What's the biggest reason the for the Spurs' current less-than-stellar play? Why have they dropped two in a row? It's not just fatigue from their third brutal road trip in the first quarter of the season. It's inconsistent play from frontcourt players not wearing #21.
Few teams have looked as effective as the San Antonio Spurs this season and our guys have the record to prove it. Even after the last back to back losses and the games dropped against good teams, most people would agree that the Spurs as currently constructed, are one of the best teams in the league. Part of the elite. A contender.
And yet, for a team that has such a good record and has shown flashes of legitimately impressive play, there seems to be an undercurrent of dissatisfaction running through this season. I'm seeing heated debates about which player should get minutes and why, especially in the front court. We look at the standings, witness the sporadically beautiful but almost always effective performances and still have reservations about the roster and the rotations. It's not hard to see why: while I'm convinced their talent level is more that acceptable, so far the Spurs bigs not named tim Duncan have been extremely inconsistent.
What follows are the Spurs' numbers in some key categories when each forward/center has been on and off the floor during the past 10 games. For reference, the Spurs' season numbers in those categories are 106.4 offensive rating, 98.8 defensive rating, 7.6 net rating, 74.2% defensive rebound percentage and 50.5% total rebound percentage.
(All stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats. Click to expand)
Since his slow start Tiago Splitter has been amazing, and he has seen his minutes increase as a result. The team is much better on offense and defense with him on the court and his rebounding (as well as the team's) has improved dramatically. Matt Bonner has carved out a place for himself in the rotation with fundamentally sound defensive work and rebounding, and while the offense is not as good as it was last year when he played, his usual deep shooting excellence allows the team to be above its season average with him on the court. If the last ten games are any indication, he should be getting more minutes.
That's especially true considering Boris Diaw and DeJuan Blair have been nothing short of awful these last few games. The numbers show that Diaw helps the offense but the defense is downright terrible when he's on the court. Blair, on the other hand, destroys the offensive efficiency and, with the other guys stepping up their rebounding, his solid contribution on the boards and on defense are not enough to make up for it. At this point of the season, the numbers show no reason for either of them to be ahead of Bonner in the depth chart. In fact, most of their combined 40 minutes a game should be going to Splitter and Bonner, with Tiago getting the bulk of them.
But it's not that easy. At the beginning of the season, it was Blair who was looking great and Splitter who seemed to be struggling mightily. Bonner has always had great on/off numbers but throughout his career he has failed to help the team in the playoffs, which justifies Pop's decision to use him sporadically during the regular season, preparing for the post season letdown. Diaw is an enigma; he can have a great stretch of play in which he is exactly what the Spurs need at power forward and then disappear or hurt the team by over passing, playing lackluster defense and not boxing out. But he was great last season.
All four of these guys are talented rotation players that can help the team. The problem is, they don't seem dependable. Going in to most games, I can't be alone in wondering:
- Will Blair will hustle for boards?
- Will he move his feet on defense, and try to get himself to the line on offense? Or will he reach on every defensive possession, let his man get rebounding position, and launch nothing but teardrops and jumpshots instead of going to the rim?
- Will Tiago futilely try to block shots he has no business defending, or will he play good position defense?
- Is Diaw going to box out and show energy? How about shooting when he is open once in a while?
- Will Matt bury open shots and be able to overcome his lack of strength with fundamentals?
It seems like it's impossible to answer any of those question thinking long term, with perhaps only Splitter showing enough promise to warrant some confidence. And that is why even a highly optimistic guy like myself has moments of doubt. I believe the Spurs have the talent up front to go against anyone in the league, but I'm not sure they have the consistency to do so.
Since my attempt at subtlety has failed me in the past, I'll just be as clear as possible this time. This is not a "the Spurs are not a contender" post. I'm definitely not panicking or calling for a trade. Far from it. A main rotation of Duncan, Splitter, an engaged Diaw (plus some small ball with Jackson spending a few minutes at power forward) might very well be enough in the playoffs. This team is that good. Blair could be there to bring some energy and Bonner could spread the floor when needed.
What I am saying is that the lack of consistency from the bigs is a legitimate concern right now and one that the other contenders don't seem to have. The Spurs have so much talent and depth at guard that Pop will find the right combination eventually. With the bigs, though, versatility and dependability are an issue. Right now, I'm fine with mixing, matching and experimenting to find the right combinations, especially considering the Spurs are missing two key components that could help bring balance and stability in Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson.
But thinking about the future, the Spurs need to figure out which of the guys currently on the roster will be able to deliver consistent effort and production. And those are the guys who should be given as much time as possible to develop some chemistry, trust and accountability. Only if PATFO thinks none of them can provide that, should a trade be considered. After a few years of Blair and Tiago, seven seasons with Bonner on board and enough minutes with a veteran like Diaw wearing Silver and Black to make an assessment, I'm sure Pop knows the answer. Going forward, I'll be paying attention to what he decides and hoping that having a solid, dependable big man rotation will cease to be a pipe dream and become a reality.