The backcourt is back
The last time the San Antonio Spurs were consistently mentioned among the list of top backcourts in the NBA, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton were still a relevant tandem. Coincidentally, it also happened to be the last time the Spurs won an NBA title.
Mostly due to injuries, and the casual fan’s reluctanceÂ to embrace the per minute brilliance of hated-but-always-fearedÂ Manu Ginobili, it’s been far too easy to forget how good the San Antonio Spurs backcourt is. There might beÂ a handful of teams with a better point guard than Tony Parker, an even smaller number of teams with a better shooting guard, but how many boast a backcourt as dynamic as the Spurs starting guards?
Â Last year much was made of head coach Gregg Popovich’s plans to hand the keys to the offense over to Parker, but injuries and, later, the reemergence of Manu Ginobili as an elite player quickly derailed those thoughts.
A year delayed, those plans are finally coming to fruition as the San Antonio Spurs offense has exploded with over 108 points per game, good for second in the league behind the Los Angeles Lakers (courtesy of NBA.com). The San Antonio Spurs are off to one of the quickest starts in franchise history, and they’re accomplishing it despite a slow start from franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan.
The box scores
Statistics never tell the entire story when it comes to the contributions of Spurs players, though the numbers from Parker and Ginobili certainly hold their own against the top backcourts in the league. In a way, Parker and Ginobili dilute each other’s individual numbers–each taking possessions away from the other in a way that most teams do not have the luxury–while improving the overall quality of the team.
Looking through a few of the top backcourts in the league, the Spurs numbers fare pretty well:
|Parker||34.2||18.3||7.7||3.3||2.2||2.8||21.5||Â 51.1||Â –|
|Ginobili||32.8||21.3||4.3||2.9||1.8||3.0||23.1||Â 46.5||Â 40.6|
Of the group, the Spurs and Celtics have the only backcourts that buttress their offensive production with defensive aptitude. Comparably, Rondo might be the better overall point guard with Parker currently the more consistent scorer.
At the shooting guard position, the gap between Parker and Rondo is about the same as the gap between Manu Ginobili and Ray Allen, with Ginobili the better player but Allen holding the advantage at one elite skill set–shooting.
The Golden State Warriors are an interesting duo, but how relevant will the team be come Spring and are the per game numbers, for Ellis at least, due in part to increased minutes in a still more wide open system?
The Phoenix Suns are just as potent offensively, and Nash very well may still be the best point guard on one side of the court. Richardson, while comparable to Ginobili statistically, lacks the versatility and playmaking abilities of Manu.
While Belinelli should in no way ever consist of one half the top backcourts in the NBA, the New Orleans Hornets were included to show how pairing one elite player with an average player compares.
Extend the discussion to include three-guard rotations, which would bring George Hill into the conversation, and the Spurs backcourt advantages becomes even more apparent.
The new realities of Tony Parker
Plantar fasciitis rendered Tony Parker a limited playerÂ a year ago, robbing him of the elite quickness that defines his game. A year of growth and improved options around him have shown hints of redefining (or at least refining) that game.
Parker might never reach the assist totals or overall statistical measures of several highly touted “pure point guards”–A Spurs system that runs its offense through three key playmakers as opposed to one initiaterÂ limits his opportunities for one–but his ability to balance his team needs with his own scoring ambitions has been well documented this season (via the Express-News).
While the Spursâ€™ season so far has been headlined by the scoring exploits of Manu Ginobili, the stunning resurrection of Richard Jefferson and the untapped promise of Tiago Splitter, Parkerâ€™s metamorphosis into a facilitator has been an overlooked facet of the teamâ€™s 6-1 start.
â€œTony has done the best job that heâ€™s ever done here, as far as playing that role between scorer and passer,â€ coach Gregg Popovich said. â€œHe has shown great leadership running the show, distributing the basketball and scoring when itâ€™s appropriate for him.â€
While the Spurs have never looked to Parker to be a pure facilitator, it is the dribble penetration of Parker that keys much of the Spurs offense. With Duncan struggling, Parker and Manu Ginobili are the only two that consistently create shots. Looking to the revitalization of Richard Jefferson, sure his approached has changed and fundamentals improved, but it’s not as if he has developed an entirely new skill set.
Parker’s initial action off the pick and roll often puts the defense on its heels, putting into motion a chain reaction of scrambled defensive rotations that an unselfish Spurs team can exploit to create open three-pointers and driving lanes that did not exist as often for Jefferson last season. In ranking Parker with his peers, his all around game might not be as dominant as Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo, but his ability to get into the lane rivals anyone in the league.
During the Spurs hottest run last season, Manu Ginobili was quietly one of the top five most impactful players in the entire NBA. While the minutes are still limited, Ginobili is now the San Antonio Spurs leading scorer and the centerpiece to any title hopes.
While (giving the benefit of the doubt) Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are still near the top of the lists for their respective positions, it is Ginobili who can still lift his play to MVP level stretches. At their relative peaks, perhaps only two shooting guards rate higher, with Kobe Bryant and Dywane Wade being separated only by slightly higher athleticism and durability.
With Tony Parker resuming his fair shair of the playmaking responsibilities, Ginobili has been able to shift his focus to scoring. Not having to be the lone facilitator, Ginobili has seen an uptick in spotup opportunities, his long jump shots increasing from 67% of his shot selection to 78%. Meanwhile, the number of open looks he is assisted on, which has risen from 46% to 52%, hasÂ increased his shooting percentages from every range according to 82games.com.
The question is probably not if Ginobili can play at an elite level, but rather, how long can he keep it up. It will be up to Popovich and Parker to make sure that stretch coincides with the playoffs.