Notes from Wayne Winston, part 2
Recently, 48MoH has discussed the struggles ofÂ San Antonio’s interior defense.Â Â Please seeÂ The Roots of Defensive Decline and The Root of All Defensive Evil for discussion of these points. Â But a struggling interior defense is often an indicationÂ of a prior breakdown on the perimeter, which seems to be the case with San Antonio this season, Manu Ginobili’s Manu-ness not withstanding. (He’s gone all ice cold clutch lately.) This post will look at the bigger picture, and my timing couldn’t be worse.
Defensively, they [the Spurs]Â are not a dominant defensive team as they once were. They used to be incredible around the basket. You now can score around the basket on them more than ever before. But theyâ€™re still solid. Theyâ€™re still sound, conceptually. (Pop) has tricks, he can mess with you. But they were so good for so many years.
We chart our baskets within five feet of the basket every night. Halftime, Iâ€™d go in there against SA and weâ€™d be 2 for 15. They just wouldnâ€™t let you score around the basket. Thatâ€™s different now.
They used to play two bigs. Now you can take Duncan away from the basket. You can take their bigs away and attack their smalls a little more. You take Duncan in the pick and roll, youâ€™ve got Bonner, or McDyess or Blair covering the basket. Thatâ€™s just not as good as it was when it was David Robinson, or Nesterovic or Mohammed or someone like that.
Winston provided these numbers, which may support Karl.
First, what do the numbers mean? In short, when Tim Duncan is on the court, the Spurs hold the opposition to 13 fewer points on average per 48 minutes. TheÂ ratings are adjusted with respect to whom a player is on the court with, so it’s not a intended to rate man-to-man defense. It rates Player X’s contribution to team defense.
In the big picture, Winston’s numbers suggest that San Antonio’s bigs are holding their own. The perimeter players, on the other hand, are being exploited. This is where the Karl quote might help. Winston tells me it’s fair to assume the perimeter players’ ratings are lower than expected because they’re sometimes exploited during small-ball sets. Richard Jefferson tends to break even, or thereabout, which might help us to understand why he’s Popovich’s go-to small-ball four, although the Spurs may have put that experiment to bed.
But the Spurs’ defense is overwhelmingly better with two bigs on the floor, even if one of them is the oft-criticized Matt Bonner. I asked Winston how he accounted for Bonner’s stong defensive rating when most of us would characterize his man defense as mediocre. His response makes good basketball sense:
With Bonner in Spurs have Eff. FG % age of 55% with him out only 51%. I think this means when Bonner is in Spurs spread floor and get good shots. So less transition baskets for opponents. Our defensive rating is based on team points given up; it’sÂ not based on 1 on 1 defense. So if you cut your team’s turnovers and cut transition baskets you can have good rating even if your one on one defense is so so.
But let’s take a moment to consider Ginobili’s poor defensive rating, and, more importantly, what it means for the Spurs.
Earlier this year, I spoke with statistician Steve Ilardi concerning Bruce Bowen’s defense. Here is part of what Ilardi told me:
IÂ 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 Ilardi’s scheme, a positive defensive APM is good; Winston ranks in accord with the opposing teams points totals, and so a negative number is associated with good defense. So, I concede, this is not exactly apples to apples, but the numbers are largely consistent, despite the difference in presentation, in what they indicate.]
In other words, prior to this season, Ginobili’s defense was good, perhaps great. He was under-appreciated in that regard. But he can no longer be categorized as an elite defender–except when the game is on the line, and then he’s an elite everything.Â Put thisÂ together with the loss of Bruce Bowen toÂ old age, and the SpursÂ are, functionally speaking, two perimeter defenders short of where they were last season.
Winston associates Ginobili’s falling defensive ranking with his ankle injury. This could mean that Ginobili’s defense is still recovering, as the highlight reel moments of last night would suggest. Or it could mean that Manu is not the same. I suspect we’ll get an answer for this question in the postseason.
It’s a fixable problem, so long as it’s recognized as a problem to fix. In the short term, the Spurs’ options are limited. Winston thinks their best chance of improving this season involves shortening the rotation–or, more precisely, 5-man units–to their best 10 lineups and giving them heavier minutes. The current team does not have many successful combinations beyond that.