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