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 Spursâ€™ forays into small-ballish lineups garner a certain amount of success. But for many fansâ€“those who grew up on a twin towers approach to defending the laneâ€“this doesnâ€™t sit well. Those fans arenâ€™t asking for the return of David Robinson. Theyâ€™d happily accept a lane clogger after the fashion of Rasho Nesterovic or Nazr Mohammed. Their complaint is not that small-ball doesnâ€™t produce points, or at least thatâ€™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 theyâ€™re still solid. Theyâ€™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, Iâ€™d go in there against SA and weâ€™d be 2 for 15. They just wouldnâ€™t let you score around the basket. Thatâ€™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, youâ€™ve got Bonner, or McDyess or Blair covering the basket. Thatâ€™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,Â 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.Â 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’sÂ stretch-four in residence.Â 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.Â 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.