Gary Neal is a shooting guard or at least a bad combo guard. It took me a while to accept it, but now I do. He can't guard point guards and he can't fulfill simple point guard duties like bringing the ball up court timely and creating for others consistently. Worst yet, Neal simply can't defend point guards effectively, which limits the team's versatility and his usefulness to the Spurs. With Patrick Mills and Tony Parker at PG and Danny Green and Manu Ginobili at SG, minutes will be scarce for Neal, and I haven't even mentioned Nando De Colo yet.
Now that I've come to terms with my mistake about what Neal was, I want to determine what he actually is and how that can be improved upon to better help the team. But it's not easy.
Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first: Neal is a bad creator and a worse defender. He assists at a below average clip for a point guard (and even a shooting guard) and the team's defense is markedly better, to the tune of 6 point less per 100 possessions, when he sits. A possible way to solve those problems could be to simply play Neal at shooting guard, where there fewer elite players than at point and where his lack of lateral quickness isn't as damaging. However, the problem is that Neal plays a lot better at point guard.
Opponent PGs had a 21.3 PER when Neal was at point, but he had an above average 17.3 PER. At SG, Neal had a way below average 10.3 PER, while allowing a 10.7 PER. Basically Neal is better at PG, but the good he does is negated by the production he allows. At SG, Neal is pretty bad, but other shooting guards simply don't take advantage of him. This puts Pop in a very strange position: play him where he produces or hide him where he doesn't damage the team. The most used lineup including Neal has him at SG with Parker, and the second most used has him at PG with Manu. Both of these lineups have positive +/- numbers. That means Neal does well when he isn't the primary creator. Other lineups with him as the creator don't work nearly as well.
So we have a guy that does better when he is a shooter next to a good creator, but other players consistently out produce him when he is on the floor, mostly because the Spurs don't have the right personnel to hide his poor defense. Then why is Pop playing him? Because he is an elite scorer. Raw stats don't show it, but Neal is efficient even with a high usage, and his advanced shooting stats put him in very good company. He is one of eighteen guards to have played more than 600 minutes last season and have above .500 percentages in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage, while sporting a usage of above 20%. When we narrow that list to players that connect on over 40% from deep, Neal becomes one of eight. And he gets that 40% while only having around half of his 3s assisted; very few players can do that. I can't overstate how good of an offensive player Neal is, and on a team like the Spurs that skill will get you minutes.
So how can the Spurs use Neal in a way that highlights his gifts and hides his flaws? That is a very, very tough question and one I'm not sure how to answer. Heck, I think even Gregg Popovich is struggling with that one. I came up with two scenarios in which using Neal would be beneficial for the Spurs, each with some flaws:
Play him with the best defensive units
This is a pretty obvious possible solution: hide the bad defensive player with good defenders. The problem is, the Spurs' good defenders can't create for themselves. Lineups that featured Neal-Green-Leonard were not good overall. Of course, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter were also featured on those lineups. The answer might be playing him with Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw. Those seem to be the best defending bigs the Spurs have, and alongside Jackson or Leonard, could help hide Neal's shortcomings. Unfortunately, in order to maximize Neal's time featuring the Spurs best defenders and either Parker or Ginobili, he would have to start over Green or come off the bench as the first guard, which is Manu Ginobili's gig.
Neal becomes a good system defender
Neal won't likely become a good individual defender. He's not strong and big enough to really bother shooting guards and not quick or long enough to defend point guards. He doesn't have the best defensive instinct either and, as his very low steal rate shows, can't provide disruptive help defense to make up for it. What Neal can improve is his team defense to the point where his system savvy keeps him on the floor. He needs to be on point in his rotations, help better on double teams and close out in time. No mistakes, no possessions off. Becoming the type of veteran that plays smart system defense would make Neal a great weapon off the bench. It worked for guys like Jason Terry and Jamal Crawford; it can work for Neal. As much as that would be great, I see it as a long shot. The Spurs could try to adjust their defensive strategy to resemble that of the Celtics or Bulls and overload the strong side to prevent penetration and deter P&Rs, which is a change that would benefit someone like Neal, but it's doubtful they do so. Which brings me to...
Don't play Neal
If he doesn't become defensively-enlightened over the off-season, the only way to limit Neal's negative impact on the team would be to severely reduce his playing time, making him a situational player. His stellar scoring abilities are negated by his impact on team defense and rebounding, which means that regardless of how good an offensive player Neal is (and he is a really, really good one), he should only see floor time as a spark plug Pop brings off the bench when the offense stagnates. For the past couple of seasons, Neal has played right at 21 minutes a game. Getting that number down to around 15, and only in certain lineups, could make him a net positive or at least a neutral force for the Spurs. And it's realistic, provided Manu stays healthy. Since this is the last year of his contract, I doubt Neal would be thrilled by that little court time, but it'd be worth a shot for the Spurs, especially with Mills and De Colo waiting in the wings. If those guys fail to have an impact on defense (which is quite possible), then Neal should get all of the minutes he's used to, as his ice cold veins are certainly a plus. But this is a season in which the Spurs should be open to trying new things. We know how good this team can be with the pieces from last season - it's time to find out if changing and adjusting can take the team one step further.
As you see, I don't know how Neal realistically improves to become a reliable contributor on both ends of the court next season, as his flaws seem predicated on physical attributes that he can't change. The only way for him to overcome these flaws on defense is to completely alter his defensive acumen and improve his system smarts exponentially. If the Spurs can manage to insert him in the right lineups, his amazing offensive output would be a great addition. The way in which Pop handles Neal will be a litmus test of how the coaching staff feels about the team. If he keeps his role as primary backup PG and gets his 20 minutes a game with the same teammates as before, it means Pop feels that the team as constructed last season had what it took to get the ring; if they experiment with rotations or reduce his role to try something new, that could be a very clear indication that they think some changes are necessary to get back to the top.