Evaluating the big man rotation


Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich’s opinion that San Antonio was big enough to beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs and contend for a title is technically correct. Aside from DeJuan Blair, none of the big men on the Spurs are particularly short by NBA standards. The problem lies in the quality of the big man corps.

Assuming Antonio McDyess retires, as expected, the Spurs are left with Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Blair and Matt Bonner. As long as everyone has a full, healthy training camp and preseason, the interior depth chart would probably look something like this:

PositionCenterPower forward
StarterTim DuncanTiago Splitter
BackupMatt Bonner
3rd stringDeJuan Blair

The particular positions are based on who each Spur would guard. Tim Duncan can argue til the cows come home that he’s a power forward, but the hard reality is that he can’t defend power forwards anymore. Tiago Splitter can guard centers, but in this scenario he’d be starting alongside Duncan. When paired with Duncan, Splitter is much more mobile and capable of defending 4s. And after Splitter finally got minutes in the playoffs, I think we can agree that he’s best suited to start over Bonner and Blair.

The idea has been floated that Duncan and Splitter can’t play alongside each other because Tiago can’t shoot. His inability to draw his defender to even 12 feet from the basket crowds things for Duncan on the low block. However, that wasn’t a problem early last season when DeJuan Blair, who at the time had more confidence and less weight than the end of the season, started next to Duncan despite Blair’s lack of a jumper.

Coach Pop told me early last season that Duncan and Blair could play together because both were smart players and good passers. I’d argue that Splitter is more adept at both than Blair.

Splitter started at a disadvantage last season because he got injured and missed training camp. He lost valuable time learning the system and getting to know the habits and tendencies of his teammates, especially Duncan. When he finally did get back in the lineup, he was used sparingly and Pop never had enough confidence in Splitter to make him a mainstay in the rotation.

Of the 3,956 minutes of game time during last year’s regular season, Duncan and Splitter shared the court for only about 29 of them. Duncan played with Richard Jefferson at the power forward more than five times as much as Duncan teamed with Splitter. A full training camp and preseason will allow them to work out the kinks together going into the regular season.

Some problems do arise when Tiago Splitter lines up next to Tim Duncan in the starting lineup, however. While Splitter is the second best big aside from Duncan, he’s also the only other Spur who can play center.

And if Splitter starts at power forward, that would more than likely put Matt “Winter Shoes” Bonner near the same minutes per game averages as last season. As was discussed on our podcast this week, Bonner is more effective, and less detrimental, when he can be deployed in smaller doses. He’s best suited to playing around 12 minutes per contest. Although Bonner playing minutes in the regular season isn’t as dire a situation as relying too heavily on Winter Shoes in the playoffs.

As our own Tim Varner mentioned in that podcast, the ideal scenario would see the Spurs bring in a new starting power forward. This would give San Antonio the luxury of bringing Tiago Splitter off the bench as the backup center. But with Coach Pop’s attempts to limit the minutes of Tim Duncan during the regular season, there would still be 15-20 minutes to be shared between Bonner and Blair. When the playoffs start and rotations shorten, the Spurs would have a solid core of three big men, with at least one player capable of playing either position.

It’s doubtful the Spurs draft a player ready to step in and start at the 4, though they could snag a backup center to further solidify their depth. San Antonio’s salary cap situation makes free agency a unlikely route to find someone to slot in the starting lineup. Ryan Richards? Personally, I’d like to see him in Austin a while before the team commits any real minutes to him. The best way for the Spurs to get a player with the quality they need is through trade, and given RC Buford’s recent comments, it’s in play. I’m not normally one to throw trades at the wall and see what sticks, but a Tony Parker for Josh Smith deal sounds appealing. Who hangs up on whom first when that deal is discussed?

The Spurs most glaring imperfections with their big men are defending the pick-and-pop and help-and-recover aspects of the pick-and-roll, where the big man impedes the progress of the ball handler long enough for his teammate to get back (help) and then rotates back to the big man he was guarding (recover).

According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs were 16th in the NBA last season covering the roll man in pick-and-roll situtations, allowing 1.02 points per possession. This more than likely was a result of Spurs bigs not being able to adequetly recover to their man after helping on the pick. On the other hand, the Spurs gave up .77 points per possession last season to the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, 3rd in the NBA. They did a good job of preventing the ball handler from getting good shots at the rim and forcing him to get rid of the ball.

The Spurs also had trouble defending off of offensive rebounds. San Antonio was 23rd in the NBA, giving up 1.12 points per possession when giving up an offensive rebound. Much of that can be attributed to Duncan’s diminished second jumping ability, Blair’s height (or lack of) and Bonner’s, well, Bonner-ness.

While it’s hard to argue that the Spurs big men as a whole are short, they are missing something. As of right now the rotation is ill-suited to fix the problems of last season. With a bad pick in a weak draft and no money to flash a free agents, a trade is the team’s best hope to fix Spurs problems defending the pick-and-roll/pop. Whether or not something comes of it, however, is up to the men who are preaching caution to us outsiders.

  • Jakecampos95

    Or kemba walker

  • Jakecampos95

    How about the spurs trade Tony Parker for the cavs 4th pick and j.j. Hickson
    It would be a fair trade and then they draft Brandon knight
    Or kemba walker

  • David Prindle

    I second that. One only has to take a look at the groans of Atlanta fans each time he hoisted an ill-advised jump shot in these past playoffs to realize his downside.

  • Sam

    Wow. That’s not a bad deal. But what if Cleveland wants Kyrie Irving as their first pick? I guess Derrick Williams and Tony Parker is better than Kyrie Irving and Enes Kanter. Or is it? Either way this is very interesting. 

  • Titletown99030507d

    Even though many love this guy I think you can say the same about Blair.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_24JPOCTK3IPR6XJSMFHVXLXLEA J

    If your trading Parker for J. Smooth, you better be getting Jeff Teague back as well. If ATL agrees, then pull the trigger.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I really thought Blair was good enough to warrant a move up the draft. So  If we keep Blair you still dont think RJ/Bonner trade can bring us something decent in return?

  • Hicksy73

    No way Sac hangs the phone straight up 

  • MSteele_in_Éire

    I don’t want to trade Tony but if we’re trading him to Cleveland, I want something better than Hickson and a fourth pick. I’d like to have the 1st but I can accept the 4th but Hickson (Really????). I’d take Varejao and I’d want someone else like Erden. So to confirm if we were doing a trade with the Cavs I’d make it Tony for Varejao, Erden plus the 4th pick but to be honest I’d rather not trade Tony. He’s atleast about 40% of our offense at the minute.

  • MSteele_in_Éire

    I don’t think the Blazers are gonna do that trade. Don’t get me started on the minutes allocation you’ve got there. I’m done with the small ball experiment. I don’t want to see Bonner play more than 5-10 mins next year and RJ I’m not sure. You have to involve him more in your offense or else you have to get rid of him.  

  • Slartibast

    Finally someone realizes how bad trading Tony would be. Tony has to be one of the most underrated players in the NBA since not even a lot of Spurs fans seem to realize how important he is to the team.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Yup, We will be missing Tony’s abilities to go into the lane and get you points when needed. But at the 4th we might be able to get Enes Kanter but that still leaves us without a real poimt guard who can penetrate the lane like Tony does.

  • DorieStreet

    A look at the Spurs’ first round draft picks through the years : http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/draft/results/teaam:team=sas&_slug=san antonio-spurs&actin=lo

  • DorieStreet

    Error on my part; will see if I can correct it later.

  • Sam

    Could the Spurs trade this year’s second rounder and next year’s second rounder to New Orleans for their 45th pick and draft David Lighty? I’m really impressed by his maturity and defense, it’s like he was made for the Spurs. I think he could be a steal in the 2nd round.

  • Easy B

    I agree, if you are to trade Tony to cavs for 4th pick, you need to go for Verajao, then draft a point. I don’t see it happening though…Baron and Tony? Not likely, unless they are able to trade Baron to the Lakers for something like Artest and parts. But they could trade Baron and the 4th pick for someone half decent as well….

    If I’m trading Tony, I wan’t a young PG with better defensive and distributing upsides.
    Perhaps Tony plus Jefferson plus parts to Philly for Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday. Spurs get a 6’4 point with a lot of upside and a proven PF to give Duncan an expensive last push. They get youth, contract flexibility in 2 years and a chance to win right now. Philly will be able to Start Tony, Igu, Young, Hawes and either speights or Jefferson….They have a mid round pick, so they can still keep a youth movement. Meanwhile they unload Brand’s final 2 years. If they shopped around, they could probably find a decent vet to go with this squad to push their playoff bid higher.
    For the Spurs, they need to win now and build a future core…so getting both at the same time would be ideal.

  • ronald

    Dude, you really don’t understand what the guy is saying. He’s not saying Blair/RJ aren’t good players. He’s saying that that EVERYONE else knows that the Spurs want to get rid of him. So they won’t give the Spurs a good offer. Instead, they would try and lowball the Spurs. It’s simple economics. 

  • ronald

    Bledsoe is a decent average point guard with great upside.  And you still have George Hill. Your lack of basic economic and basketball knowledge amazes me. Also, did Blair do something personal to u?

  • Titletown99030507d

    Elton Brand is just too old at this point and  to keep him for another 3 years at that salary?

  • Bruno

    Maybe because Tony has just one skill: run to the rim and he is getting old(losing speed), so if we can trade him for a good PF/Center and young PG, would be great.

  • Easy B

    its 2 years…the espn site is 1 year behind…check the spurs players. Also, he is 32, so at worst he will be 35 when done. He will get you a solid 15 and 9 and will be able to put a body on the Z-bo’s of the world. Not saying its the best possible move….but we are going to have to take some sort of hit if we hope to trade for top-level talent. Tony’s value might be lessened by all the quality point guards floating around the draft, and the fact that Rubio and Davis are on teams with 3 of the top 4 picks. Seems like there is a logjam of point guard stuff going on there….

  • Easy B

    its 2 years…the espn site is 1 year behind…check the spurs players. Also, he is 32, so at worst he will be 35 when done. He will get you a solid 15 and 9 and will be able to put a body on the Z-bo’s of the world. Not saying its the best possible move….but we are going to have to take some sort of hit if we hope to trade for top-level talent. Tony’s value might be lessened by all the quality point guards floating around the draft, and the fact that Rubio and Davis are on teams with 3 of the top 4 picks. Seems like there is a logjam of point guard stuff going on there….

  • Tyler

    Really, we’re comparing Pop to George Bush now? That’s what it has come to? Seriously, that’s ridiculous. 

  • Drew Nitsche

    Except he is not athletic and a defensive liability.

  • Len

    Pop has questioned Blair’s maturity.  That is not a deal breaker for other teams nor does it mean they won’t give anything of value.

    It means that the Spurs are notorious for valuing “high character” guys.  Pop has stated time and again he wants players that “have gotten over themselves.”  Blair is very young and just might not have the sort of mindset that Pop wants.  That does not mean that DeJuan couldn’t help plenty of other teams out there.

  • Jarodriguez_19

    Don’t know how they can but if they figure it out do whatever possible to get Dwight Howard !!!!!!