The Spurs’ stagnant starting lineup and the spicy spark of Marco Belinelli

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From the second Tiago Splitter was permanently inserted into the Spurs’ starting lineup in mid-December of 2012, San Antonio’s top five-man unit was a bloodthirsty machine on both sides of the ball, hellbent on vengeance for their loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

The Splitter-Tim Duncan-Kawhi Leonard-Danny Green-Tony Parker group was picking teams apart, scoring nearly 106 points per 100 possessions at the slowest pace of any of the team’s main lineups, according to NBA.com/Stats (93.26 possessions per 48 minutes); and they were suffocating teams in the process, allowing just 87.7 points at the same rate. It was the best defensive lineup in basketball among units that played at least 200 minutes together during the 82-game season, and it was one of the primary reasons the Spurs blew through the West on their way to one of the greatest NBA Finals we’ve ever seen.

But something has been off for most of the first half of the season. Not only has that group fallen off on both sides of the ball, but it’s been downright awful. It was a mind-blowing 18 points per 100 possessions better than its opposition in 364 minutes last season; this year, the opposition has won the battle on a nightly basis. The unit that scorched the earth on so many occasions during the 2012-13 run is, on average, turning things over to the bench with the Spurs trailing on the scoreboard. (Which, fortunately, hasn’t been a problem given how well the second unit is performing.)

San Antonio’s most experienced starting lineup has put up 91.4 points per 100 possessions and allowed 92.2, a predicament that forced the hand of Gregg Popovich for several reasons. The main adjustment, however long-term or temporary: the red-hot Marco Belinelli replacing Danny Green as a starter.

It’s been nearly a month since Marco Belinelli took Green’s spot in player introductions to start the game — though injuries have prevented any rotation normalcy as of late — and while it’s been fruitful for Danny as he plays alongside that smorgasbord of floor-spacing assist machines off the bench, the starters haven’t been much better (until recently, but we’ll get to that). And poor Belinelli. He went from hog heaven with that bench unit — the Foreign Legion, as it was so cleverly monikered — to Applewood Farms among the stagnant old mud-pit the Duncan-Parker pick-and-roll attack had become.

Remember, Belinelli’s offensive numbers off the bench have been amazing this season. He’s shooting 52.8 percent from the floor and 52.9 percent from the 3-point line in the 27 games he hasn’t started, as opposed to 48.5 percent — 44.2 percent from 3 — in the 11 he has. The latter is more than fine, but the former is unreal.

And the immediate connection we saw between he and Manu Ginobili was incredible: Belinelli is shooting 57 percent from the floor when playing with Manu and 47 percent when the two are separated. With the way that bench unit was operating, the natural question was, “Why mess with a good thing?” The answer was fairly simple, though still a little difficult to swallow: the starting lineup needed help.

The struggle

There were several factors that contributed to the poor play of the Spurs’ starting offense, but they all centered around the fact that the four other players on the floor not named Tim Duncan weren’t getting any space.

Danny Green’s performance in the NBA Finals last season ensured there would be a big target on his chest on a nightly basis; with growing intelligence and expanded attention to analytics, teams are focusing more than ever on running players off the 3-point line. Especially those who set records national television.

In the past, Spurs opponents have game-planned to keep Tony Parker out of the lane, as he is so dangerous once he breaks the defense down. But some teams have now decided the opposite course of action works best.

After San Antonio’s first game against the Rockets on Nov. 30 — a wild up-and-down game that ended in a loss for the silver and black — Dwight Howard explained that the strategy of the night was to basically let Parker take as many shots as he wanted. They stuck to shooters on the perimeter as often as possible and wouldn’t let the Spurs get to their bread-and-butter drive-and-kick game. Tony got pretty hot that night, and the strategy nearly backfired, but his production wasn’t enough to overcome the Rockets’ attack on their own.

Parker’s quickness and body control has made it nearly impossible for big men to successfully hedge out on pick-and-rolls over the years, especially when the teammate who sets the screen is rolling to the rim or popping out for the jumper. Wing defenders have left their men on the perimeter, if only for a second, to help on the Parker attack in the past, opening passing lanes to the 3-point line where the team’s deadly shooters were waiting. But many teams have stopped employing that practice so often, much to the chagrin of San Antonio’s floor leaders.

For instance, look at this screenshot from last season. Parker had received the ball on the left wing via the team’s patented “Loop” set before he used a screen from Splitter going left toward the baseline. The Mavericks are so caught up in thwarting the Spurs’ two-man game that they allowed their defensive coverage to collapse far enough in that Duncan was able to come from the back side and set an off-ball pick on O.J. Mayo, who was covering Green on the play. This is not good defense, though, however you slice it.

DannyShot

And Parker wasn’t even attacking the middle of the floor, where he most often wreaks havoc on perimeter help defenders who try to cut him off. This is what we typically saw more often: guards helping off their man to slow Parker down as he attacks the paint from the top of the key. And there’s Green, wide open once again.

DannyShot2

Now days, as defenders are more often staying glued to Spurs shooters, Parker faces less resistance off the pick than what is shown in these screenshots, but that hasn’t necessarily been a good thing.

One of the new wrinkles over the past couple of seasons has been the higher frequency of Duncan mid-range jumpers. When Parker or Ginobili — the two main pick-and-roll ball-handlers in San Antonio — come off screens and attack the basket, Duncan is more often found spotting up than rolling to the rim. That has mostly become Splitter’s job when the two are on the floor, because he has less range than a broken walkie-talkie. (Or maybe two cups connected by a string. Either way.)

Duncan typically hits that 17-footer at a percentage in the low- to mid-40s, which means the defense must account for it. And when defenders have to occupy space in the mid-range area, it takes at least one man away from the two most important areas to defend on the floor: the rim and the 3-point line.

His developed jumper has given Parker a trio of options at all times when he’s on the move: he can drive-and-kick, look to score or find Timmy when the bigs collapse. But there have been issues this season. Those high screen-and-rolls that send Splitter to the basket and leave Duncan floating from elbow to elbow aren’t producing like they were last season, and much of that has been because of Tim’s shooting woes.

Last year, the Spurs scored 1.06 points per possession when the play ended with the roll/pop man attempting a field goal, going to the line or turning it over, according to mySynergySports, and they scored at a 53.4 percent clip in those situations. So far this season, San Antonio is notching just .86 points per possession with a 44.3 shooting-percentage when the roll/pop man finishes the play. That’s a killer drop-off, and it has caused a sort of domino effect in the process.

Duncan is shooting 32.6 percent from mid-range, down from 42.8 percent last season. Not good. It’s affected much of what they normally like to do offensively, and it’s had an impact on Parker’s success as well. The Spurs’ lack of efficiency from the roll man’s perspective in the pick-and-roll isn’t all Duncan’s fault — Splitter hasn’t exactly been brilliant — but his shooting numbers are doing nothing to help in that category.

Opponents have ignored Duncan when he pops out and spots up for much of the season, electing instead to use their bigs to trail Parker to the rim. And with perimeter defenders staying squarely in the hip pockets of the Spurs’ 3-point shooters, oftentimes the kick-back to Duncan is Parker’s only option if he doesn’t have a good look at a shot himself.

Look at how the Blazers defended this Parker-Duncan pick-and-roll — notice how far LaMarcus Aldridge drops back and how each perimeter defender remains locked in to the man they’re guarding, especially the ones in the corners. Then there’s Duncan, who they’ve basically decided to ignore.

DuncanShot

The wings haven’t even been crashing down on Duncan once he gets the ball, either, as they’d rather invite him to take that shot instead of risk a quick pass over the tops of their heads for the open 3. Basically, Timmy’s been on an island for much of the season, and he’s not converting often enough to change the way defenses play these high screen-and-rolls.

Here again, Parker is challenged by two big men along with his own defender, and Duncan is left completely open. Parker would end up kicking to his big man, and Wesley Matthews (highlighted in yellow near the top of the key) doesn’t slide over until the man he’s guarding (you can’t see him, but it’s Green) retreats back on defense. He doesn’t have a good look at the rim in all that traffic, and all passing lanes are closed except the one that leads to a Duncan mid-range jumper.

DuncanShot2

And Tony’s been faced with a bit more resistance at the rim this season because of this, which has led to a drop in field-goal percentage on shots that come from inside the restricted area. Parker shot nearly 65 percent at the rim last season, which is amazing for a small-ish point guard but something that’s par for the course for the future Hall-of-Famer; so far this season, he’s scoring at a 58.9 percent clip from the same range. Of course there have been some missed shots that Parker normally makes, but it seems (to the eye, at least) he’s more often had to force the issue at times this season with Duncan’s shot in such questionable condition.

Normally when wing defenders don’t dig down it means Parker gets a one-on-one opportunity to put a big on ice skates, which has historically been gravy-time for the point guard. But when these post players just drop back off the pick-and-pop and rely on the man who’s defending Parker to go over the screen and recover from behind, it forces Tony into some awkward pull-up situations like the ones above. But it’s been a result of necessity more than anything, which is something San Antonio needs to address. This team has always been great at putting players in the best possible positions to succeed, and history tells us this stuff will likely iron itself out.

The struggle was real through the end of 2013, but the Spurs’ starters have finally shown signs of pulling themselves out of that rut over the last couple of weeks.

The fix

The change in the calendar year has brought good vibes to the starting unit. Duncan’s shot seems to be on its way back (it’s got more arc, at least), the ball is moving around much more quickly and those first five players in the game are producing at a rate closer to that of last season. Belinelli’s inclusion in the opening lineup has given Parker a secondary ¹ball-handler when things break down, and it’s prompted more motion using the full width of the court rather than staying mostly vertical along the center-axis or getting stuck on one side or the other.

¹Poor Danny Green still just can’t dribble. He’s actually improved in that capacity from last season, but it’s still bad enough to make you close your eyes and cross your fingers whenever he puts the ball on the floor.

Spurs big men have been more involved in side pick-and-rolls in addition to the usual top-of-the-key two-man game, and it’s forced the opposing bigs to get out of their comfort zones by moving them off that straight line in front of the rim. And when Parker’s initial attack doesn’t work, the ball is immediately moved along and the offense continues, often in the form of another pick-and-roll on the other side of the court involving Belinelli.

Where before the offense would stagnate once Parker’s options were exhausted, it can now continue with the addition of another pick-and-roll-capable guard on the floor. Nearly everything the Spurs do offensively is predicated on pushing the defense off-balance with ball-reversals and misdirection plays, and adding a player like Belinelli to that mix makes it much easier to do so.

I thought at first the Marco-Danny swap was a temporary move to get Green going again, but I’m not so sure anymore. Belinelli’s presence in that lineup has been key, especially with Duncan struggling to find his range. That Parker-Duncan two-man game is the key to opening the offense, and when one of the two pieces isn’t working correctly the whole machine malfunctions. Marco provides a secondary threat by virtue of the fact he can create his own offense, where Green simply cannot.

“We really liked (Belinelli’s) ability to run a pick-and-roll along with being a shooter where you can change sides of the court with the ball and have somebody besides your point guard run a pick-and-roll,” Popovich explained. “A lot of ‘twos’ and ‘threes’ can’t run a pick-and-roll. They can’t handle the ball well enough, they don’t read the situation well enough or they can’t pass the ball well enough. But he got to do a lot of that for (Tom Thibodeau) in Chicago.

“So it makes him more of a complete player, in that sense, not just a shooter,” he continued. “And like Manu, he has a good feel for the game. He understands what’s going on, he understands spatial relationships and I like his passing.”

These factors prevent defenses from loading up to stop Parker, the way they do when Green is on the floor. Most teams in the NBA like to send extra defenders to the strong side of the court in order to snuff out a lot of initial action in offensive sets, and Belinelli makes the Spurs much more dangerous when the ball is quickly reversed from one side of the court to the other. This way, the offense never slows down; it’s constantly flowing, leaving defenses susceptible to backdoor cuts, skip passes to open shooters and mismatches in the post.

Pop hasn’t committed to Belinelli or Green as the long-term starter, but Marco just makes sense when everyone is healthy again. He’s also making things easier on the well-traveled Parker.

“I’m used to both (types of players). Danny and Kawhi are shooters; they don’t create much. I’ve played with Manu for so many years in the starting five, and he is creating and we are sharing,” Parker told me. “So that’s what I’m doing with Marco now. We share the time on the pick-and-rolls and he’s playing great basketball, so we’ve been taking advantage of that.”

As for whether or not Belinelli has helped the starting unit find traction again:

“Yeah it helps a little bit. He makes shots and he creates, and they have to guard him (which) creates more space for me to penetrate,” Parker said. “Timmy had a rough start, you know, so that’s one of the reasons we had a slow start with the starting five.

“But now Timmy is back to normal, so we’ll be fine.”

As for Green, the bench unit is a pretty good fit. There are ball-handlers all over the floor that allow him to move freely off the ball, and his defensive acumen is a great addition to a lineup that certainly lacked a perimeter impact player on that side of the ball. Ginobili is a sneaky good defender still, but he has a tough time against the more athletic one-on-one players.

The Spurs are going to need Green; make no mistake about that. Belinelli is not a very good defender — San Antonio is allowing 99.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (104.4 when he starts), which isn’t bad, but it’s a bit misleading — and the NBA is packed with elite perimeter scorers. Perhaps if Duncan’s shot starts to fall more often it will force defenders to pay more attention to him, thus opening the 3-point line a bit more where Green can be effective as an offensive player.

San Antonio has actually begun to batten down the hatches on defense. The month of December was a bit of a disaster as the Spurs registered a 104.7 defensive-efficiency rating, which would’ve been good for 18th in the league — a far cry from their top-3 start. But they’ve reined it in a little since Splitter’s injury (which is a little counterintuitive), allowing just 97.4 points per 100 possessions over the last four games. It’s a small sample-size, and the competition hasn’t been top-notch, but it’s a good start after a poopy December on that side of the ball.

(An observation: Popovich has taken certain measures recently to get Ginobili and Belinelli more time together on the court while also giving Leonard (who has had his shooting struggles as well) some run with that slick-passing second group. Manu is entering the game around the six-minute mark of the first quarter, as he usually does, but instead of replacing Marco he’s sending Kawhi to the bench. Kawhi then returns later in the quarter to replace Belinelli and play alongside Green, adding some defensive help to the second unit. It’s difficult to get a read on the rotation right now with the injuries to Splitter and Green, and Pop hasn’t hesitated to jumble some things up a bit.)

That starting group is still a work in progress, but the signs of improvement are real. One of the concepts Popovich consistently preaches when asked about his offense is a simple one: sometimes the shots just don’t fall, and that can make a world of difference. If Duncan was hitting that jumper at his career average, then we might not be having this discussion at all. Maybe then Parker would be having more success at the rim, and consequently, perhaps Green would be getting a few more open looks rather than being chased off the line on a consistent basis.

Who knows? Maybe the adaptation of defenses to vehemently discourage 3-pointers and shots at the rim is contributing to all of this. But then again, teams are jacking up 3s at a historic rate, so it can’t be that entirely. Nevertheless, San Antonio’s offense is much more crisp at the moment, and pairing Parker with another ball-handler in the starting unit has helped at least partially cure what has ailed them.

But the problem that has seemingly been the storyline all season remains: Duncan is shooting a career-worst 46.7 percent from the floor; while the Western Conference-leading Spurs (30-8) are ²moving right along anyway, that number is going to have to trend significantly upward come playoff time. And maybe that rise has already begun.

²I’d be remiss to make it through this entire column without mentioning the fact that the Spurs have been an offensive monster despite their starters’ troubles. San Antonio is currently third in the league with an offensive-efficiency rating of 108, and it has been the second-best offense in the league since that crappy Christmas Day loss to the Rockets. Since Dec. 26, the Spurs are putting up 113.3 points per 100 possessions, just .2 behind the Nuggets during that span. This is because of an unreal bench that has performed brilliantly so far this season. Yet, we must realize the importance of the starting lineup’s production. Come playoff time, rotations shrink and the best two-way players will spend the majority of the time on the floor. As good as the San Antonio bench is, it will inevitably become less productive given the nature of the postseason. It can remain efficient, but in fewer minutes per game; the starters must be the best group on the floor come late-spring.

It’s probably not coincidence the Spurs’ starters have looked so much better since the new year; after all, Duncan is shooting at a 53.6 percent clip over his last seven games. He still hasn’t been great from those spots around the elbows, but with the offense starting to hum like we’re used to seeing, San Antonio has found ways to shift him into spots where he can be more effective. Duncan is also starting to work a little more on the move, giving him more opportunity to shoot in rhythm rather than from a spot-up stand-still. So far it’s working.

“(Duncan’s shot is) looking better and better,” Parker said. “He’s shooting with confidence and I think he’s back to where he was last year. Last year he was automatic.”

All Finals memories aside, getting back to what they did last season sounds like a decent place to start.

Screenshots courtesy of NBA.com/Stats