The great Marco Belinelli vs. Gary Neal debate because it’s July

by

Debating over which backup shooting guard is or would have been a better fit for the team is typical practice during a San Antonio offseason. Maybe it’s not at this position in particular every year, but overanalyzing the impact of a newly acquired role player that will make subtle contributions, rather than exploring the new and exciting possibilities of a hyped-up starting-caliber signee or trade piece, is the norm for those who cover the Spurs. In the coming years there will be big changes, but for now, we discuss the ramifications of San Antonio’s minor transactions and the impact Marco Belinelli will have on the roster.

The three C’s that have become tenets of the San Antonio mindset —culture, continuity and corporate knowledge — continue to drive the front-office vehicle as the final seasons of the Spurs’ Big 3 loom closer and closer on the horizon. They’ve developed a program over the years that has allowed them to seamlessly integrate young, intelligent players into a fluid system which has ebbed and flowed with the evolution of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Soon enough, the franchise will belong to these younger players and whatever pieces hop on board in the future, for better or for worse. Though, as R.C. Buford told Art Garcia last week in Las Vegas, the Spurs aren’t exactly planning on separating from their cornerstones just yet.

“People have been trying to put a finish line on the Big Three era for a long time,” Buford told Garcia. “After watching Tim play this year, I don’t think any of us are trying to predict when these guys will stop being effective players. We’re not looking for a finish line.”

Perhaps the Spurs aren’t looking for the end of an era — none of us are, really — but it would be irresponsible to be unprepared for one. Still, the overarching idea here is that San Antonio doesn’t feel the need to overreact. It believes that the rapid development of the team’s role players will effectively balance out the decline of its stars. Though they may not be stars (or not yet, in Kawhi Leonard’s case), Leonard, Danny Green and the newly inked Tiago Splitter are contributors who had major impacts on both a top-3 defense and top-7 offense. Given the fact you’d be straining to call any of them true NBA veterans (Green and Splitter are on the plus side of 26 years old, though neither has more than a couple of seasons of consistent NBA playing time), there’s still room for individual growth, with Leonard being the future borderline All-Star of the group.

*George Karl said before a game in San Antonio last season that he believed Leonard will be the Spurs’ best player in 2013-14. That seems like a bit of a stretch with Parker still at the back end of his prime, but it’s worth taking heed to that kind of unsolicited praise coming from a basketball mind like Karl’s.

Enter the bit parts that surround the Spurs’ core 6-man rotation. Boris Diaw and Patty Mills opted in to their final-year player options, Matt Bonner avoided any threat of the amnesty clause, Nando De Colo and Cory Joseph are back to battle in a still convoluted backup point guard situation, and Aron Baynes returns with his six fouls a night for less than $800,000 next season. (After watching Baynes give Jonas Valančiūnas a run for his money in Las Vegas, the big Australian has a chance to be worth much more than my snarky previous comment.)

But with yesterday’s news that the Spurs have rescinded their qualifying offer to Gary Neal, a void on the San Antonio bench now must be filled. And with the July 4th holiday signing of Belinelli, the front office seemed to be prepared for this scenario weeks ago. Gary Neal blew the doors off the Vegas Summer League in 2010 before surprisingly becoming a Spur on a multiyear deal directly afterward. He was an instant contributor in a new-look, uptempo offense and had many impactful moments in his three years donning the silver and black.

Yet there was a tangible disconnect at times between the guard and Gregg Popovich. His sometimes undisciplined style and below-average defensive acumen drew the ire of the coaching staff and fans alike, especially during last season’s shooting slump. Behind the scenes, Neal was hurt. Most of his nights following a game during the 2012-13 season were spent wrapped in ice, yet he continued to play through most of the injuries.

But in a contract year with an already crowded backcourt and capped-out payroll, the percentages he put up — well below what he averaged during his first two seasons — and the tense relationship between the two sides likely meant the Spurs had a financial number in mind for Neal they had no interest in exceeding. For a team with more international players on its roster last season than any other in NBA history, Belinelli was the perfect cultural and systematic fit. Not to mention, he was also an insurance policy in case the price tag on Neal became too expensive.

And when you look at the statistical evidence, the two players are remarkably similar. Both are more commonly described as ‘streaky’ rather than ‘efficient,’ and each guy depends more on assists than they do 1-on-1 opportunities. While the latter isn’t all that surprising if you’ve watched the two guards play — and in an assist-driven Spurs system it’s not exactly a problem — there’s still a difference in the way they score. And for the metrics folks out there, Belinelli is significantly more stat-friendly in terms of where he shoots the ball.

Neal had a built-in neon green light when it came to offense. While he certainly had his moments, he also depended far too much on his streaky jumper — both from deep and mid-range — instead of getting in the paint. Of his 597 field-goal attempts during the season, 432 of them came from mid-range or above the break. Less than 19 percent of Neal’s points came from inside the paint, and as a result, only 9.9 percent of his scoring came from the free-throw line. Belinelli is no world-beater, but his shot locations give him a higher chance for success in San Antonio than Neal’s did for him.

*It should be stated, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger supporter of Neal than me over the last several seasons. His scorer’s mentality was a necessity within a second unit that lacked this type of player otherwise, especially with an aging Ginobili. Not to mention, the production they got out of him was worth far more than the money they were paying him. And Pop did give him the freedom to operate offensively; the problem was he took it to extremes at times. I will continue to argue his impact was more beneficial than detrimental during his time in San Antonio, but you can’t ignore the inefficiencies in his game. He was like a controlled science experiment. When things were going well, Pop let Neal continue to do his thing in long stretches. When things went badly BECAUSE Pop let Neal do his thing, the coach had a quick hook. So I’d argue his positive impact was more substantial when he played well than his negative impact was when he played poorly. Pop had the guy on a leash. A leash with a lot of slack, but a leash nonetheless.

Where Neal struggled to get to the line while on the court, Belinelli is much more effective. Despite having a higher usage rate (19.6 to 17.9), Neal drew nearly half the number of fouls Belinelli drew on average while he was on the floor. In fact, 20.1 percent of the Italian’s points came from the stripe last season, more than double Neal’s percentage. The newest Spur is the kind of guy stat-heads enjoy when he’s hitting his shots, even though he, too, can be inconsistent.

Aside from his Neal-like tendency to shoot threes from above the break rather than in the corners — which could change in the Spurs’ offense — Belinelli takes far more shots at the rim. Where only 7.4 percent of Neal’s attempts came from inside the restricted area, Belinelli got to the rim 27.4 percent of the time. When he got there he converted better than 50 percent of the time, but that’s not really all that special in terms of shooting from within the restricted area. But you can live with that when the rest of the fat is trimmed. Belinelli took just 36 percent of his shots from the zone outside the restricted area and inside the 3-point line, where Neal took more than 50 percent of his.

*To put some of those percentages in perspective, Neal took only 44 shots at the rim last season. Belinelli took 167 from inside the restricted area. That’s a major difference.

But there’s another thing that must be considered when comparing these two players: The Spurs had the 7th highest offensive-effienciency rating in the league last season; the Bulls were 24th in the same category. With this in mind, it’s likely Neal had an easier time scoring than Belinelli did. Still, despite dwindling in the league cellar in terms of offensive efficiency, Chicago was 8th in the NBA in assists. San Antonio topped that list, but the difference wasn’t more than a couple of dimes per game. The point being, if the Bulls were a terrible assist team with a poor overall offense, you might be able to extrapolate that Belinelli’s numbers could go up in the Alamo City. And while they still might spike for a player who depends largely on assists, it likely won’t be drastic given the fact his minutes will probably drop with such a deep roster.

Still, it’s fair to project Belinelli will be a more efficient player than his off-the-bench predecessor was. And while Synergy numbers point to the newcomer being a slightly better defender than Neal, neither is what you would call a good defender. Hell, average is pushing it. But what the Spurs are banking on is a more consistent performer that will fit a little better into their pass-happy motion scheme. Though many of the statistical differences between the two players last season were negligible, the areas in which there were significant rifts between numbers could be very impactful.

After watching this team come within one defensive rebound of winning a fifth ring, hindsight makes it easy to realize the importance of an extra possession or two.


  • Robxxx

    Fair analysis, which gives justice to Marco, who is a tough player and a very serious guy.

    All the best to Marco in San Antonio, along with Tony, Manu, Tim and under Pop’s wing.

  • Bob Sacamano

    The big thing is his size, when Spurs decide to go small having him and Ginobili at the wing isn’t all that small – not just for mismatches but for closeouts. He’s also money from both 45’s for 3. How many open 3’s does Danny Green get on the weak side from TP single-double screens. Like Neal he can handle the point a little, definite upgrade.

  • Tyler

    Belinelli was really good for Chicago last year, especially in the playoffs. While we know he can shoot, score, and handle the ball in a pinch, the thing that surprised me the most was his willingness to scrap and be a first-to-the-floor type of guy. I think that bodes well for him considering above all else, Pop wants guys that will compete on a nightly basis.

    In my mind, he went from simply a shooter/scorer to a two-way player that’s solid on both ends. He’s not going to set the world on fire on either end, but he’s not going to take anything off the table either. Solid signing and an upgrade over Neal.

  • Tyler

    In defense of Neal, I feel like his shot selection was by design. With the second unit, his role was to be aggressive and look for his shot. Outside of Manu, points where hard to come from for the second unit if Neal wasn’t scoring. And when your team relies on you to score, and you don’t get much help, you’re going to take some lower % looks. How many times did Pop yank Neal because of his shot selection? None that I can remember. If anything, Neal was sat because of his ability on the defensive end.

  • Colin

    Belinelli’s size and ability to get to the line in comparison to Neal will be the difference-maker in the Spurs’ 2nd unit. I like the hire, especially with Belinelli coming off his best playoff performance (maybe his only playoff performance?). He played extremely tough and I see that translating to him looking real good in a Spurs uniform.

    Neal is more of a 1 string banjo (although he can play the hell out of it) compared to Belinelli and that is why the Spurs will be ok without him.

  • Colin

    agreed 100%. Neal did what was asked of him to the best of his ability.

    Neal has hit big shots, we all know that Memphis game 4 2011, however, I keep thinking of that OKC game 6 in 2012 when Spurs were up 21 one or two minutes before halftime and Neal pulled up for a 3 pointer than literally went in and out, would have put them up 24. Durant was able to pull them to within 15 at halftime and you could see the energy changing at that point. I see the Spurs winning that game if Neal makes that shot. Oh well…………..

  • Matthew R Tynan

    I made a small amendment to the piece. It needs to be stated how much of a Gary Neal supporter I was. I loved the guy, but Belinelli seems to be a better fit.

  • Tim

    I concur with all the points made below, as well as the main post. While I loved Gary Neal’s shot-making, as well as his irrational confidence, he was a drag on the defensive end. I do think that Marco will be a slight, but an upgrade nonetheless in this department, and that hopefully his shooting % will increase as a result of open shots.

  • pgchorizo

    The biggest flaw in Neal’s game was his inability to bring the ball up the court or dribble more than once or twice for that matter. If he didn’t shoot on the catch, he was a turnover waiting to happen. His lack of ball handling skills severely limited the offensive flow. I never had a problem with him jacking up wide open 3s, I had a problem with him launching 3s from 25ft+ because he couldn’t put the ball on the floor. I expect Belinelli will be a major upgrade in that regard. That should relieve Manu of some of the ball handling burden. Over the last 2-3 years, the Spurs haven’t had anyone else capable of bring the ball up the court consistently once Tony Parker goes to the bench. Danny Green is also hamstrung by his lack of handles but he’s a much better defender.
    Somewhat related point as it relates to Gary Neal’s 3 point shooting. A new statistic must be kept as it relates to 3 point shooting percentage. Unguarded 3 point shooting percentage. I think the Spurs shooters enjoy the luxury of largely shooting 3s while unguarded (defender at least 5 feet away at the time of release). While they collectively shoot well enough to earn a spot in the top 3 year after year, I imagine they would be mediocre at best if the league kept track of unguarded 3 point shooting percentage. Other high ranking teams are able to shoot in the mid 40 percentile while not enjoying the predominantly wide open looks that Gary Neal, Danny Green and Matt Bonner have fed off of for years.

  • Pingback: Court Vision: Josh Smith signing could cost Pistons a lottery pick in 2014 | The Point Forward - SI.com

  • wade

    I know this article is about Marco and Gary. But the true bust on that Spurs team, was Green. If he had just played even slightly below average, the Spurs would have won the title. I shrieked, screamed, closed my eyes and yelled at POP while watching those 2 games but especially game 7 and make no mistake, Green was ugly from the very first quarter and by the 4th, it was a full on horror show. Pops biggest blunder by far was allowing Green to play meaningful minutes ( meaning more than 11 ). When ever he put the ball on the ground he looked like a high school player, finding double teams every chance he could, then passed the ball to the other team every chance he could or just made a low iq decision. He was going for double doubles in game 7 for missed shots and turnovers as the number 4 option. In game 6 and 7 we were watching one of the saddest athletic moments in all of sport history.

  • kareem

    That’s unfair for a guy who spaced the floor for us games 1-5 without green who knows if there would be a game 6..how do you know we would have been up 3-2 if yoh was happy the way he light up the heats games 1-5 then don’t turn on him in game 6-7 unfair man unfair!

  • idahospur

    Pop needs to design a few plays to feature Green and Leonard. Had we just a few of these in the arsenal, it could have made the difference in Games 6 and 7. Neal was asked to do too much, and play too many minutes in the playoffs. Marco takes a spot as the #4 guard on the team (after Parker, Manu, and Green) and I think that will be a great role for him.

    Rumors are that Gary Neal will be with the Bucks. Glad he has a chance somewhere else to play and glad to not see him wear a jersey for a time I despise.
    Hoping Blair finds a team too.

  • Len

    “After watching this team come within one defensive rebound of winning a fifth ring, hindsight makes it easy to realize the importance of an extra possession or two.”

    Reading that sentence made me jerk my head away in disgust while a golf ball sized tumor started forming in my gut. Yeah, I’m not quite over the Finals yet.

    But, nice article none the less. Another subtle but positive move by PATFO.

  • Len

    Miami finally figured out Danny. I mean, most serious Spurs fans I know weren’t believing all the hype about him. Danny is a limited player. He is good, maybe even great, at what he does – spot up 3 ball, finding ways to shake defenders for spot up 3’s, good half court and transition D. But there’s a heck of a lot he doesn’t do on the court. It’s not like he was suddenly going to learn how to run a fast break or do anything meaningful off the dribble.

  • junierizzle

    So not right to call Green a bust. He did his job as a shooter. When they didn’t respect him he lit them up with the most Threes in Finals history. When the finally respected him Duncan went nuts and the Spurs were one rebound away from winning the whole thing. Green did his job. He did more than anyone could have expected. He wasn’t a bust.

  • The MEGA

    And Belinelli turned over as much as double money from Cleveland..

  • Graham

    Green and Leonard have those plays, the problem is (with Green) that he’s only going to be able to pull off several designed plays that end with him in a stationary spot up 3 attempt. Those are hard to get when he is properly respected from deep. Leonard has those plays, but he was much more useful as a garbage man type player in 6 and 7 grabbing rebounds and getting putbacks or exploiting mismatches. He doesn’t have the handle (yet) to take a competent defender off the dribble unless they are off-balanced.

    Green is already functioning at peak levels on the team, and is a great 4th option, or rather a release valve that either opens things up for Parker and Duncan or makes them pay for closing down on them.

    Leonard, well who knows what his limits are? I’m eager to see what he adds to his game with another offseason.

  • Graham

    Hold that anger and disappointment in. I’m betting every player on this team uses that as fuel to drive them next year. If we do manage to redeem ourselves next year, the win will be all the sweeter.

  • Mark W.

    I always thought of Gary Neal as the world’s greatest pickup basketball player. You’d throw him in and he’d do whatever he wants but always had the ability to score like 30 points off fade away 3-pointers and running floaters from 20 feet. Seemed like Pop would put I’m in and say take the next 3 shots, if they go you get 2 quarters if they don’t then you’re done for the night.

  • Ali

    I agree. Miami figured out Green. But Green was trying to hard. he took like 12 shots and made 1. why did he take so many? why did he keep on driving with the ball when he couldn’t dribble? We didn’t see Oberto drive. Know your game. even on the play were the all-time great missed a lay-up. Green screwed up. he drove with the ball, got stuck Manu bailed him out and gave Duncan the easiest shot of his career and he missed. OR when we were down 6, Manu makes a crazy way behind the line 3. then spurs steal the ball on the in-bound. Manu gives the ball to the wide-open Green and he chocked. ****** Chocked. Allen made that shot. Battier made that shot. Green didnt. their role players did and ours didnt. easy as that.

    But where Pop missed up is when he left Kwahi in the game in game 6. Miami was going to foul why did he leave Kwahi in the game is beyond me and the 67% ft shooter missed a ft. and we went to overtime…….

  • zainn

    Kawhi Leonard was unstoppable in Game 7 when driving to the basket. He would either get fouled or make the basket, and in some cases both. I simply wish we would’ve called for more play for leonard to the basket because that is something Miami simply couldn’t figure out. Could’ve been a series clincher.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I agree. However it was the young kawhi Leonard’s failure to make the other free throw that would have catapulted him to Spurs superstardom and oh yeah the whole enchilada.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I like Neal as well and can’t believe we got nothing for him. But Marco’s ball handling and passing already is going to be a welcomed sign for Tiago. In so many times in so many games I saw Neal elect to chuck up a 3 point attempt ignoring a cutting Splitter to the rim. It will be interesting to see in the coming season if these two hook up at times.

  • junierizzle

    I don’t blame KL for that either. He’s 21 and he had a knack all playoffs for missing the first freethrow. I wasn’t shocked he missed it. It wasn’t nerves, it was just how he was shooting all playoffs. And if you ask him, he is more upset about the missed rebound.I was more impressed with his game 7. That’s where he stepped up. He took a three in the final minutes that would have given them a 1 point lead, now that’s gutsy.

  • Bob

    Too bad the HOF coach doesn’t like to stick with what’s working.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I wish he would have made the other free throw in game 6.

  • Titletown99030507d

    And Oden will wait yet again to decide until this weekend instead of Monday – err Wednesday. Why is it that all these reports are coming from Miami writers and no one else? I will LMAO if he goes anywhere else but Miami.

  • Bob

    Made no sense. At that point Pop should have gone with the free throw lineup.

  • STIJL

    Writing was on the wall for Gary when he could not produce consistently. That’s been a montra for Spurs role players from get go since the Pop era of coaching. I know (those who point out Bonner would be appalled by the idea). But Neal was projected and expected to be more than Bonner in terms of regular use. So be it now that Belinelli will be expected to be more than Neal. Not necessarily in terms of scoring, but in terms of total team productivity.

  • STIJL

    Chances are he might. There are other teams that can offer him more than money when it comes to longevity of his career. (Which may in the long run award him more money) But in his defense, he’s got to listen to all the offers. Wouldn’t you?

  • Titletown99030507d

    He wanted to go to a team with little spotlight. What a Liar he is going to a place that will put him under a microscope not to mention throw him into the lions den from day one. Not a smart thing to do if he wants to prolong his career. That was his intentions to get his career going and prolong it not the money or spotlight. Speaking of spotlight it wasn’t LBJ which was the reason he chose miami it was the lifestyle he was after as in tons of loose women in that town and the club scene. Since that’s the real reason then we don’t need that kind of distraction. Miami is the next Lakers. I can’t stand neither one of those two. By the way he better win his ring before LBJ leaves for free agency. The arrogant Laker fans and sports bloggers have him going to LA Lakers to team up with Melo and Kobe and whatever superstar free agents are available when the time comes. They disgust me.

  • idahospur

    Some article I read stated that Oden found a perfect fit in Miami where he will develop without having pressure of being a dominant player.

    I personally think Oden would have fit better with the Spurs (assuming he gets playing time) because there is little media focus in San Antonio, Oden would not be perceived as a superstar as no Spur gets that attention, and Oden would learn from one of the greatest big men ever (Timmy Duncan) and develop to an NBA level. He would then have a seat on an organization planting seeds for another decade of contention, with Leonard, Green, Splitter, and a few more years of Parker.
    Being with the Heat teaches Oden that he really doesn’t have to do anything and his play on being a “dominant” big man on the inside really doesn’t fit in with the Heat game.
    Will the curse of the Portland big men travel with Oden? Only time will tell.

  • STIJL

    If it’s any consolation
    http://www.hoopsrumors.com/2013/08/notes-on-greg-oden.html

    “ESPN’s play-by-play announcer Mark Jones tweets that after Miami, the Spurs and Mavericks were Oden’s second and third choices.”

    Woo Hoo! (enter sarcasm font)

  • MH

    Without Danny Green, we never get to game 6. He is not a star, and isn’t paid like one. What he is is a VERY good specialist. You can’t expect him to have more than five good or great games in a seven game series. You just can’t.

  • InsideHoops

    This is a ridiculous notion that the Spurs had no one other than TP that can bring the ball up the court effectively…..

    And please forget about this notion of unguarded 3 point shots….plain and simple, the Spurs are a team whose offense calls for finding the best available shot….hence tops in assists…and hence finding the wide open shot or one that is able to get off effectively while being guarded.

    So yes, of course they get lots of open looks.

  • InsideHoops

    An offense like the Spurs is going to take what the defense is giving them…it just was not happening in game 7 and extremely doubtful that it would change with having Pop actively or solely going through KL to get points AND especially when there offensive machine was the best in the league….very easy to criticize in hindsight.

  • Pingback: Spurs vs. Grizzlies season opener