Evaluating the big man rotation

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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.

  • Szkorhetz

    I don’t like the idea of bringing Josh in. He is just too stupied to play for us.

  • Mondragon

    1) He can probably spell “stupid” correctly, stupid.
    2) I’m all for trading Tony Parker.

  • TrueFan

    I haven’t posted since last year’s sublime GATTACA posting, but wanted to weigh-in regarding the draft.  People keep saying that this draft is “weak.”  I don’t disagree, but I would add the caveat that “weak” means that there are not many projected all-stars and possibly only one “franchise player.”  That doesn’t mean that this draft isn’t deep in terms of potential quality rotation players, particularly in the second round.  There are a number of players I like in the 2nd round; some international draft-and-stash prospects [e.g. Mirotic if he falls out of the 1st; Bogdanovic; or Hanga (I'd be psyched if the Spurs snagged him with the 59th)], as well as some collegiate perimeter players (e.g. Lighty (whom the Spurs have worked out) and Richmond).

    In regards to big men (the subject of the above article) Jeremy Tyler, Trey Thompkins, JaJuan Johnson, Keith Benson, Michael Dunigan and Matthew Bryan-Amaning all have flaws in their games (and/or character, particularly with Tyler), but I’d be willing to bet that at least two of them turn into solid rotation players.  It’s possible that the 1st three in that list go in the first round, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of them fell to the 2nd.  None of these guys would contribute right away, so the Spurs would still have to look to acquire another legit big through free-agency or trade, but that’s obviously difficult, so they need to continue to roll the dice in the draft as well.

    With this year’s draft class being so widely bemoaned as “weak” (along with the uncertainty of the new CBA) it stands to reason that some teams will be willing to part with their picks cheaply.  And so, particularly because this is a “weak” draft, I actually expect the Spurs to try to acquire additional 2nd round picks, by trading down out of the 1st round and/or simply buying someone else’s 2nd rounder for cash.

  • Tyler

    I agree in regards to the draft. Not a whole lot of top-tier talent, but decent talent (i.e. role players) throughout. This year, talent-wise, a mid first rounder is only marginally better than any 2nd rounder. 

    Also, with a new, more restrictive CBA in the pipeline, 2nd rounders (especially early 2nd rounders) look like a good value simply because there is no guaranteed contract. That’s where I think you swing for the fences – take a high risk/high reward player (Tyler – though I doubt he drops out of the first), or a draft and stash (many foreigners would rather be 2nd rounders simply because they aren’t bound by the rookie scale when they come over). A new CBA, a fairly deep draft, and teams trying to control payroll should make for an interesting night.

    But at the end of the day, I don’t think you go into the draft trying to draft a position. I think you simply take the best player available. PG, SG, whatever; take the guy you think will be the best NBA player and figure the rest out later. More than anything, the Spurs need talent to take the reins once Manu and TD are gone. 

    And IMO, with all the Euro talent this draft has to offer, I might be inclined to take advantage if a high rated player falls (similar to Tiago’s situation). I’d love to get someone who can come in and play right away, but based on where we’re drafting, I doubt we’re getting that anyway.

  • Tyler

    Re: Draft – Interesting article considering where the Spurs draft….

    http://espn.go.com/blog/boston/celtics/post/_/id/4684932/nba-draft-the-safe-bets

  • Bob

    Tim Duncan is probably no worse at guarding starting power forwards than Dirk Nowitzki. It’s really a trade off if he guards the center. Against the 4 he can use his length to bother or block the shot but against a 5 like Marc Gasol he’s shorter and outweighed and at best only slightly faster. Offensively it’s much easier for Tim to get a shot of against 4′s like Zach Randolph who are generally shorter. If Splitter starts you can use him against the 4/5 sort of like Chandler. Spurs would then need a real backup center which is easier than getting a starting quality big. Blair would be the backup 4. Bonner should have been the 5 big and used in small doses where he can focus on shooting 3′s and hustling.

  • Titletown99030507d

    If that’s where we’re headed then blow the damn thing up. Get rid of RJ /Hill, RJ/Bonner/Blair, orRJ /Blair trade packages and put young promising players around the core3. Core3 aren’t going nowhere because that’s the way the FO wants it and the city’s love affair with them. Just bring in Iggy and Holiday from the sixers for RJ/Bonner/Hill. And move Blair for a top 10 1st round pick. You get rid of:

    1Winter Shoes
    2RJ
    3Hill because he’s not going to lead this team at the point not now not ever.
    Blair to get rid of his defensive liability and move up on the draft significantly for a bigger man.

    And you keep Parker because you will need him and Holiday to back him up. Mix in Iggy with the rest of the crew and you already have a better team than last season. Period.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I would move Blair to move up on the draft. It’s there just do it.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I agree but the only way is for us to trade up for a spot that we can gamble on an unproven college or Euro big. I’d give up Blair because we know he isn’t going to get better or grow 5 inches by the time season comes around again. I’d give him up just to get a good pick in the first round. Teams picking 4-10 desperately needing rebounding skills could consider Blair. I would do it in a heart beat.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    We need to get creative and move Blair and Bonner or its dejavu  next season. 12- to 15 minutes for both or 5-10 minutes for both or limited minutes for both ain’t going to help they just need to go. I don’t want anybody under 6′”11 on the front court rotation period. Look at Dallas front court.

  • andres783

    TP for the kings Cousin and filler? Would SAC think about it? Their backcourt would be complete, can nab a big in the lottery, spurs get a floor spreading big to pair with TD & Splitter

  • andres783

    Unless we have some super dirty, incriminating photos and emails involving Philly in drug trade and money laundering, there is no way their FO would do a trade like that…

  • CGD

    Other than Lebron and Blake, I don’t think there is anyone with more raw athleticism than Josh.  Now only if he could just get his head screwed on straight…

  • Peter

     Interesting thoughts.  I’d hope that Pop could get Smith to play within himself more, but he couldn’t really do it with Drew Gooden, so who knows.  Not sure its a realistic trade anyway, but I’m sure Hawks fans would enjoy watching a player take advantage of the “dribbling into the paint” aspect of basketball.

    I guess I like Blair more than most of you.  I thought our biggest problem against Memphis was that they decimated our offense, not that Zbo and Gasol went nuts (Randolph: 37min, 16FGA, 21PTs; Gasol: 40min, 10FGA, 14PTs).  I also think he plays really well with Manu and Tim, just not with Bonner.

    In fact, I would just use the rotation from the first half of the season, with Splitter playing McDyess’ role:start Tim and Dejuan, sub in Splitter pretty early, and make sure he’s in the closing unit.

    If Timmy plays 30 mins, and Blair and Bonner combine for another 30, that will leave 36 for Tiago, if he’s up to it.

  • Jamietrent74

    could this or would this ever be a possibility?
    Kaman and Bledsoe for Parker, Blair and a 1st Round Pick.
    I know that still leaves us with Jefferson, but I would much rather see Kaman guarding the likes of Gasol, Howard and so on than Blair guarding them. 

  • Rob

    I still don’t understand the Blair/Bonner scenario from last year.  It proved time and again to NOT work only to have it forced into execution time and again. (What’s that definition again regarding expecting different results?)  Anyway, at the end of the Memphis series, I would have bet Blair was no longer going to be a Spur come next season.  How often does somebody who has ever played on this team get so demoted to see them on the team again the following year?

    And Parker’s comments just might have been his way of insuring his way out of here knowing the organization has never taken kindly to any player making public statements the way Tony made them.  Of course…it could have been Tony’s way of telling the organization…get rid of some players you know I’ve stated in private that I don’t want on this team if you want me to be energized about playing for this team.

    But let’s (and I say this loosely) take Pop and R.C.’s comments at face value.   Cuffed by salary restraints ARE a reality.  So acquiring a TOP free agent is safe to say unlikely.  Getting a game changing (immediate impact) draft pick this year is unlikely as well at the position the Spurs are drafting and talent pool.

    Pop’s words were to the effect that it wasn’t lack of size more so than lack of productivity.  (The Spurs, after all, DID win 60 games this year.)  Whatever that means.  So…Tiago wasn’t ready until the end of the season to produce effectively until the playoffs.  Which he did admirably.  What happened?  The team won 60 games without Tiago being ready to contribute effectively until the post season.  Who…all of a sudden…during the playoffs…couldn’t produce as effectively during the “60 win” period?  As far as post players…only two reduced their effectiveness (and one being given minimal to no time) as they had performed in the regular season.  Bonner and Blair.

    As far as perimeter players.  Ginobili was hurt…yet performed better than one would have expected considering the extent of his injury.  Parker…for some unknown reason…wasn’t able to perform at a high level until the series was in a “must win” situation.  Doesn’t sound like he (Parker) was prepared to “execute” his game.  (Remember Pop’s words…Tony just go out and score…I don’t need you to coach.)  Hill? Hill played par for Hills numbers for the season…but is/was no where ready to “take over” a series when needed to do so.  Jefferson?  Oh R.J.  Such early promise only to dwindle into obscurity once more during the post season.  Why? Why such promise and then when it comes back to a half court game…his effectiveness disintegrates?

    So there you have it.  Can’t run a face paced offense if you CAN’T REBOUND.  Can’t defend the post if the majority of your post players CAN’T DEFEND the post.  Can’t expect a player to be a “half court” player if they ARE NOT suited to be HALF COURT players (in this system).  And you can’t expect to win if an integral (one of the big three) players NOT be ready to be one of THE BIG THREE players on this team.

    Sounds like plenty of reasons to want to blow up the team.  Perhaps just a couple of the “problem” players moved can right the ship for playoff glory.  After all…they did win 60 games last year.

  • Sam

    it is possible but there’s a better trade for both teams. Clippers don’t need a pg right now but their weakest position is sf. So RJ McDyess and 1st round pick for Kaman and Ryan Gomes would work

  • Triz

    haha, that’s a good one. u r right nobody is gonna take our trash and give us gold/silver back for it.

  • Triz

    again, why would anybody take blair and give us s’thing back. Everybody knows the ceiling with Blair now. He is solid backup but you everybody knows his ceiling. He was discarded by the end of playoff and Pops recent comments that his self discipline and cotrol is a problem suggest the guy is not exactly a dream for the team to want him. Nobody is gonna give top 20 pick for him. The problem is we don’t want RJ, Blair etc but then every other team knows them as well and won’t give us s’thing good (or potential to be good from draft) for them.

  • Rob

    Is Kaman considered healthy enough to play 82 games a season?  I know he’s a great defender…but rarely sees action for a full season due to injury(s).  Gomez might turn out to be the defender he once was touted to being…but so far has not turned out to be the defensive player he once was touted to becoming.  Maybe with the Spurs he could be…but he’s not a starter.  He’s more of an off the bench energy type of player.

  • Rob

    Good points.  But why would Blair drop off so dramatically to the point Pop wouldn’t even play him in a playoff series?  Something other than “performance ability” happened with Blair.  I think it was more in the line of “personal” issues that saw Blair’s dramatic decrease in court time.  And I can’t say for sure…but many times players that develop that kind of relationship with this team’s staff don’t remain on this team long.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    How do you now that. Do you work in the office?

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    You never know. Ask Memphis FO. Besides what you call thrash in our system could be gold in an other.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Well I bet you were one of those last season insisting Blair was such a bad ass. How do you know they can’t use a great rebounder like Blair. I’ll take my chances in trading him to move up. How do you know they wouldnt take a 2 year rebounfing machine veteran over a college kid who hasnt played one minute in the nba. And before you say anything about us getting that college kid for Blair well I’ll take my chances if that 6’11″ or 7 footer college kid can make a basket.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Then why the hell is Blair on our Spurs team to begin with? Answer me that one.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Bad move just get rid of our defensive liability in Blair because Timmy is getting older and its going to be much harder for him to cover all of Blair’s mistakes.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Because he sucked.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    And who the hell is going to be your point guard?

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Give them Blair too so that he he doesnt crack the rotation on this team.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    “What happened?  The team won 60 games without Tiago being ready to contribute effectively until the post season.  Who…all of a sudden…during the playoffs…couldn’t produce as effectively during the “60 win” period?  As far as post players…only two reduced their effectiveness (and one being given minimal to no time) as they had performed in the regular season.  Bonner and Blair.”

    Bonner and Blair are “Winter Shoes” Do you have to see the end of the season again to accept it?

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Besides Blair had his chance in the playoffs and disappeared like the other pair of winter shoes.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Besides Blair had his chance in the playoffs and disappeared like the other pair of winter shoes.

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    This team will never win in the post season with Bonner and Blair, or should I say Bonner or Blair cracking the front court rotation in the playoffs. Look at the heat I don’t see a dominating front court rotation there. Is that enough proof for anyone? Say goodbye to your favorite winter shoes or just watch your team go down in flames again. This is pissing me off. The experiment is over move on with a new front court. Just add 2 bigs to Timmy and Splitter even if they are only as good as Splitter its better than what you just saw last season. Preferably without Trading Tony. Get creative FO. RJ, Bonner, Blair and even Hill need to be in a different system in situations suited for them to perform at their best.  There has to be interest out there for them. they wont know if they don’t try. This FO knows they can move Blair if they wanted to but the bromances keep this from happening. Business Pop, business. 

  • Titlwetown99030507d

    Look what RJ did in Milwaukee vs what he did in SA. Some FO needing a SF will not over look RJ if we’re dealing him. He just need to be in an offense geared for him. And before you say anything about how Philly wont think about  a trade with us they need a backup for Young and RJ would be a good back up for him. They have Turner for the futurre at SG and they have already hinted at moving Iggy. And Iggy wants out. Iggy can play the SG/SF wing spot. All I’m saying is if they want to move him throw RJ/Bonner at them. They can keep Holiday if its too much. This way they have a good veteran to back up Young and a 6′”10 pure shooter big to add to their front court. Why shouldnt they do it if they want to move Iggy any way. They’ll be getting a big man and something in return for Iggy. 

  • NinjaBaller
  • NinjaBaller

    If the Trailblazers need cap space (to resign Oden)  they probably wouldn’t mind giving up Andre for a cheap cheap rebounder. The Clippers need a small forward and already have a center for Blake Griffin to play into the future with. The Hawks trade is probably the toughest because, besides the Spurs not wanted to give up Tony, the Hawks would have to decide whether playing TP and Joe Johnson together is feasible.

    As for the Spurs getting Andre Miller to pair with Ginobili would make our backcourt the greatest in the league at defense. Getting rid of RJ is a good move in and of itself but getting a true center that can finish with both hands and has a jumper to boot would be a coup. That would leave only Anderson to play SF (or Ginobili for small ball) Josh Smith could fill in at both forward positions and it’s not like we aren’t working with someone who can’t seem to “get it” in RJ. If Josh Smith turns out to be just a younger (almost 6 years) and more versatile version of RJ isn’t that an upgrade.

    Again the toughest part would be trading TP

  • Mattg

    tony parker for paul gasol! You would have a skilled big man to go to the post and a replacement for duncan in the future.

  • Bob

    Bonner/Blair didn’t play well. Still I felt Blair could have added more than Bonner. If I had to choose one I would choose Blair for his rebounding / energy. His defense, decision making and offensive game can still improve.

  • TD BestEVER

    There is ZERO interest in RJ/Bonner……

    Hill I agree needs to be on the bock along with Parker though IMO……… Neither are good enough scores to make up for what they don’t do well…… pass and defend………..

    Blair can be added to a deal but can’t be in a deal by himself….. HE IS SIMPLY TOO CHEAP……. there are ZERO front court players that we can add for 1.25 million a year that would do us any good…….Because that’s the most they can make and still be in a deal for Blair…….

    As it stands Greg “The Lame” Popovich has ruined the Spurs we all knew and loved with his ignorant attempt at an offensive system…..

    That and resigning the 3 Amigos………….TP, RJ, Winter Shoes(PS I love that nickname)

  • Bob

    The reason he didn’t play is because Pop wanted to use Splitter. Yet he still wanted Red Rocket out there to “space” the floor and he seldom plays 5 bigs. Pop has to get better at making adjustments. He reluctantly went to Splitter but even then it was too late/too little. The frustrating thing about Splitter is people argued he should have played during the season because we were going to need him in the playoffs. We eventually needed him but he hadn’t played much with the starters to have as much of an impact. Using Duncan/Splitter/McDyess was the only way to defend the Grizzlies frontcourt.

  • TD BestEVER

    Title just feels threaten by Blair….. As if he and Splitter can’t exist on the same team……..Blair is as good as any post player in the league at his salary………. Look it up…….. Remember it’s not just who is better, it also who is the cheapest and who gives more for your money……

  • Bob

    I agree he has great athleticism but not great BBIQ. I don’t believe you sacrifice BBIQ for athleticism especially in the Spurs system that’s based on “corporate knowledge.”

  • Robdun50212000

    Trade Jefferson for Lamar Odom. Problem solved.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Cousins is lazy. No way.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Not  at all threatened by Blair. Splitter already has shown Pop that he belongs in the rotation with major minutes. I really would hope that Blair has picked up a nice shot from somewhere on the court. That will definitely help him. And all Splitter needs to do is be improving on his free throws to get that and 1. If Blair is still on the team the next time they suit up then Bonner can’t be on the floor at all. As it is we’re kinda screwed in regards to moving any of those guys. My bet is that they are still on the team come new season. The only reason I would move Blair is for a better pick in the 1st round because nobody wants Bonner.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Well now if were speaking dollars then yeah Blair is worth his pay but he still is at a disadvantage on some matchups.If he’s going to get any raises in the near future he needs to improve on a few things. He needs to not rush his easy shots. He needs to calm down   and his shooting percentage will shoot up and his mental mistakes of turnovers. Not that he’s a turnover machine or anything like that but it happens at most crucial times. That’s probably one of the reasons he played less towards the end of the season and in the playoffs.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Sad everyone including me are now calling him Winter shoes.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Miller is 35. I wouldnt do it.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Add RJ in there and we also get Artest. The money works this way but don’t think Pop would do it. But then we would need a real PG.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Add RJ in there and we also get Artest. The money works this way but don’t think Pop would do it. But then we would need a real PG.