The Roots of Defensive Decline


If you wrote a book about this season, which story lines would play most prominently in your retelling of the story. The decline of Spurs’ defense? The slight but unmistakable devolution of Manu Ginobili’s game? Tony Parker’s game-weary legs? The promise of DeJuan Blair and George Hill? Tim Duncan’s squandered brilliance? The emergence of small-ball as a nightly fixture within Spurs basketball? And once you decided on your favored story lines, how would you relate them?

I’ve taken up the question of small-ball at different points this season–not unique to me, Spurs fans everywhere have given endless thought to this as well–and framed the discussion this way:

…the Spurs’ forays into small-ballish lineups garner a certain amount of success. But for many fans–those who grew up on a twin towers approach to defending the lane–this doesn’t sit well. Those fans aren’t asking for the return of David Robinson. They’d happily accept a lane clogger after the fashion of Rasho Nesterovic or Nazr Mohammed. Their complaint is not that small-ball doesn’t produce points, or at least that’s not what I hear them saying. Their complaint is that small-ball gives the Spurs a different defensive identity.

Elsewhere I’ve written of the difficulty of funneling opposing guards into the waiting arms of shot-blockers when those shot-blockers are watching from the bench. For all the good one might attribute to small-ball, Michael Finley at power forward does not not provide the team with a defensive post presence. In the end, the Spurs lose more than they gain by consistently featuring small line-ups.

Now that we’re more than half way through, I’m confident that the book on this season should be written with the small-ball dot visibly connected to the defensive demise dot, with a heavy black line bridging the space in between. But don’t take my word for it. George Karl says so too.

Defensively, they are not a dominant defensive team as they once were. They used to be incredible around the basket. You now can score around the basket on them more than ever before. But they’re still solid. They’re still sound, conceptually. (Pop) has tricks, he can mess with you. But they were so good for so many years.

We chart our baskets within five feet of the basket every night. Halftime, I’d go in there against SA and we’d be 2 for 15. They just wouldn’t let you score around the basket. That’s different now.

They used to play two bigs. Now you can take Duncan away from the basket. You can take their bigs away and attack their smalls a little more. You take Duncan in the pick and roll, you’ve got Bonner, or McDyess or Blair covering the basket. That’s just not as good as it was when it was David Robinson, or Nesterovic or Mohammed or someone like that.

Reduce it all down and the Spurs are fundamentally wrestling with two major personnel issues and one tricky dilemma.

The dilemma is Manu Ginobili. He’s still a great player, but not exceptional. It won’t be long before he’s merely a good player, but not great. And so on. Right now he’s an attractive contract; by this time next year Ginobili might represent a missed opportunity or, worse,  an unattractive contract.

I include Ginobili in a conversation about interior team defense because once before the Spurs could tolerate an ill-timed Manu Ginobili shot or misguided turnover when getting those possessions back with late game stops was part of the nightly routine. But now those wasted possessions, or possessions which end on a missed shot that Manu Ginobili used to make, invariably add to the point differential. The Spurs don’t get those possessions back.  The late game stops are fewer and farther between. A marginal slip in team defense has transformed the Spurs from a defensive juggernaut into a team that is, more or less, happy to exchange baskets.

The personnel problems are Richard Jefferson’ s relative lack of production and the absence of more shot-altering bigs.

Recently Rahat Huq opined, “In the modern CBA era, perhaps the most pragmatic approach to personnel oversight entails, rather than the construction of one static team for the long haul, the planning and creation of separate teams in succession, wherein management continuously reloads, retaining flexibility and allowing the franchise to stay competitive in perpetuum.”Apply that quote to the Spurs, and all sorts of insightful stuff shakes loose.

The reload part is crucial. Some players’ unique skill sets are nearly impossible to replace, even those of contract-cheap role players. Misfires happen.

I would argue that Huq’s quote misses the Spurs’ situation by three characters. In San Antonio’s case, “the planning and re-creation of separate teams in succession…” would be a better way of putting things. Over the last decade, the Spurs have proved there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Their system works. You win games playing Popovich basketball. Their continued success hinges on the ability to re-create the same mix of skill sets within that system. The names can change, but the games must remain remarkably similar.

It’s actually the case that the Spurs used to feature three shot-blocking bigmen. There was the twin-tower thing in its multiple incarnations, and there was Robert Horry.

Horry was a smart defender, and especially alert as a weakside shot-blocker. He was also San Antonio’s  stretch-four in residence.  When the Spurs transitioned to Matt Bonner they came away with a half-Horry. Bonner can stretch the floor, but his defensive contribution is nowhere near Robert Horry territory. The Spurs know it. Witness their dalliance with Anthony Tolliver or the draft selection of James Gist. The Spurs’ fascination with Tyrus Thomas is a half-Horry maneuver in the other direction. In Thomas they’d get a weakside shot-blocker who is, unfortunately, a poor shooter.

The most recent attempt at failed re-creation is hoping that Richard Jefferson’s defense would approximate Bruce Bowen’s. Or thinking that Keith Bogans was capable of the task of being Bowen. Neither scenario has worked out.

You know what they say about ideas. Ideas have consequences; ideas have antecedents. Lineups do to. It’s important to recognize that San Antonio’s defense didn’t slip from elite to middling overnight. It’s a project in the making.

I’m not faulting the front office. They’ve made smart moves, perhaps the best available, in an attempt to” stay competitive in perpetuum.” Sometimes it just doesn’t come together.

Ultimately, it’s not really the rising age of their core which has contributed to the team’s decline. The core is still playing well enough to lead a better-fitted supporting cast to a title.  But the current supporting cast does not share in the team’s previous defensive identity: they lack (or don’t play) the additional shot-blocking bigs of past lineups; Robert Horry’ offense was replaced, but not his defense; Bruce Bowen’s defense was invaluable, and better than imagined.

Add those things together and you’ll find a team whose defensive ranking has slipped from top three to top 15. And you’ll find that that math will produce a much happier, I’m-not-scared-of-you George Karl.

So the situation is serious, but not dire. The possibility of correcting the front court is not hard to envision. Tiago Splitter is a capable team defender whose long arms could outstretch the competent but alligator-armed defense of Nazr Mohammed. Or a trade for a player like Tyrus Thomas might smooth some of the wrinkles. And I’m sure there are other workable scenarios beyond those two.

The situation with Richard Jefferson is bad. If a trade is not possible, everyone is placed in the spot of simply hoping he snaps into place. But I seriously doubt his defense will get to the point of pleasing Popovich. The Spurs are in a tough spot.

And, of course, the Manu Ginobili dilemma is strictly for the brave-hearted. On our inaugural podcast, a straw poll of 48MoH staff favored moving Ginobili while he still qualified as a talented expiring contract. But the staying competitive in perpetuum thing could go-along just fine with Ginobili in a Spurs uniform. No one doubts that. If the Spurs corrected their defensive personnel issues, it would more than cover for Manu Ginobili’s decline.

This post is just a way of saying, “Thank you, George Karl. An entire fanbase salutes you.”

And yes, I realize the Spurs just slapped-down the Nuggets by–ahem–playing small. So insert your snarky comments in the thread below.


    Grizzly Blair is a beast! Did yall see that all star game?

  • pablo

    i saw the rookie/sophomore game, in fact i was there. i am a huge Spurs fan, but live in dallas. i was neat to see Blair’s family there, one had a white and another a black Spurs’ Blair jersey.

    i would love to add Omri Casspi to the Spurs. he is a poor man’s version of AK-47’s defense and Dirk’s offense. he might not be great at offense or defense (yet), but he is a GREAT team player.

    i am trying to figure out a way where Spurs can get in a three team deal and somehow facilitate the Kings to get bad contracts off their books, but have to give up Omri. i know it is unlikely, but he would be sweet to have.

    Omri, Blair and Splitter next year would be a nice complement to Duncan’s farewell years.

    oh well, go Spurs

  • art

    Horry’s contributions in his first season were nowhere near as significant and memorable as his second season. So perhaps there’s hope yet for Jefferson to improve next season.

    I remember Pop claiming that Nestorovic’s numbers in 2003-04 were essentially the same as Robinson’s last season. The thing is Robinson was more skilled and had intangibles that enabled the Spurs to win two championships. Horry had these intangibles as well. So do Manu and Blair. Trade away Manu and the Duncan championship window closes right away.

    Methinks an infusion of new assistant coaches and players, and augmenting the Spurs System will improve the Spurs chances of winning another championship next season.

  • td4life

    I get tired of fans here asking for trades where the spurs trade away a bunch of scrubs and get studs back. Other times you guys are asking other teams to trade the expiring contracts of good big men for our slouches…. like toronto just wants to get rid of C-Bosh for nothing so bad they won’t stick with him through the playoffs and make some money off him this year, ha ha. As for Omri, he’s not going anywhere. You’ll see how Washington is getting more back for Haywood than just an expiring contract! Duh! If the spurs want to improve, they need to part with talent to get talent back: Pop warned of us that such a day is coming sooner or later.
    Tony Parker is a nice player, but he is not one of the top 10 PGs in this league. He’s tough to guard and that’s about it. Anybody see all the young studs in the rookie game? Not to mention the All-Star game coming up, or the fact Lebron and Wade are running the points this year for their teams (like they did as rookies).
    Coach Pop may be getting burnt out, but we need a stabilizing force to take us through the inevitable rebuilding that comes with having a roster that is past it’s prime. There’s not a lot of great coaches out there, and great coaching matters: just look at what Larry Brown is doing. See also: Houston Rockets. Keep in mind that firing the coach rarely leads to more wins: just ask nets/wolves/hornets/dallas/heat/wolves/pistons/etc/etc. But more importantly, if we do shake up the roster, let’s keep things stable with Pop in charge.

  • grego

    Well no one personal move is going to make a difference this season. A few moves here and there could.

    Spurs do have issues with bigger named players taking a year. So RJ will likely look better next season. He’s also in his final year, creating a very attractive contract for anyone who wants an expiring contract. It’s the type of contract that can bring over a big name or good young talent. So it’s not all bad.

    Spurs need bigger guys like Hill (6’6 to 6’10). That would give them the ability to compete in this current setup of the NBA.

    Spurs core is Duncan/Parker/Blair/Hill/Splitter? Hairston will likely be a new wing. Ian? Since his value is low, could maybe come back too.

    Everything depends upon what is out there and what can actually be had.

  • idahospur

    If this team stays put after the trade deadline, some changes need to be made to the line-up.
    After Blair outplayed everyone at the Rookie game, he deserves a starting role, even if he puts in only 25 minutes a game. RJ can come in when the scrubs on the other team does and work on that 40% 3Pt we’ve all been waiting for.
    After the RJ trade, I thought this team could be an offensive machine, putting up pre-Shaq Phoenix Suns numbers. After what has been seen, this team needs to go back to defense. Three big guys in the lane to start and two shooters on the outside to score points.

  • VP of Common Sense

    Once someone starts comparing Manu Ginobili to Randy Foye the comments section should be closed.

  • Jim Henderson

    Once someone mischaracterizes someone else’s comment, the comments section should be closed. I provided career stats for Foye and Ginobli, as well as their age difference, in the context of a two for one trade proposal, which included the 7 ft. center, Haywood. I DID NOT COMPARE GINOBLI & FOYE AS “PLAYERS”, OR IN TERMS OF OVERALL CAREER ACCOMPLISHMENTS. I EVEN SAID, “NOBODY IS SAYING THAT GINOBLI’S NOT A BETTER PLAYER.

    The point is, I suggest a legitimate trade proposal that involves trading Ginobli for two solid players, one of which addresses a critical need of fortifying our interior presence with SIZE, and all I hear is either nothing, or that Ginobli is so great and the players I mention to acquire both suck.

    I suggest you might want to consider the valid point made by td4life at 11:43PM

    “If the spurs want to improve, they need to part with talent to get talent back”.

    …….OR revisit the point made in this blog/article itself:

    “On our inaugural podcast, a straw poll of 48MoH staff favored moving Ginobili while he still qualified as a talented expiring contract.”

    Anyway, it may be too late now. Looks like the Mavericks are all over the “Haywood” angle. Too bad, winning the Southwest could have put us in much better position (avoiding Lakers until Western Final). As it stands now, we’re going to need a miracle to get by Dallas, let alone LA.


    Coach should have been playing Hairston, Marcus Williams, Haislip, and Mahinmi the entire season. Just think about the help we would have with two athletic SF’s and 2 young bigs…Seems like a waste.

    Adelman is winning in Houston..

    Carlysle in Dallas…

    and now Dallas has added Butler and Haywood….Bad news for Spurs…

  • Bballfan23

    @ Jim Henderson,

    As of today, the Mavs have once again doomed us by aquiring the much sought after Brendan Haywood. We are screwed at the 5.

    @ everyone else,

    Trading anyone is pretty much out of the question, since nobody wants anything the SAS have as far as a trade goes. Any team willing to reload SA with what they need will demand George Hill. GM’s across the league routinely over value up and coming prospects, especially ones playing as well as George. No way is Pop moving his favorite Spur. So I am afraid to say, we must go down with the ship that has hit an iceberg. Poor Timmy. He deserves more rings than Shaq…

  • Bushka

    We rolled the dice with the RJ trade.

    Thats the nature of the beast.

    We wont be able to break people in during the final 30 odd games.

    So this is pretty much it.

    I like it myself. The storyline is still compelling, we have young players to develop, and we are still looking like a playoff team despite injuries & indifference.

    I don’t see a ring of course, but I didn’t see a ring last season and I still enjoyed the year.

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