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.

  • 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.

  • TD BestEVER

    Only problem is the the Spurs would have to move more than Blair to get a good pick…… We are 2nd to last i think and no one would give you a 1st round pick for Blair…… maybe an earlier 2nd……. Spurs should trade their picks and a player for a proven player with upside and that is still under 25……… Like Jason Thompson…….

  • tejasjack

    would it be possible to trade rj + 1st and 2 2’s to the cavs for andy varejao? salaries match up. byron scott gets to coach rj again who i believe will actually do well with. spurs get a pretty good post player and get to keep tp….is it an outrageous idea? would the cavs consider it? and whatever happened to david west. i know he tore his knee ligament, but ive heard nothing about him in quite awhile.

  • Slartibast

    Why does everyone want to trade Tony. With all of the trades I’ve seen proposed, this team would have a very hard time scoring. The Tony/Manu combination is the whole reason why the Spurs shooters can have open shots. He is 50% of our offense now that Duncan is in decline. I think the Spurs are simply one big away from competing for a title. Therefore, I’d propose making salary dumping trades to free up space so that the Spurs can pursue Marc Gasol. With his post, mid-range, passsing, and defense, I think the Spurs would be in great position to make a move in the postseason.

  • Hobson13

    I like Cousins, but Parker makes $13.7mil.  Cousins makes $3.3mil.  They’d have to trade half their team to make up the difference.

  • Pop-a-vich

    http://espn.go.com/nba/trademachine – I know it’s insane but you must see this.

  • Pop-a-vich
  • Rob

    Something to look into.  I mentioned this trade a while back.  It’s simple and addresses the needs of the Spurs as well as Cleveland.  If the Spurs could land one of the many free agent SF’s available this year…they will have kept the nucleus AND improved in areas they were weak.

    A report has it though that Cleveland is looking to trade Sessions, Hickson and Varejao.  So it could get complicated.  Atlanta is wanting a true PG to run the team.  Report has it they would trade Josh Smith to land one.  Who knows what will happen, but I’ve also proposed a 3 team trade that would send R.J. and Bonner to Cleveland, Atlanta receives Sessions, Hickson and Varejao, San Antonio receives Josh Smith from Atlanta.  This trade would cut $500,000 off the Spurs books.  Don’t know if that would help in landing a free agent SF but, it might if Duncan opts out and restructures his contract.

  • Rob

    Why would Minnesota give up it’s core player they are trying to build around to lose more games than they lost last year?  Minnesota played tough last year.  All their losses were close games that could have gone either way.  They just need a couple of missing pieces along with a little more experience and they’ll have a good team.  I don’t see them making a trade like this…but hey…kudos to the Spurs if they could pull this one off.

  • DorieStreet

    5 days until draft night – June 23rd.

    Just looked at NBA.com draft site page. Three opinions listed there had the Spurs looking to bolster the front court—surprise! 
    Scott Howard-Cooper listed Purdue F as San Antonio’s 1st round pick
    David Aldridge’s mock draft 2.0 placed C Jeremy Tyler in that spot, as did Sam Amick (SI.com), who listed Duke SF Kyle Singler as an option.
    Tyler is that kid that dropped out of a San Diego high school 2 years ago to go pro and play overseas (first in Israel 2009-10, then Japan 2010-11.

  • DorieStreet

    Typo—Purdue F JaJaun Johnson as the overall 29th pick to the Spurs, per Scott Howard-Cooper.

  • DorieStreet

    As much disappointment Josh Smith has been to the Hawks in his 7 seasons, I don’t see their 1st year coach giving up on him yet (though Larry Drew has seen Smith’s bad attitude and blowups vs. former Coach Mike Woodson, as a long-time assistant).

    They will dangle former 2005 2nd overall pick/ pending bust SF Marvin Williams instead. I would have done that deal with the Hawks 1st round pick this season & next, + F Magnum Rolle (6-11, 235) but they gave that away in the Mike Bibby-Kirk Hinrich (and others) trade.

  • Edsinnn

    Detroit’s Greg Monroe and Ben Wallace for Winter Shoes and DeJuan Blair

  • MSteele_in_Éire

    haha this trade would leave that T’Wolves team with no wins next year lol

    btw yes it is insane

  • DorieStreet

    This is similar to a post under a previous 48moh blog, with the fan stating: ” I really, really hope somehow we can land Marc Gasol.”

    Memphis Grizzlies FO conversation–“Hmm—Spurs just called; said they want Marc Gasol.”
    “The Spurs called–the team we just beat in the first round–wanting our starting center? He’s unavailable–but who would they give up in exchange for him?”

    Just because there’s a player out their you wish could be a Spur, or you go to the ESPN trade machine and punch up San Antonio players/salaries & match them up with other sqauds so that the transaction goes through, does not mean it enters into the realm of it possibly happening.  It’s all speculation, guys, but let’s be realistic in any transaction that is proposed.

  • DorieStreet

    Yeah Pop-a-vich; and if this trade happened–

    Artest-Fisher-Walton to Twolves for Love, Flynn, Johnson and Webster, you along with your favorite coach, would be whining to David Stern about   Lakers collusion with an ex-player/coach Kurt Rambis to keep LA in the championship hunt while giving up old players–another ‘one-sided trade’ ala Gasol for Gasol in 2008.

  • DorieStreet

    If I’m the Pistons, I’m not giving up Monroe, who should have been selected 1st team allrookie  over Gary Neal.

  • Sam

    I don’t see why so many people want Pau on our team. He completely disappeared in the playoffs (something we have too much of). Why would we give the LAKERS exactly what they need? So we all have to bear through them celebrating more championships?

  • Sam

    That “kid” has matured very well during that time, or that is what it seems like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjMSNSlyyBQ

    I wouldn’t mind having him, he would be a great addition to our front court. JaJuan Johnson from Purdue is an athletic PF who has a great outside shot for a big man. My first option would be to take Nikola Vucevic if he fell to us though.

  • tejasjack

    i actually like that scenario. bringing in josh smith would be a pretty good move on the spurs part, but i think it could be even better if we could coax antonio into one more year of play time (if his contract isnt being shopped after this point). i trust antonio as a backup pf/c much more than i do dejaun at this point, but i havent given up on “the beast” just yet. its just that i still dont think he is quite ready.

  • tejasjack

    i actually like that scenario. bringing in josh smith would be a pretty good move on the spurs part, but i think it could be even better if we could coax antonio into one more year of play time (if his contract isnt being shopped after this point). i trust antonio as a backup pf/c much more than i do dejaun at this point, but i havent given up on “the beast” just yet. its just that i still dont think he is quite ready.

  • Varner

    I’m looking forward to the Winter Shoes signs sprinkled throughout the crowd next season. 

  • Varner

    Couple news items…I’m sure many of you have seen them already.

    Reports say the Spurs want to trade the 29th.

    Utah is entertaining thoughts of trading Milsap and/or Harris. Many of you will immediately identify a scheme that places Parker in Utah. But nearly every draft guru thinks the Jazz want to move Harris because they’re going to draft a point guard. That leaves something like Jefferson, Blair and the 29 for Milsap. 

    Personally, I’m not sure why Utah would have an interest. 

  • Tyler

    How quickly does RC say “YES!” to that package for Millsap? Half a second? Less? 

    “Wait, Kevin is this really you? Seriously, that’s not cool!”

  • Pablo

    with the uncertainty of next CBA i would not trade any of our players.  Parker’s contract is actually modest.  RJ’s is bad, but nobody would go near it (same with Bonner).  so i agree with those who think a trade is not the answer.  as much as it pains me to say, but the Mavs brought in Tyson Chandler as a wildcard.  Haywood was supposed to be the starter and if Chandler didn’t work out he’d come off the books or be used as a trade chip.  i don’t see such an opportunity for us.  Is Parker really such a hot commodity that a team would trade away a big for him?  doubtful.

    so the other options are free agent bargains or the draft.  i’m still holding out hope that there is a one time exemption to release a player (remember Finley) in next CBA and maybe we can capitalize on short contract for big man looking for second chance.  if not, try to find a solid rookie bigman to eat up 15 minutes. 
    in the regular season Duncan averaged 28.4 minutes/game last year.  maybe minutes can be distributed for PF/C (96 minutes) along these lines for 2011-2012 season:

    28 mpg- Duncan (resting up for another playoff run)
    28 mpg- Splitter (chance to see what he truly has to offer)
    15 mpg- offseason acquisition (Vucevic, Tyler, Donatas Motiejunas, Kenyon Martin (cheap 2yr deal?)
    15 mpg- Blair (size limitation, but he provides toughness & energy; Malik Rose 2.0 – w/out big contract!)
    15 mpg (10 mpg as PF)- Bonner (with five minutes coming as SF if we go w/ big lineup)


  • Sam

    This is very interesting. What do you think the chances are of that trade happening?

  • Mcmcduncan21

    why? parker is 29, competent defender, 3x all-star, finals mvp.  Horrible idea to break up the chemistry that took 9 years to build with manu and tim.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I wouldnt give them a first round pick.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Gasol and Duncan, Gasol and Splitter on the court would be fun to watch.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I like the Singler dude for this team just because he can shoot the crap out of that ball at the SF/wing spot.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Don’t want anybody under 6″11″ in the front court rotation. I’ve had enough of the small experiment.

  • Tyler

    Less than zero? Millsap is a legit starting PF, reasonably priced ($6.7M and 7.2), and only has two years left on his deal. Not only that, but a harder cap in the next CBA will make RJ’s deal even less attractive (yes, it’s possible). Essentially, Utah would be trading one of its most valuable assets for junk. 

    Utah’s GM is one of the best. He’s not going to take on any bad contracts right before a lockout (i.e. RJ). On the flip side, I’m willing to bet RC is trying desperately to move RJ. And while it’s going to take some wheeling and dealing to get that done, it should make for some interesting TV come draft night.

  • Peter

    Agree with your playing time distribution.  And I think you’re right, trade seems unlikely.  Kenyon Martin would be a great fit, but probably a pipe dream too.  Hopefully Tiago can handle the rest of the minutes.

    Always nice to have size in your back pocket, but consider that, at various times in the playoffs, the Mavericks used Marion, Cardinal, and Mahimni as the 3rd or 4th big man.  I know we don’t have Tyson Chandler, but Tim and Tiago could be a better defensive duo than Dirk and Chandler.

    A lot hinges on Split’.  If he develops enough, then they can get by with sub-par defense from Bonner and Blair–mainly because they don’t be on the court as much.  Not a big margin of error, sure, but that’s what happens when 3/4 of the frontcourt makes a combined $7mil.

  • Tyler

    There would be riots in Philly if they traded Iggy/Holiday for any combo of RJ/Bonner/Blair/Hill/draft picks. 

    Why would Philly want to get older (RJ/Bonner) while also trading away one of the better young PG’s in the league? And why would Philly trade away an overpaid yet better and younger SF for an overpaid, older, and much worse SF?

    There were rumors of a Monta/Iggy and Kaman/Iggy swap over the last few weeks. Both proposed deals would be light years better than anything we could offer.

  • Tyler

    The uncertainty of the next CBA is exactly why we want to try and move RJ. He’s by far the worst deal on our books. 

  • Spur4Life

    Agree with you on the 6’11” comment, we need size!!!

  • tejasjack

    o ok. well the only reason i suggested a 1 is to fairly compensate them. i think varejao is to good a player to be had for rj and the 2’s and i really dont like the idea of moving tony parker or dejaun blair. but you may be right. the spurs have a decent history of picking up good players later in the 1st round so the pick is fairly valuable.

  • Sam

    I completely agree that on draft night RC will do a trade. And it will involve RJ.

  • Slartibast

    I was probably that person. I said that because Gasol is a free-agent this year and Memphis could have a very hard time finding the money to sign him. If he was signed and we had to trade for him, there’s no chance it would happen. Since he’s a unrestricted free agent, I thought the Spurs might have an outside chance if they free up some money by letting McD retire and perhaps trading Jefferson/Bonner.

  • Rob

    The Spurs have invited this player to workout on June 19th.


  • Rob

    Just a thought…perhaps off base…who knows.   But trading the 29th to a team looking to rebuild who has players they might be willing to eliminate from their roster in order to resign a particular player(s) might make since in that situation.  I wouldn’t think Milsap would be a player the Jazz would want to eliminate from their roster.  Cleveland, Sacremento, Detroit, New Jersey, Portland would seem likely candidates for such a trade.  In the right situation, teams like Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Orlando might be involved (via a three team trade) trying to bolster their roster for playoffs next year.

    But if the report is true about willing to trade their pick…it seems the Spurs are in line with comments from R.C. and Pop stating their intention to fortify the team via trade more so than with a pick or free agency.

  • TD BestEVER

    Ya they are also thinking about drafting ANOTHER EURO player…….


    basically the same physical stats as Xavi…….

    I’m just not sure why the Spurs are wanting to draft more SG’s because both of these players are only 200-205lbs and 6ft7………that’s more Manu than RJ size wise……. SMH

    We need Bigs, and they are doing what they always do…….nothing……..

  • Bob

    I don’t think Bonner should be in the rotation. If he can’t perform in the playoffs, the Spurs really need to look at winning in other ways. He’s a crutch that benefits from spotty defense in the regular season.

  • Bry

    @ TD BE  I totally agree. Titletown, you are so desperate to get rid of players you don’t like you are essentially demanding to dump them with nothing in return. That’s a very dumb move to begin with, but when you consider that both of them are paid very little, it is insane. Neither Bonner nor Blair would give more to another team than they do for the Spurs, and neither one could be replaced at that price without some ridiculous luck. Stop obsessively calling to dump your two whipping boys and think about a way to realistically bring in some more talent. Getting rid of Bonner altogether instead of just dropping his minutes a bit is a bad move, in my opinion. And getting rid of Blair at his salary is just pain stupid.

  • Bry

    Varner, don’t you think people are being a little too damning of Pop and Bonner? I mean, Pop did get out-coached in the Memphis series, but that doesn’t mean he is suddenly a 180-degree different coach and should be held responsible for every negative thing to happen to the Spurs. He was in the discussion for coach of the year, after all. And, he got 61 wins out of a team projected by most ‘experts’ to win far fewer than that. And, Bonner made 3 million last year. Why is everybody so hard on a guy making peanuts. Bonner doesn’t choose to be unathletic, or get too many minutes. But, he did choose to sign that contract locking him in to 3-4 million per year for four years. Yeah, he didn’t do much in the playoffs… again. But, what do you people expect for a 3 million/year role- player!?

  • Bry

    I think Pop-a-vich was just kidding. It’s a joke, guys.There are probably about 25 players in the NBA that won’t be traded basically under any circumstances right now, and Kevin Love is one of them.

  • TD BestEVER

    because even when most if his assistants said it was a bad idea…….POP still went ahead with the New San Antonio Suns that we saw last season……. and even when EVERYBODY said we need more help in the POST he and RC turned down ALL TRADE OFFERS…….. and then he decided to play Bonner 21mpg in the playoffs after EVERYBODY and their Mama told him that Bonner was gonna choke again……. POP has turned off the rest of the world the same way George W Bush did…… and look what happened to that guy…….

  • andy

    agreed. draftexpress has us taking nikola mirotic, which seems too low and too long-term for the spurs right now, but i think he’d be a decent rotation big down the road. it’s interesting to look back through the drafts to see how many late pick bigs become rotation players. even “up in smoke” darrell arthur has worked out decently for memphis.

    i know this post is concerned with our big rotation, and i like the idea of taking a flyer on tyler in the 2nd, but i want to start the jimmy butler bandwagon right now. last year i was high on damion james, and this year we again find ourselves needing a 3 that hustles and defends. jefferson improved, no doubt, but we need some youth and a backup, and it seems like butler’s in the sweet spot for us. the guys just has spur written all over him.

  • JPDX

    Trade Hill and Blair to the Blazers for Batum and Armon Johnson.  Then Batum starts at SF so RJ can backup at both forward positions.  Then the front line rotation looks like this:

    Minutes at Center: Duncan –> 24.  Bonner –> 12.  Splitter –> 12.
    Minutes at PF: Splitter –> 24.  Jefferson –> 12-24.  Bonner –> 0-12.
    Minutes at SF: Batum –> 36.  Jefferson –> 12.

    Total minutes:  Duncan –> 24.  Splitter –> 36.  Batum –> 36.  Jefferson –> 24-36.  Bonner –> 12-24.

  • 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