Hints of a Better Defense
Years ago Gregg Popovich participated in a coaching clinic in Belgrade, and part of his work there included preparing two articles for FIBA Assist Magazine on the Spurs’ game philosophy. In those articles Popovich discussed the Spurs’ approach to defending the corner three–a high priority for every Popovich-coached defense–in this way:
One of the best positions for shooting is when the player is positioned in the corner on the ball side. The majority of coaches want their players to try and stop the penetration by moving the defender X4 to play this defensive role. I do just the opposite. A defender from the angle never helps on penetration because I wonâ€™t let the offense make a shot from the corner [emphasis mine]. This defensi-ve concept is, among other things, one of the reasons why San Antonio was second in the NBA defensive statistics for the lowest percentage of three-point shots made by opponents [2002-3].
These words from Coach Popovich provide a little background to the recent sideline flap between Popovich and Tony Parker. That flap, which was nothing more than a slightly elevated but entirely common exchange between coach and player, was chronicled by LJ Ellis of SpursTalk.
It’s rare to see Tony Parker and Pop yelling at each other but that took place early in the second quarter against the Pistons. Here was the scenario: Parker didn’t close all the way out on Rodney Stuckey when Stuckey was in the corner behind the three-point line. Instead, Parker closed out to within about five feet to protect against the drive. Stuckey proceeded to rise up and knock down the three-pointer after a slight hesitation.
Pop, as is usually the case when an opposing player gets an open three-pointer, wasn’t too happy. On the next stoppage, he yelled at Parker for not closing out. He then took Parker out of the game and the two exchanged more heated words. Why was Parker angry? He felt he was following the scouting report. Coming into the game, Stuckey was 14.7% on three-pointers. Even worse than that, he had missed his last ten from downtown and was just one for his last 19.
After the game, as Ellis notes, Pop took a moment to praise Parker’s 4th quarter defense. Spurs.com captured that praise in their postgame video:
My take on this is all positive because it’s evidence of the sort of attention to detail San Antonio’s defense needs to regain its spot among the NBA’s elite teams. And, after a slow start, they’re getting there. The Spurs began the season ranked in the 20s in terms of defensive efficiency. As of this morning, the Spurs have inched their way into 7th. They give every indication that their ascent into the top five or, more optimistically, three defenses in the league isÂ simply a matter of dates falling off the calendar.
The Spurs allowed an embarrassing 52 first half points against the Pistons, a total that won’t fly for a Spurs coaching staff that tries to hold opponents at or below 22 points a quarter. San Antonio clamped down on the Pistons in the second half, and Manu Ginobili’s non-stop defensiveÂ energy helped lead the way. The Spurs held Detroit to 40 second half points.Â Ginobili was on the charge-taking end of two offensive fouls and collected a steal in the same stretch of play.
Over the summer, Steve Ilardi shocked me by advancing an statistic which advertised Manu Ginobili as the league’s third best perimeter defender over the previous 6 seasons. That conversation was in the context of Bruce Bowen’s retirement, but Dr. Ilardi included Ginobili as an attention-grabbing aside.
I just went back and looked at Bowenâ€™s Defensive APM in a six-year average model (all seasons evenly weighted from 2003-2009).Â His Defensive APM number of +2.95 was 4th best among perimeter (non-big) starters/high-minute guys over that span.Â He only trailed [Ron] Artest (+5.09), [Shane] Battier (+3.92), and (ironically enough) [Manu] Ginobili (+3.24).
In the earlier stages of this season, the Spurs’ defense looked dreadful, and Manu Ginobili’s individual play wasn’t anything to brag about. His current defensive rating is still muddied by his slow start, and is one of the worst on the team. Over the course of the first 20-25 games, Manu was a half-Ginobili; he couldn’t finish at the rim and he wasn’t a pest on the perimeter. Writers tend to focus their scrutiny of San Antonio’s defense around the loss of Bruce Bowen and the performance of Tim Duncan. But let it be known, Manu Ginobili’s defense is indispensable to the team’s success. And he’s starting to get his groove back.
Couple Manu’s recent play with the improved defensive intensity Popovich demands from the rest of the team, and the Spurs are a team on the rise.