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 won’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 is  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 defensive  energy helped lead the way. The Spurs held Detroit to 40 second half points.  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 Bowen’s Defensive APM in a six-year average model (all seasons evenly weighted from 2003-2009).  His Defensive APM number of +2.95 was 4th best among perimeter (non-big) starters/high-minute guys over that span.  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.

  • agutierrez

    Great insight. I don’t know if there’s a statistic that captures it, but when Manu is at his defensive best, he gets inside opponent’s heads and gets them out of their games. He did this with Rip Hamilton last game. He was torching us, pretty much keeping Detroit in the game by himself. No one had been able to contain him. But when Manu was put on him midway through the 4th quarter, he just got right inside his uniform. Hamilton got so pissed he first shoved Manu out of bounds when he was going for a loose ball. The ref didn’t call it and Manu reminded him of what had happened. Next time down the court, Hamilton just blatantly shoved a hard shoulder into Manu’s chest, drawing the offensive foul. By then, Hamilton was completely out of his game and Detroit’s chances were effectively over. Manu used to do this all the time to Jerry Stackhouse. If there isn’t, there should be a category for that kind of game impact.

  • Martin


    I have noticed that today there have been some issues with the external links. The link for the defensive ranking is not working as one of the links from the Manu & Fab post did not either

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Huh? Thanks, Martin. I’ll look into it.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner


    Strange, but they’re working for me.

  • Cory Clay

    Great Post!
    Of course all of the attention goes to the highlight fastbreak blocks from behind by Lebron and D-Wade playing the passing lanes but I’ll take Manu’s consist all game long defense of getting into his man’s chest and beating him to spots on the floor!

  • Cory Clay

    ……….I’ll take Manu’s consistent all game long….

  • Hirschof

    Reading posts like this warms my little heart.

    Excellent piece

  • BlaseE

    I don’t have anything to add to the discussion, but this post/article is awesome.

  • Dr. Love

    Echo great post. Remind me again why I pay for the E-N sports section, when I get way better stuff for free on this system of Interweb tubes?

  • LionZion

    Excellent point about Manu’s perimeter pest defense! You gotta wonder how soon we forget hehe. And I remember that summer article.

    Ah sweet optimism. Manu’s slowly getting into shape. Dyess is finding his legs. Now if we can hold Dallas to around 90.

  • sj_papi

    This is a great article because it further emphasizes how a good defensive club remains good….philosophy. i’m glad that Pop and Tony can still get at eachother, but Tony was wrong in this case. Yes, the scouting report does say to let Stuckey take that three. I remember Kobe Bryant going on and on about playing the percentages on that dumb ass Spike Lee movie he made. The difference with a club like the Spurs is that their philosophy states that you must always.. always guard against that corner three. That’s a powerful thing because instead of getting wrapped up in individual percentages, the SPURS say that no matter who we play, we will not be giving you “any” corner threes. It’s clear, consistent, and helps your team because every night, EVERYONE knows that the player closest to that shooter better be up in his grill. If the damn mascot is spotting up from the corner, you better be up in his grill. 5 guys, one philosophy. I’m sure Pop’s got a bunch. Brilliant stuff.

  • lvmainman

    42 pts given up in the 4th qtr against a playoff team at home, does not a hint of a better defense make. Depressing.

  • wannabe_fan

    Yep, a bit of bad timing for this article and the link on truehoop. We sure looked good against those sub .500 teams we beat. And looked good last night until the last 10 minutes of the game. The worst part was the only stream I could pick up was from a Dallas station. It seemed that every time the mavs scored in the 4th, the homer announcer would yell “TAKE THAT SPURS”. It only occurred to me late in the game that I could MUTE the sound…lol.

    Listen, I still think we can pull it all together, but I have no clue to the reason of the collapse last night.

  • reader

    Great to see this kind of analysis, most articles these days are about drama rather than basketball.

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