Injuries and the wrong kind of small ball
AT&T CENTER — Size remains a premium in the NBA, even as the league trends smaller and quicker. Since their first round playoff loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs have been perceived as especially vulnerable to teams with large frontlines.
While head coach Gregg Popovich continues to audition frontcourt partners for Tim Duncan—with Matt Bonner making a case for more playing time last night—the Spurs had quietly upgraded and deployed size in less obvious ways than bringing in another seven-foot shot blocker.
In trading George Hill for Kawhi Leonard and bringing back Stephen Jackson, gone were the days of three guard lineups that stressed the Spurs defensive rotations against any team with even a modicum of size on the wings. With two oversized wings, the Spurs had an endless amount of roster versatility at their disposal and a framework for better defense.
“With length at the two and three positions, often times can lend itself to a little bit better overall defense,” Popovich said a season ago. “More deflections, more contested shots, better rebounding, crowding the court a little bit more. All kinds of little things that add up to big things can happen with bigger people.”
With Stephen Jackson out for a 4-6 weeks with a broken finger, and Kawhi Leonard expected to be out for two weeks, the Spurs figure to be hurting for size.
“It’s difficult to lose any player, especially if you lost your starting small forward a couple of games before,” Manu Ginobili said when asked about Jackson’s injury after the game. “We’re going to be shorthanded for a while and we’ll have to figure it out. It’s going to be hard but it’s a good test for us.”
Against the Los Angeles Clippers the Spurs failed that test. While the initial defense remained stout in the fourth quarter, forcing the Clippers into a number of difficult, contested shots, any defensive rotation from the frontcourt left the Spurs vulnerable on the glass—which the Clippers exploited to great effect.
It remains to be seen what the rotation will look like without a true small forward on the roster, but their absences are sure to trickle down through the entire roster.
Outside of Tim Duncan, the Spurs frontline is largely a finesse group. For any team that employs poor-to-average-at-best defensive rebounders in DeJuan Blair, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, or Matt Bonner, rebounding from the wings is a must.
Leonard and Jackson’s length allowed Popovich to deploy a number of different frontcourt combinations that helped minimize their diverse big rotation’s weaknesses. Jackson and Leonard’s long arms helped deflect interior passes, contest shots at the rim, and more importantly, ended defensive rotations with a box out or rebound.
Without them, the Spurs have their work cut out for them.
“We’re going to have to be more aggressive, rotations are going to have to be there, and all five are going to have to go to the boards,” Ginobili said. “Kawhi and Jack are long and strong at that position, and that really helps us in that regard.”
For the time being small ball is off the menu, unless you feel the need to burden Duncan with anchoring four guard lineups. Moving Manu Ginobili to the starting lineup keeps some size and rebounding on the wings, but takes away the key playmaker that ignites the Spurs second unit.
With Patty Mills as a viable option as the backup point guard, look for Gary Neal to get the initial nod, with Danny Green moving up to the small forward position. Unfortunately that removes him from guarding opposing point guards and puts the onus on Tony Parker to step up defensively.
The Spurs are likely going to have to outscore teams, which bodes well for Matt Bonner’s ability to turbo charge a regular season offense.
If you’re of the belief that the Spurs are a trade away from truly contending, now would be the perfect time to audition a backup small forward to replace the Spurs most valuable trade chip (Jackson’s expiring contract).
It’s also a reminder that depth is relative, and when depth at one position makes up for deficiencies at another, that depth can vanish with just one or two injuries.