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:
|Starter||Tim Duncan||Tiago Splitter|
|3rd string||DeJuan 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.