Why DeJuan Blair might not work for the Spurs
Maybe a better title for this post is ‘Why DeJuan Blair is not playing many minutes.’Either way, we’re far enough into the season to make note of DeJuan Blair’s decreasingly important role on this Spurs team.
In the last 4 games, DeJuan Blair has logged 10, 6, 13, and 7 minutes. It’s odd for a starter to play end-of-the-rotation minutes, and so it has me thinking, what gives?
Against the Magic, Blair was too short to effectively defend Howard and too immobile to effectively cover Rashard Lewis. Against the Timberwolves, he earned three fouls in six minutes. Blair’s 13 minutes against the Mavericks were mostly uneventful. He used his long arms to swipe at Dirk Nowitzki’s dribble out near the arc, but aside from four rebounds and two assists, Blair’s performance was forgettable. In last night’s game against the Hornets, Popovich sent Blair to the bench after six minutes of play and he remained there until the final minute of garbage time. One substitution and done.
DeJuan Blair is a good basketball player. He has the potential to become a permanent double-double player, and, at worst, is already a threat to rumble off the bench for a high-energy 10-10. But one wonders if Blair can become this player for San Antonio. Given the Spurs’ current personnel and playing style, Blair is a poor fit.
DeJuan Blair’s natural position is center, even at 6’7″. Last season he played almost entirely at center, and registered several great games. He went for 28 and 21 boards in 31 minutes against the Thunder, if you recall. He’s capable of explosive one-offs like that.
Blair, much like teammate Matt Bonner, is a wonderful case study of the helpfulness of adjusted plus minus. And I’d like to turn to those numbers to unravel the mystery of Blair’s limited effectiveness this season.
Last season Blair was featured in seven positive 5-man APM units. In six of those units, Blair played alongside a perimeter-oriented big—that is, Blair played center. Three of those units saw Blair paired with Matt Bonner, two with Antonio McDyess and one with Richard Jefferson.
Blair can’t shoot, and because of this it’s difficult for the Spurs to pair him with Tim Duncan. Not only does a Duncan-Blair lineup transform Tim Duncan into a long two shooting forward, but it congests potential driving lanes with help defenders. You have to respect Tim Duncan’s jumpshot, but he’s not so deadly that his man can’t lag back. With Bonner and McDyess, defenders have to stay home. And home is typically a long way from the hoop and very close to their man. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and George Hill (a mediocre ball handler who requires ample space to perform his trademark head-down-and-go drives to the hoop) use the extra space created by Bonner/McDyess to get to the rim. When they’re able to do this, the Spurs offense hums a beautiful tune.
Tim Duncan’s natural position is center. Everyone on earth knows this, with the possible exception of Tim Duncan. The Spurs know this. This is why DeJuan Blair spent his summer trying to develop a jump shot. And from what we gathered from the Spurs coaching staff, Blair put in the time and worked hard. He’s not lazy. He gets after it. But it just hasn’t come together for Blair, which is obvious to all those who’ve watched the Spurs this season.
Because of his height and girth, Blair is a poor defensive match up against long bigs such as Pau Gasol and shooting fours such as Rashard Lewis. And without a jumpshot, he doesn’t work well alongside Duncan, who, as we noted, plays best at center. Again, the APM numbers bear this out.
Last season the Spurs used Blair in thirteen lineups which tallied enough minutes for reliable 5-man data. Five of those thirteen featured a Duncan-Blair tandem, and four of those five featured a negative APM. Minus 2.93, 4.40, 5.65, and 16.09, to be exact. And while it’s true that there is a Duncan-Blair unit that registered a positive 6.79 and two Bonner-Blair lineups that sank the Spurs’ battleship at minus 0.98 and minus 8.43, it’s generally the case that Blair plays better as a ball collecting center alongside a floor spacing forward.
This pattern is true again this year. Blair appears in two positive 5-man units. To be fair, one of those lineups is Parker-Hill-Jefferson-Blair-Duncan. Through November 26, that lineup is plus 0.97. Barely better than their opponents, but better nonetheless. Plus 0.97 is Blair’s most effective appearance as a power forward. The unit of Hill-Neal-Ginobili-Jefferson-Blair is plus 23.90 and scores a point for Blair as a center and for San Antonio small-ball configurations.
In terms of regular lineups, Blair is featured in four additional looks. In three of those lineups Blair plays power forward for APMs of minus 0.6, minus 6.82 and minus 53.73.
San Antonio’s best floor units are those that supply driving lanes for their guards and single coverage for Tim Duncan. Through November 26, San Antonio has fielded 9 successful lineups. Two of those feature Blair–the aforementioned small-ball set and the plus 0.96 Blair-Duncan offering. The other 7 positive lineups pair Tim Duncan with either Antonio McDyess or Matt Bonner. (Tiago Splitter has not played enough for reliable plus/minus data. But we’ll look at those numbers in the coming weeks.)
This sounds counter-intuitive, but DeJuan Blair is best suited to play in a transition offense that boasts a bevy of shooters. Blair would thrive in the NY Knicks offense, for example. He makes smart outlet passes, is fast enough to run the floor with smalls, and is always happy to clean the offensive glass and reset the clock for a surrounding cast of jump-shooting specialists. San Antonio can field these sort of lineups, but they’ll never do so in the closing minutes of the game.
Or, more precisely, when the Spurs play 1 in, 4 out in the final minutes of a game, Tim Duncan is their 1 in, not DeJuan Blair. Morever, when Gregg Popovich begins to play chess with opposing coaches, the only creative option that involves DB moves him from forward to center in a small-ball set.