduce offensive spacing issues into the offense. On defense, it puts both players in situations the Spurs would do better to avoid, or at least minimize. Blair can not space the floor for Duncan, and Duncan is wasted if he’s forced to spend the majority of his minutes shooting spot up 17 footers.

This is not to say that Duncan and Blair can not play well together. They can. But in shorter stints. They’ll flourish as good health allows the Spurs more flexibility to mix a diverse range of skill sets.

Jerry West used to say, when building a roster, it was best to have 12 guys who all brought something unique to the court. The Spurs are much closer to a Westian roster once Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter can be fully re-integrated into the game plan. This is stating the obvious, but I think it helps to explain DeJuan Blair’s early season struggles. And, although it’s easy to blame Tim Duncan’s most recent two games on Father Time, the more likely explanation is that Tim Duncan will benefit from better spacing too.

Matt Bonner is like cowbell. More, please.

  • Jim Henderson

    Tim in Surrey
    November 3rd, 2010 at 4:51 am

    Very solid post. Nice job.

    As far as starters? Bonner does not have, never did, and never will have the overall ability/talent to start in the NBA, particularly for a playoff contender. McDyess has, Blair does, and Splitter probably does have that ability/talent. I know Bonner has started some games in the past, but that didn’t last, and with good reason. Bonner is a role player, and a limited one at that. And let’s face it, starting Bonner sends a pretty weak signal to the rest of the league. I mean, really! Now, if Splitter can beat Blair out for the starting job I’m open to that. If neither prove quite ready, I’m okay with Dice handling the job for awhile. But, Bonner? No way.

  • bduran

    Matt Bonner definitely should never start, I think most of us can agree with this. What people disagree on is what is he worth as a role player? I’ve always thought he provided valuable regular season minutes as a stretch four when the D we face isn’t playoff level. However, he didn’t seem to perform well in the playoffs.

    He’s only played meaningful minutes in the playoffs during the last two years. Two years ago he abysmal. Last year, he wasn’t good, but he did shoot 37% from 3 which may have been team leading last year since we couldn’t hit a 3 to save our life. Now I’m thinking this could be Bonner’s year in the playoffs. If Neal and Anderson aren’t just teasing us, I think a lineup of something like Manu, Neal, Anderson, Bonner,and Blair could really do some damage on offense. They’d be a liability on defense, but they’d be facing second units. I dunno, but I’m optimistic that Bonner could provide a decent 10 minutes in the playoffs with the way our lineup is shaping up. At the very least I think he may be a viable option for when our starters are having a bad night and we need to shake things up to have a chance to get back in a game.

  • http://www.sanantoniospurs.com SPURS FAN SINCE 89

    Good Luck Spurs tonight.
    I want payback!!!!

  • http://www.sanantoniospurs.com SPURS FAN SINCE 89

    In 2004 what if Fisher wouldn’t have made that last shot with 0.4 seconds; what if………
    1. Would the Spurs have beaten the T-Wolves in the Conference Finals? Yes
    2. Would the Spurs have beaten the Pistons again in the finals? Yes, there 5th champioship.
    In 2006 when Pop called a time out with 24 seconds left and said time and time again no foul…. What if Ginobli would’ve never fouled Dirk with 22 seconds left. The Spurs would’ve won the game, right? They were up by 3.
    1. Would the Spurs have beaten Phoenix in the Conference Finals? Yes
    2. Would the Spurs have beaten miami? Yes they would have won there 6th championship.
    In the 2008 conference finals against L.A. What if Ginobli wasn’t injured…. When Bruce Bowen was holding Kobe to 0 points through the end of the 3rd quarter in Game 2 in L.A., what if Pop would have never taken him out of the game to rest him? What if the Spurs hadn’t blown a 20 point lead at the end of the 3rd quarter???. And the Spurs didn’t blow a 16 point lead in the 3rd quarter in game 5. in L.A.??? Would the Spurs have won that series. In my mind yes they would have. Even with an injured Ginobli and an aging bench with role players.
    1. Could the Spurs have possibly beaten Boston and the Big 3 in the Finals. Yes it could’ve been possible for there 7th championship. (Maybe I’m stretching it a little on this one, but I hate L.A. with a passion and I was livid when the Spurs blew those leads. I was so amazed and happy to see Bowen holding Kobe to 0 points, and I feel like Pop got outcoached in that series.)
    STILL BEAT L.A.