Spurs offense in harmony despite Duncan’s struggles

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The Spurs started off a bit slow this season, but the waves are beginning to hit harder and harder. The bench depth that has become a trademark in San Antonio over the last half-decade is showing itself once again, and right now the opposition can’t quite keep up.

Ten Spurs logged at least 15 camo-clad minutes in this one, and no starter played more than Tim Duncan’s 25:36 in the 92-79 win over the struggling Washington Wizards.

“When you have a team like that, not just the first group, but the second group plays the exact same way and the third group plays the same way,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “So it’s really tough when you have a team like that who is capable of just moving the ball, passing the ball, cutting every second, and not getting tired on top of that.”

San Antonio’s bench registered 49 points and 17 assists and outscored Washington’s bench by 19 points. Had it not been for Martell Webster’s 21 points and 10 rebounds, the Wizards’ second unit would’ve been abysmal. This is what we’ve come to expect offensively from the Spurs. The passing, the movement, the shooting — it never stopped all night. They shot 50 percent from the floor despite the worst shooting night of Duncan’s career, and they rang up 28 assists in another double-digit victory.

And while we tend to keep tabs more on the sexy, point-scoring side of the basketball (understandably so), it’s important to recognize how well the San Antonio defense is currently playing. The Spurs are allowing their opponents just 92.5 points per 100 possessions, and only 89.2 in the six games since the loss to Portland. Furthermore, they’re allowing teams to shoot just 42.4 percent from the floor while outscoring them by 9.3 points per game.

Again, the schedule has not been difficult, and they got Golden State without Stephen Curry, but they’re beating the teams they should, when they should. And they’re essentially doing it without Duncan.

San Antonio’s franchise cornerstone had yet another dreadful shooting performance on Wednesday, and the percentages are beginning to drop precipitously. Duncan went 1-for-12 from the floor against the Wizards but played more minutes than anyone else on the team. His 11 missed shots were more than any other teammate even attempted (Parker had nine attempts).

His shooting percentage has now dropped to 38.6 percent for the season, including 22 percent from mid-range. For comparison, Duncan hit 42.8 percent of his mid-range shots last season, and the pick and pop has become a major part of his game over the last couple of seasons. According to NBA.com, 49.4 percent of Duncan’s shots have come from mid-range (outside the paint; inside the three-point line) this season, so hitting less than a quarter of those shots are going to be devastating to what is normally a very high level of efficiency.

The Spurs aren’t concerned, however. Tim looks good physically, the shots just aren’t falling.

“I don’t worry about Tim. He’ll be fine,” Parker said afterward. “He’s taking great shots and he needs to keep shooting. He’s wide open when they trap me on the pick and rolls, so he needs to keep shooting.”

And Parker is right. He shouldn’t stop shooting. He can’t, really. That shot is going to be there all night long as Parker and Co. continue to attack the paint. If he stops taking it, it’s going to throw a major wrench in the whole operation. For now, he can rest somewhat easily knowing that his team is rolling.

The Spurs shot better than 58 percent without accounting for Duncan’s bad night. When the offense is in this sort of harmony, the team needs Duncan’s defense first and foremost.

“San Antonio runs offense perfectly. It was like listening to Mozart,” Wizards center Marcin Gortat said. “It’s just ridiculous how they play.”

But Duncan no longer has to conduct the orchestra.

  • etomai

    Haven’t managed to see a game yet this year, but it seems from the recaps like there is tremendous potential for Belinelli as a handler to rejuvenate Ginobili as a freelancer. I wonder if that might be a notable under-the-radar improvement to offset the march of age.

  • Johnathan Blazemore

    Pop is obviously the conductor not Duncan, you idiot.

  • ThatBigGuy

    You are spot on. Between Patty and Marco, Manu has no reason to over-extend himself by needing to be the primary ball handler. He can pick and choose his spots. This makes the second team even more dangerous, especially with Diaw, because then Pop can put 4 playmakers on the court, which is impossible to guard.

  • Colin

    You’re a Knucklehead…..

  • ThatBigGuy

    I applaud your incredibly insightful analysis of 1.3% of this article.

  • td4life

    I sure hope that proves to be the case, and that by the time the playoffs come around Marco owns that role and Manu regains his highest level of marksmanship from the beyond the arc. That’s what we need.

  • theghostofjh

    For any of you guys that loved to hammer on De Juan Blair when he was a Spur, take a look at the following key stats through the first ten games of this season:

    ………………….. Blair ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Splitter

    FG% …………. .566 …………………. .526
    PTS/36 ……… 16.2 …………………. 12.4
    REB% ……….. 20.1 …………………. 18.1
    ASST% ……… 13.9 …………………. 12.0
    STL% ………… 5.1 …………………… 0.9
    BLK% ………… 2.1 ………………….. 1.0
    PER …………. 23.98 ……………….. 18.05
    MPG ………… 21.7 ………………….. 22.7

    Blair has helped a lottery team early on get into contention for a playoff spot in the West. And all for a million dollars a year. Splitter’s being paid NINE times as much.

    BTW, Blair is leading the “entire league” in steals per 48, and offensive rebound rate.

  • leben

    I’d still take Splitter over Blair for his defense alone. The reason Blair leads in steals per 48 is b/c he gambles way too much and occasionally will get one. But when he doesn’t the defense is put in a tough position due to Blair being out of position. No, give me Splitter’s conservative-in-the-right-place, boring defense, it seems to work just fine.

  • theghostofjh

    “Occasionally” will get a steal?!? He’s leading the ENTIRE league! I’d say he’s making a big impact for Dallas defensively as well, and the so-called “gambles” are paying off big-time. But you’re right, Pop LOVES conservative defense, to the seemingly utter disregard of everything else. How else can one explain his persistent ignoring of all of Blair’s compensating factors, as outlined in the very real and productive stat advantages listed above. Not only that, but in the 143 games Blair started during this last three years with the club, the TEAM had a considerably higher win percentage in those games (.762) than did the team overall during the same period (.735). Of all the starters during that period, only Duncan had a marginally higher win percentage.

    P.S. – You think Splitter is worth NINE times the salary of Blair? Would you rather have Ayers than Blair as well? Not me. I think Pop should have exploited Blair’s strengths rather than in true anal fashion trying to force a square peg in a round hole. Pop’s stubbornness got the best of him in this case.

  • Matthew R Tynan

    Oh good lord… stop it.

  • theghostofjh

    I know, the truth is hard to take.

  • Alex_Dewey

    DeJuan’s a good player. He can pass excellently, he has a lot of energy, and he never looked too bad on offense. And Tiago’s contract isn’t the best. Still, Tiago’s an excellent rim defender. That’s literally the most important area of the court and, what do you know, he has excellent defensive chemistry with Tim Duncan in guarding it. Teams might not exactly fear Tiago, but a Tim-Tiago lineup is defensively stifling enough to keep teams out of the paint at a championship level.

    DeJuan gambles for not only steals but offensive rebounds. Nothing wrong with that, but he gets boosts to two categories partly by gambling intentionally to cover up his weak defense. That a) doesn’t work in the playoffs and b) is likely the best explanation it’s helping the Mavs more than it would the Spurs. Risk is the ally of the underdog. When you’re the favorite, you want to minimize variance; when you’re the underdog, you want to maximize variance. Gambling increases variance and DB is good at it. When you’re a contender, you don’t want to give worse teams an in (like easy buckets in transition, over-gambling for steals and blocks and getting in foul trouble). The reason Pop is so conservative is partly mathematical; he’s perennially in charge of a contender that has to play like it’s the better of the two teams virtually every night. It’s in part about style and cohesion: He prefers not to break his systems to gamble even when the Spurs are down; even then he tends to let the Spurs climb out.

    Also it’s worth noting that Tiago’s “traditional” defense is so much more advanced than DeJuan’s. DB can’t stay in a play to save his life if the guy he’s guarding is 6-8 or above. Most bigs (and a few 3s) can shoot right over him. I wouldn’t want DB against LeBron on a switch, ever, ever. DB’s weakside help is perennially lacking.

    Being .027 win% better is not considerably higher. That’s about 4 games in 143 if my math is right, which, okay, might mean *SOMETHING*. But not all that much. And what it means more likely had to do with the 25 other people that determine the outcome of every game game (you know, like literally a top 10 player of all time and two other future HOFers in various stages of aging, injury, and prosperity) and the contexts in which they did it.

    You can probably lob various criticisms of Pop but he’s been ahead of the curve on offense, on defense, and on just about everything. In the end, his biggest folly is his byzantine and grouchy media relations, and, really, no one goes to hell for bad PR.

  • Matthew R Tynan

    Well said, Dewey. More than what would typically be needed to show that Splitter is a more valuable player than Blair (honestly I can’t believe this was even presented as an argument in the first place), but in this case it was warranted.

  • theghostofjh

    “Still, Tiago’s an excellent rim defender.”

    Actually, I think his strength is as a position post defender, and on the pick and roll, not as a “rim defender”.

    “Being .027 win% better is not considerably higher. That’s about 4 games in 143 if my math is right, which, okay, might mean *SOMETHING*. But not all that much.”

    It appears less than it really is because “the team” was considerably more deep and talented overall last year (and at the end of the previous year) than it was during the great majority of De Juan’s starts with the team.

    “And what it means more likely had to do with the 25 other people that determine the outcome of every game game (you know, like literally a top 10 player of all time and two other future HOFers in various stages of aging, injury, and prosperity) and the contexts in which they did it.”

    Then why did the team with no other player as starter during that 3 year period have as good or better win-loss record as Blair, other than Duncan (and that was by less than .005)?

    Regarding Pop, as I said, his stubbornness sometimes gets the best of him. How he dealt with Blair is one of those occasions IMO. I believe that Blair’s overall style of play could have been a net positive for the Spurs, including during the playoffs. The Spurs conservative approach needs an x-factor to win at the highest level. Blair could have been that guy if the team had only exploited his strengths for 20+ consistent minutes every night.

  • Matthew R Tynan

    Fun stat: Among players who log at least 20 minutes per night, Tiago Splitter leads the league in field-goal percentage defense at the rim. He allows just 30 percent shooting on opponents’ shots at the rim.

    In that same category of players, DeJuan Blair is second to last with only Al Jefferson behind him. Blair allows opponents to shoot a fantastic 64.4 percent at the rim.

  • theghostofjh

    It’s ONE stat, and not a very meaningful one at that.

  • Alex_Dewey

    “Then why did the team with no other player as starter during that 3 year period have as good or better win-loss record as Blair, other than Duncan (and that was by less than .005)?”

    First of all, you’re not isolating the the games in which a player comes off the bench vs. a player starting. If, say, (extended hypothetical) the Spurs lose one game where Kawhi is on the bench but he only sits 1 all season and Spurs go 58-24? Then he’s not “improving” them from 58-24 to 57-24 (a tiny increase) – he’s improving them from 0-1 to 57-24 by starting. It wouldn’t make sense to assume the Spurs would still go 58-24 if Kawhi didn’t play. Assuming a single player has any kind of impact on win%, your methodology obscures the effect. It probably favors Blair by quite a bit if you fix it.

    That said, the Spurs became relevant PRECISELY WHEN BLAIR STOPPED STARTING. The Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Jackson acquisitions (and the RJ subtractquisition) were hour, minute, and second when the Spurs became a clear contender despite Manu’s decline.

    Seriously, let’s look at each season: SAS had a good chance in 2011, but that was despite rather than because of the horrid Bonner-Blair lineups (arguably Pop’s greatest misfire was not incorporating Splitter faster over declining yeoman McDyess). Duncan/Manu were both injured that season and Blair contributed to an offense-first (albeit masterful) regular season. His interior passing was crucial. Don’t get me wrong. But it was kind of a paper tiger #1 seed with all the injuries and an immensely questionable defense. That was all on personnel: Duncan was a step slow and McDyess was two steps slow. Blair and Bonner (who was much worse defensively) were abominable. Starting Blair against Z-Bo/Gasol would have been tantamount to concession, and as it stood they put up a respectable 6 games.

    In 2012 the Spurs were going through the motions, though the same questions persisted about their rim defense. Acquiring Kawhi, Boris, and SJax (and ridding RJ) immediately gave the lineup its structure and Blair basically was out of the lineup immediately: Boris was the master of offense (with some defensive prolems), and Splitter was the key on defense (with some offensive problems). It worked to such an extent that we were wondering if the Spurs would go 16-0. But we peaked too early. I don’t see how Blair changes that, I don’t see how Blair changes the fact that OKC had 3 top-10 players and two frontcourt players allowed to set picks that make Duncan’s hip-checks look like love taps.

    In 2013 Blair feasted on a cheap 2013 early season. http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/b/blairde01/gamelog/2013/ Looking at the minutes (rarely more than 20) and the quality of opponent (as well as the rumors from that point in time), I’d be forgiven for thinking they were playing him Ramon Sessions/RJ minutes – i.e. start him, don’t play him in 2nd half, and when you get the right offer trade him. And, in the end, while he might have had some use against GSW and Miami’s small-ball, Boris Diaw, Kawhi, and Splitter all proved themselves eminently capable of handling those scenarios, and at that I’d argue significantly better than Blair, who isn’t quick enough to keep up with tweeners. Memphis hardly needs a justification.

    The Spurs aren’t dominant when Tiago plays vs. middling when Blair plays. But DB’s an inefficiency on d, a slight upgrade on offense, and his rebounding/steal numbers are inflated by his own gambling styles borne of limitation. I loved DB’s rookie campaign and want him to succeed but the reality is he had no place on a rotation that simply out-recruited him. You can’t win a championship if you don’t defend the rim, not in a game with so many great scorers.

  • theghostofjh

    Regarding the better win pct. with Blair as a starter? I’m not suggesting that we can know that Blair actually caused that better record himself. It’s merely recognizing that as a team we won at a higher rate over a substantial sample size with Blair in the starting lineup. And the fact is, it’s a solid correlation in Blair’s favor.

    “That said, the Spurs became relevant PRECISELY WHEN BLAIR STOPPED STARTING.”

    That is because as I said, the “team” overall was getting better at the same time. It is merely a coincident effect. Just to name a few things, we greatly increased our depth “as a team” when Blair began to start less. Example, we acquired Diaw, Jackson, and Mills near the end of the 2012 season. In addition, a phenom young guy (KL) was given the opportunity to make huge strides forward with the exit of Jefferson at the same time. Further, these additions helped our depth even more as the team began to familiarize with each other. The “team’s” performance upgrades had little to do with Blair’s diminished role. We could have done just as well if we kept Blair’s role the same, and played Splitter and Diaw 4-5 minutes less each. Our offensive/defensive differential and win pct. would have been the same if not a bit better.

    “Seriously, let’s look at each season: SAS had a good chance in 2011, but that was despite rather than because of the horrid Bonner-Blair lineups (arguably Pop’s greatest misfire was not incorporating Splitter faster over declining yeoman McDyess).”

    No. We did not do well that year because Pop stupidly took Blair out of the starting lineup late in the season. Our depth was not as good: No Diaw, Jackson, and Mills yet. Leonard was a 20 year old rookie and had less playing time. Duncan hadn’t yet experienced his physical resurgence. Manu was injured. And Splitter was still acclimating to the NBA, and bothered by nagging injuries. This is all pretty obvious. And of course, the Grizz just played out of their ass that year.

    “And, in the end, while he might have had some use against GSW and Miami’s small-ball, Boris Diaw, Kawhi, and Splitter all proved themselves eminently capable of handling those scenarios, and at that I’d argue significantly better than Blair, who isn’t quick enough to keep up with tweeners.”

    Blair would have done much better than Splitter against GSW and Miami than Splitter. He’s a better open court player. And his disruptive defense could have served as an x-factor.

    “I loved DB’s rookie campaign and want him to succeed but the reality is he had no place on a rotation that simply out-recruited him. You can’t win a championship if you don’t defend the rim, not in a game with so many great scorers.”

    Not true. Blair has just as much of an overall positive impact for the team as does Diaw and Splitter. And even with Blair getting his 20+ minutes in a starting role on that team, with Timmy’s resurgence physically, it still would have been good enough overall defensively to win in the playoffs. In the end, it’s about offensive and defensive differential, not “offense” or “defense” in isolation. The fact is, Blair’s an impact player, and what he lacks in position defense he more than makes up for in the other aspects of his game.

  • Tyler

    No one disagrees with you that Blair is playing well – that’s 100% true.

    But that he’s better than Splitter (even given the difference in salary)? It seems you are cherry picking certain numbers and totally discounting years worth of data that show Tiago is a much better player.

    There’s a reason Blair only got offered the minimum. What he gives you is replaceable and as a result, not worth paying a premium for. A player of Tiago’s quality is much harder to find.

  • Tyler

    In what way is that stat not meaningful?

  • theghostofjh

    We can just agree to disagree. Those stats I cited above are some of the most common stats used to assess a player’s productivity. You just want to dismiss them because Blair is performing better than Splitter in every single one of them.

  • theghostofjh

    BTW, so far Splitter has a higher free throw percentage, a lower foul rate, and plays better position “D”. Whoopee!

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