Less dependence on Parker, Duncan an important development for San Antonio

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Even with the significant growth of a young, disciplined supporting cast, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were the rock-steady constants on which the Spurs based the majority of their 2012-13 regular season and NBA Finals run.

Manu Ginobili was as up and down as he’s ever been, Kawhi Leonard was still offensively raw despite the physical tools that allowed him to break out in the championship round, Tiago Splitter was still making strides and the team literally had no idea who’d be playing backup point guard on a week-to-week basis.

While San Antonio’s role players were quietly improving as a group and giving their team a younger complexion than most realized, it still depended on the tireless brilliance of Duncan and Parker pick-and-rolling people to death.

And they almost did it. Had it not been for a small tear to Tony Parker’s hamstring in the middle of the Finals, perhaps he would’ve had enough energy in those legs to push San Antonio ahead by just a few more points along the way. That’s all they needed, after all.

Still, beyond the early Danny Green 3-point onslaught, The Gary Neal Game, The Manu Game and Leonard’s late-Finals takeover, the Spurs’ bench struggled to provide a steady attack as a unit. Starters’ minutes naturally spike once the playoffs start, because it’s more crucial than ever to put your best lineup on the floor as often as its collective stamina allows. But by the time the Finals rolled around into do-or-die territory, the bench all but disappeared.

There was a dirty little secret in San Antonio last season: The Spurs’ bench wasn’t very good. Ever since Ginobili assumed his semipermanent role as the team’s sixth man, the second group has always provided a large helping of points; between 2009 and 2012, San Antonio’s reserves ranked first, sixth and second in the league, respectively, in terms of scoring over the course of those three seasons (playoffs included).

Then there was 2012-13. Over the 103 games the Spurs played during the regular and postseason, the bench ranked 10th in points per game at 36.1, only outscoring the opposing second unit by 2.3 points on average. Top ten certainly isn’t awful, but when you account for Gregg Popovich’s incredibly balanced rotation strategy, you’d expect that ¹number to be higher over the course of an entire year (regular season and playoffs included). And it didn’t end well at all: San Antonio’s reserves scored just 36 points combined in the final three games of the championship round.

¹The Spurs’ bench production was actually top five in terms of points scored during the 2012-13 regular season (37.9 points per game); but that number dropped nearly nine full points on average once the postseason began (29.1), which is a pretty solid chunk of points for which to account. To put it in perspective: 29.1 points per game would’ve ranked 23rd in the league during that regular season.

Bench rotations are supposed to shrink come playoff time, but 12 points per game spread between what essentially became a four-man group is pretty awful for a title contender whose best players — the Big Three — don’t have the boost in their legs they once did. Depth and bench scoring have been the saviors of the old guard in San Antonio, and while dependency on these elements might diminish as the playoffs close to just a two-team race, a total of 36 points over a span of the three most crucial games of the NBA season is just lousy.

Duncan played 87 minutes over the final two games. That’s tough, but the Spurs needed every second of every one. Who knows? Maybe that’ll end up being the case again, but one thing we’ve seen so far this season is a decreased dependence on Duncan and Parker; whether that translates to the playoffs obviously remains to be seen, but through the first 70 games of the 2013-14 season that extra bit of slack has not only been picked up, but it’s been pulled tight.

Not only is the Spurs’ bench the best the NBA, it’s the highest-scoring set of reserves San Antonio has ever had.

Its league-leading 45.3 points per game is the franchise’s highest average since it joined the NBA in 1976, and it’s putting up these numbers with relative ease: Spurs reserves are shooting 48.7 percent from the floor, which is also the best mark in the NBA, and one of only five benches shooting better than 45 percent for the season. And the allocation of minutes is pretty remarkable as well.

Ten Spurs are averaging at least 15 minutes per game with only Parker exceeding the 30-minute threshold (30.3 mpg), which has significantly decreased the effects of attrition on this roster. But more importantly, San Antonio doesn’t need Parker or Duncan to go win the majority of its games any longer. Neither has impacted the outcome of games as much as they did last season, and it’s not necessarily because of a slip in ability or a result of reduced minutes.

Take Duncan, for example. His win shares-per-48-minute average (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes (league average is approximately .100)) is down from .191 last season, third-highest on the team, to just .164 this season, which is good for fifth on this roster (Austin Daye not included). How about Parker? His .151 average is the sixth-highest on the Spurs; last year, his .206 was far and away tops on the team, per Basketball-Reference.

Numbers are down across the board for the two Spurs. Rebound percentages, usage rates, assist percentages, scoring efficiency — they’ve all dropped for Duncan and Parker, though not drastically enough for it to really stand out to the naked eye. The Spurs have not, however; they’re humming right along.

San Antonio is scoring 108.2 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14, up 2.3 points from their rate a season ago, per NBA.com’s stats page. And while those Duncan-Parker numbers have dropped, the Spurs as a whole have improved on theirs. They’re scoring more points per possession, shooting higher percentages, posting better assist-to-turnover ratios and playing at a faster pace on their way to a blistering 55-16 record.

Want to know another dirty little secret? San Antonio’s efficiency numbers have been better this season when Duncan and Parker (individually) are OFF the floor. This is where you take a step back to digest these numbers while still understanding that the Spurs are absolutely a better team when Timmy and Tony are on the court; these statistics just illustrate the point that the engine keeps roaring when the San Antonio bench matches up with the opposing second unit. But still…

When Duncan and Parker are on the bench, the Spurs’ offensive- and defensive-efficiency ratings have improved. Again, these numbers didn’t not arrive at this point in a vacuum. When Duncan or Parker is off the floor it generally means at least some of the opposition’s best players aren’t there either, and that a superior Spurs second group is playing against replacement-level players. But it still shows the remarkable level of consistency at work here.

So, given the roster’s minimal offseason turnover, how is all this happening? It’s pretty simple. On top of a minor personnel change here and there, the role players have gotten better at basketball. Not just that, but they’re doing things that directly decrease their dependence on Parker and Duncan.

Boris Diaw: Bobo’s transformation into a scorer has been critical for a bench that lacked one last season, especially considering the relative season-long inefficiencies of Ginobili and Neal. He’s already taken 105 more shots this season than last while converting on a higher percentage of them at the same time, and he has become the team’s second-biggest 3-point threat in terms of percentage.

Diaw is posting up more often, jumping out in transition nearly twice as much and even effectively isolating players at a rate that should triple his 2012-13 output by the end of 2013-14 — he basically never went ‘iso’ last season, and now he’s scoring 1.24 points per possession in isolation, per Synergy.

Marco Belinelli: Not only has he become the team’s preeminent shooter, but he’s been the sort of secondary ball-handler Popovich craved over the offseason after the Heat defense was able to suffocate and corral anyone not named Parker or Duncan that dared dribble the ball or attempt to run pick-and-rolls. He can pass, shoot, drive, cut and kick as a total package better than a lot of wing players in the league, and it’s given the Big Three an invaluable pressure valve with which to work.

We saw both the beneficial and detrimental side of Neal during the Finals. On one hand, he can light it up on any given night and clearly isn’t scared of the moment; but on the other, he’s a streaky scorer that isn’t a dependable ball-handler under pressure, and he’s certainly not an ideal pick-and-roller given his below-average ability as a distributor. Replacing him with Belinelli has been a much bigger step up than I think any of us guessed it would be.

Patty Mills: Arguably the biggest ‘acquisition’ of the offseason was this svelte version of little Patty Mills. The guy has gone from appearing in just 58 games last season to holding a vice grip on the backup point guard position in nearly 19 minutes per night. He’s taken the Neal role and and given it steroids, applying an even more hyperactive, 3-point-happy mentality that’s won games for San Antonio this season.

Seriously. Mills has accounted for .169 win shares per 48 minutes this season, ahead of both Duncan and Parker on average. His 1.06 points per possession are second only to Belinelli on the team, and his defense against the pick-and-roll as a point guard has reached an impressive level in comparison to his peers.

This might be the most underrated part of Mills’ game. Not only has he become an impressively efficient shooter — his 58.2 true-shooting percentage illustrates this — but he’s only allowing .74 points per possession against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, per Synergy. For perspective: Tony Parker allows .9 points per possession in these situations. That .74 rate is also better than the likes of Russell Westbrook (.85), Mike Conley (.84), the vaunted Patrick Beverley (.82) and even George Hill (.8). (Chris Paul allows just .65 ppp to PnR ball-handlers, which is amazing.)

This version of Mills isn’t just an improvement on last season’s, it’s an absolute difference-maker.

Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green: This trio has become the spine of the Spurs’ defense. Where last year Duncan anchored the defense and Splitter, Leonard and Green surrounded him with some of the most capable supporting defenders he’s had in a long time, this season it’s been Duncan who’s relied more on these three as his buffer.

To be clear: San Antonio still very much relies on its franchise cornerstone as a defender, but he’s allowed to avoid the point of attack more often. Splitter’s size and physicality give Duncan the opportunity to play as a weak-side shot-blocker in the rotation rather than put his lean frame against the big bodies in the Western Conference.

And the Splitter, Leonard, Green trio has been great on the defensive side of the ball all to its own. The Spurs are allowing just 88.4 points per 100 possessions when those three are on the court together (improved from 92.3 a year ago), the best rating of any San Antonio trio that’s logged at least 200 minutes together.

And get this: That 88.4 defensive rating is the best of any three-man lineup in the NBA with at least 350 minutes played. So not only is this trio one of the Spurs’ best defensive lineups, it’s one of the best defensive lineups in the entire league.

Manu Ginobili: Last but hardly least, Ginobili’s resurgence has been nothing short of spectacular. His body was broken down by the end of last season, and his Finals performance left him seriously questioning his ability to continue his career. But, after a little convincing, here he is, producing numbers on par with some of the most efficient of his career. He says he feels good, and the statistics reflect that.

His per-36-minute numbers — 19.5 points and 6.8 assists while shooting 46.8 percent from the floor — are wonderful, but his on-court impact from a team standpoint is what’s once again setting him apart in that second unit.

The Spurs have been 14.1 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Manu is on the court as opposed to 4.2 when he’s on the bench. And his biggest impact is felt at the offensive end, where San Antonio is popping off at more than 114 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor, up from 106.1 points last season.

He’s been running the show for that second unit once again, and he’s doing it as efficiently as ever.

__________

When San Antonio walked off the court after Game 7 of the Finals, there was no internal complacency heading into the offseason. Aside from the acquisitions of Belinelli and Jeff Ayres, the franchise pushed the pieces they already had in place — Diaw, Mills and others — to be better, and each has responded.

So the question remains: Can this rotation strategy carry the Spurs to the doorstep of another championship? Will this historically great bench be able to stretch itself out enough to remain competitive when matched against the opposition’s starters for minutes at a time? History shows bench scoring doesn’t typically have the greatest impact on a championship team’s success come postseason, and that usually the franchise holding the trophy at the end does so without much scoring support from its reserves. There are a few exceptions, however.

Since 2000, the year after the Spurs’ first title, only four Finals winners have boasted a bench that ranked in the top half of the league in terms of scoring. One was the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks; the other three: the ’03, ’05 and ’07 Spurs, which all featured top-10 benches.

As much as this team still relies on its core, it knows the aging legs of its Big Three can no longer effectively run for 40-plus minutes per game with the youth and athleticism other Western Conference contenders throw out on the court. San Antonio’s bench improved this significantly out of necessity, not just to provide a luxury.

It isn’t your typical second unit, either. It’s full of starting-caliber players that can exist together and sustain an offense on its own, independent of any of the team’s starters. In fact, when Parker, Green, Leonard, Duncan and Splitter are all off the floor, the Spurs are scoring 1.34 points per possession, per NBA Wowy, while the team as a whole is scoring right around one point per possession.

Last season, there was no reliable backup point guard, Ginobili was the de facto ball-handler within the second unit, and they lacked a dependable scorer that could consistently create good looks for both himself and others. Now the bench has four ball-handlers who are all capable of running the offense, allowing Manu to play off the ball and in his comfort zone more often.

The San Antonio bench isn’t anything special on the defensive side of the ball, but it can score in bunches. If this group allows starters to comfortably sit for six- or seven-minute stretches deep in the playoffs rather than three- or four-minute bursts, the results could speak for themselves.

Playoff basketball is a different animal, however, where comforts of the regular season fly out the window and intensity is turned up nine or 10 notches. Guys like Kevin Durant, James Harden and Blake Griffin tend to drain a coach’s patience and test his trust in those reserves, turning them to clock-watchers as they itch to reinsert their best players.

But the drop-off to the Spurs’ replacement-player tier isn’t nearly as significant this season. We may very well see some nights during the postseason where guys like Belinelli, Diaw or Mills hold the court while certain starters remain on the bench, depending on who’s playing well. And that’s another thing Popovich will have to wrestle with: pulling the right strings in certain situations.

The Splitter, Leonard, Green trio typically leaves a significant defensive impact on the game, while Diaw, Ginobili and Belinelli run a whirring offensive machine when they’re on the floor together. This might be the deepest team Popovich has ever had, which, ironically, could make for the toughest job he’s ever faced as the playoffs grind on.

Mixing and matching based on the situation at hand, fighting the urge to run Timmy or Tony back out there when a few extra bench minutes might be more beneficial (or vice versa), staying disciplined with the rotation he’s set in the face of what is sure to be wave after wave of All-NBA talent opposing his Spurs — it’s all going to be fascinating to watch.

“We’ve always been a team that’s tried to put role players around those guys and tried to play more guys than most other teams play,” Popovich said. “It’s worked well for us. And this year the bench has been very significant in keeping our heads above water.

“Sometimes coaches do (have bench depth) but they don’t play them. It doesn’t matter who’s on your bench, you’ve got to decide whether you want to play them or not,” he continued. “That’s a comfort level and a trust level a coach has with a player.”

Again, the Spurs haven’t built this bench over the last several years just to complement Duncan and Parker, they’ve done so because their stars’ collective age necessitated the action. As great as they’ve continued to be, this isn’t the Big Three of old, they’re just … old. They need this high level of play surrounding them, not because it’ll be nice to have, but because it’s too much to ask of them to carry this team past the MVP-level players that exist in each conference once again.

San Antonio has won titles before while relying significantly on its bench’s impact, but the dependence on its reserves has never been higher than it is this season. This is the deepest team in Spurs history for a reason, one I expect we’ll watch play out once the postseason begins.

All statistics are accurate through 3/26, prior to Nuggets game.

  • Jimbo

    Great post, thanks for putting the time into researching all that. The bench has been amazing but you’re right, the playoffs are likely to see a big drop in their numbers. I think Leonard will have to rise to the occasion if the Spurs are to win it all this year. Hopefully he can make a jump in the playoffs on top of the jump he made in the Finals last year. What I worry about is two the first two rounds of the playoffs being against a decent team (Memphis or Dallas?) and then a very good team (Houston or LAC?), which might wear the Spurs down a bit before facing a buzzsaw of OKC and the Mia/Ind winner. Oh to be in the Eastern Conference!

  • fkj74

    I thoughtrom start of the season that this team is better than last year’svery god team. Diaw and Leonard need to stay aggresive. Pop needs to play these guys in the playoffs Go Spurs!

  • zainn

    I’m not too worried about that because OKC will also have to go through the clippers (who are completely revitalized from last season with Doc). (also barring a substantial change in the west playoff standings) That will definitely be a TOUGH 7 game series. The heat don’t look the same as last season. I’m thinking pacers spurs in the finals. Let’s hope so :) #driveforfive

  • PopUpDaVolume

    great words, the bench has been perfect and really (really really) team spirit all year. Seeing Patty helping and lifting up guys when they felt while attempting (and often succeding) in making physical / acrobatic plays, the towel shows all season long, the real please that each of them have been showing during their minutes together tells us a lot about how Coach Pop / RC and the other organization guys prepared a team of not only 5-7 players but really like 12 to go for it all. I really love this family team spirit and can’t be more thankfull to all of those guys that stepped up for the Big Three to do their thing. I personnaly think it’s the best strategy and that gives us a true chance to win it all. GSG (from France)

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