The backcourt is back

by

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 reluctance to embrace the per minute brilliance of hated-but-always-feared Manu Ginobili, it’s been far too easy to forget how good the San Antonio Spurs backcourt is. There might be 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?

 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:

Player Min PPG APG RPG SPG TO PER FG% 3FG%
Parker 34.2 18.3 7.7 3.3 2.2 2.8 21.5  51.1  –
Ginobili 32.8 21.3 4.3 2.9 1.8 3.0 23.1  46.5  40.6
                   
Rondo 41.1 10.8 15.1 5.2 2.8 3.8 19.6 46.5 40.0
Allen 39.7 18.8 2.4 3.3 .70 1.7 15.2 47.9 45.9
                   
Curry 33.3 19.4 6.1 3.3 2.33 3.4 19.7 46.8 37.5
Ellis 39.2 26.5 4.8 4.1 2.55 3.3 22.6 51.4 33.3
                   
Nash 33.7 19.5 9.6 3.8 1.0 3.7 24.3 50.0 43.8
Richardson  33.1 21.2 1.6 5.2 1.4 1.2 21.6 47.5 47.7
                   
Paul 33.7 17.6 10.1 5.1 2.78 2.2 29.5 51.4 44.4
Belinelli 27.1 11.4 1.2 2.3 .56 1.1 12.8 46.2 41.0

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 player 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 initiater 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 Spurs’ 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, Parker’s metamorphosis into a facilitator has been an overlooked facet of the team’s 6-1 start.

“Tony has done the best job that he’s ever done here, as far as playing that role between scorer and passer,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “He has shown great leadership running the show, distributing the basketball and scoring when it’s appropriate for him.”

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.

“Ginobili!”

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%, has 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.

  • http://fundamentally-sound.blogspot.com Jaceman

    Might want to check your numbers… Monta Ellis averaging 6.1 steals per game? I know he’s good, but is really that awesome?

  • Tim in Surrey

    Nice job, Jesse. I’m in complete agreement with you. With all due respect to RJ, DeJuan, and Tiago, a healthy Spurs backcourt is the main reason why I’ve been so optimistic about the team this year. In my opinion they’re the single most effective backcourt in the league.

  • DieHardSpur

    I have been saying thus for a while…

    Tony makes us a good team, Tim makes us a great team, but Manu makes us a special team.

    You know what you are gonna get with Tony… a drive and kick, a lay-up, or a pick and roll with Tim.

    You know what you will get from Tim, he is gonna be there every night, 20/10 with a few blocks, a jumper from the elbow of the glass, a running hook from either side with either hand, banging in the post, or a pick and roll with Tony.

    With Manu – you have no clue. He might split a double team with a behind the back dribble as he slashes for a dunk. He might take the dagger 3 to put you away, or drive to the hoop like a bat outta bell in traffic to get to the line… dive out of bounds to save the ball, give you another possession with the game on the line… play the passing lanes for a steal when he knows his team needs a spark of energy to make a final push. My point is, he is the intangibles that make the SPURS special.

  • Ravi

    What do you all think about the Danny Green pickup? Does he have any shot of sticking with the team? Or will he end up in Austin in a few weeks?

    Also – heard about the Tony/Eva breakup….hope it does not affect TP’s focus….And i hope the allegations are not true, because it would be a very un-Spur thing to do…..

    Go Spurs….

  • ITGuy

    That Eva/Tony divorce thing is every where, seems to be for real!

  • Tim in Surrey

    I think Green’s a solid pickup. He’s not the most talented guy in the world but he can play, he’s a champion with a strong character, and he already knows a lot of the system from playing under Mike Brown in Cleveland. All things considered, it’s an excellent pickup: It works short-term because he can fill in as the backup SF until James Anderson returns and it works long-term because he’s young and has at least some potential to be a real contributor to the team.

  • Tyler

    I really like Danny Green. From what I’ve seen and remembered, he strikes me as a solid all-around player; a “Spurs type” of guy.

    Feels like this one has Danny Ferry’s fingerprints on it.

  • SpurINhouston

    Just a TP/Eva update: the rumors are true. Eva filed for divorce today: http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/news/story?id=5817115

    Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen her at a Spurs game in a long while. Makes you wonder if the psychological damage of divorce has already run its course, allowing TP to play like he has been without any “recovery lag” in performance. My sympathy goes out to them both.

  • jwalt

    DiehardSpur — loved your post but have to say I would say Manu makes them “win” as opposed to “special”. Obviously Tony and Tim are great players but it has been Manu who has been the 4th quarter leader since forever. As I read earlier today, Manu might be anywhere from great to bad for the first 3 quarters, but he is almost always brilliant in the 4th.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    Noted. I had some trouble with the table, adding columns and getting a few numbers mixed up. Thought I’d fixed them all, thanks for the catch.

  • Man In Black

    @jwalt I agree but I’ll say it like this. It’s the same as “Shaqobe” days. Bean ain’t making game-winning jumpshots without the foundation of a solid BIG. Spurs are a team through & through and it’s the team’s ability to set Tony free, make Tim base, give RJ flexibility and make Manu a true x-factor that gives us fans a chance at possibly seeing a “special” team.

  • rob

    So far so good. This is one of the most balanced Spurs’ team in a while which helps allow this tandem to start.

    It’s not suprising that the numbers exist as they do. They’ve (Tony and Manu) have always been dynamic throughout their careers. Having them both start is something we as fans haven’t seen on a regular basis.

    Finally. That says a lot about our bench guards. The team isn’t forced one way or the other, Tony or Manu, to be on the court at any given time in order to support the play of our bench to be adequate enough to compete.

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  • San Antonio Spurs Fan

    I was anxious to see what a summer of rest would mean for Tony and Manu. Watching last night at the AT&T Center made me realize that this is not simply a return to form for Ginobili but a resurrection. I’m speaking of the behind the back penetration move that lead to a highlight worthy dunk. It was something you would have expected from the 2005 model.