Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Plummeting efficiency numbers. Dwindling rebounding stats. Less production and the championship window continuing to close. So why isn't J. Gomez worried? Because it looks like everything's going according to Gregg Popovich's plan.
The Spurs' depth is often cited as one of their biggest strengths.They employ at least 13 rotation caliber players and have a coach that knows how to use them. PATFO has also done a good job of finding players that can simply be sent in at any moment and fit within the team's style. There are no mismatched pieces, there's no one on the roster that can't contribute something tangible. But while the bench as a whole is definitely a strength, the Spurs have not gotten consistent individual production from anyone this season.
Good bench, mediocre bench players
I'll leave Manu out of this analysis for now because he is a bench player in name only. That said, leading all reserves in minutes are Boris Diaw, Gary Neal and Stephen Jackson. All spent some time in the starting lineup because of injuries. The leading scorer is Neal with 10.1 points per game; then you have Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw with 6.9 and 5.9 points per game, respectively. Neal barely exceed 50% in true shooting percentage and Jackson is well below it. Diaw has great shooting numbers but takes the fewest amount of shots per 36 minutes on the team. Neal is shooting below 40% from 3 and Jackson is shooting a paltry 28.6%
When it comes to rebounding, the only bench bug that does it at a high rate is Blair; Diaw and Bonner board like small forwards. Speaking of small forwards, Stephen Jackson is slightly below average in both defensive rebound percentage and total rebound percentage, according to Hoopdata.
Looks like the Spurs are getting neither efficient scoring nor proficient rebounding form the bench. How about playmaking?
Only Boris Diaw has a good assists to turnover ratio. The rest of the bench ranks from below average to atrocious. Per 36 minutes, Neal, Jackson, Blair and Bonner combine for 9.1 assists and 7.1 assists for an assist to turnover ratio of 1.36, which, in case you are not familiar with the stat, is bad. And that's including Bonner's stellar turnover numbers. Without him, the ratio would be an atrocious 1.13.
Now let's take a look at the other top benches. The Clippers appear to have the best bench out there, so we'll use them. Their top bench scorers are Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes. They all boast true shooting percentages above .500. Matt Barnes and Lamar Odom are, statistically, above average rebounders for their position. The only area where their bench is lacking is playmaking. Chauncey Billups, arguably their second best set up guy, has missed most of the season. They also have perhaps the best playmaker in the NBA, Chris Paul, running things and Eric Bledsoe, who is an impact player at guard even if he is not great at creating for others. It's not just the Clippers, either. A case could be made for other Western teams like the Jazz, the Nuggets and even the Warriors and Wolves (when healthy) as having better bench players than the Spurs.
Now let's look at last season. The Spurs' top bench players were Bonner, Splitter and Gary Neal. They all had good shooting numbers, with Bonner and Tiago flirting with excellence. Splitter had great rebounding numbers, enough to anchor that second unit that destroyed opposing benches. Ginobili was still tasked with most of the shot-creating duties but Neal had a better assists to turnover ratio and the bench as a whole was better, with Bonner's ridiculous 4.36 AST/TO offsetting Tiago's less than stellar figures. Stephen Jackson joined mid-season and had a great year both shooting and rebounding. The Spurs' league-best bench had, statistically, better individual players last season and was more balanced.
This season, Pop seems to be favoring less efficient players in Neal and Jackson instead of looking at the deep bench for answers. Splitter, a key component of the bench last season, is firmly entrenched in a starting spot, which severely alters the second unit's dynamics. Bonner's fantastic shooting and floor spacing are wasted even though he's still doing what he needs to do: shoot the three at a high rate. Patty Mills and Nando De Colo could take over for Neal as backup PG, since Gary clearly struggles with some of the duties of the job. So why are the Spurs settling on a below average rotation instead of using the regular season to find a better one; one similar to last season's? The answer seems to be, Pop is already thinking about the playoffs.
Jackson come up huge offensively in the Thunder series after a quiet start in the post season. He couldn't slow down Durant (who can?) but he hit threes when no one else was hitting, because having a hand on his face doesn't shake him. You know who else hit his shots and didn't turn the ball over? Gary Neal. Tiago Splitter struggled anchoring that bench unit defensively in the playoffs, so he now starts and the results have been phenomenal. Pop is awarding regular season minutes in specific roles to players he thinks will help the Spurs in the playoffs.
The only question remaining, then, is why isn't Pop trying to correct a flaw that was exposed by the Thunder: the lack of a back up PG to take over for Parker when he needs to rest. De Colo and Mills are skillful players. Why aren't they getting minutes? The Spurs will surely need someone to step up when teams throw lengthy defenders at Parker to cool down his scoring and play off of shooters to jump passing lanes and negate his playmaking.
The answer is as simple as it is potentially scary: because that's the role Manu Ginobili has to play for the team to have any shot at a title. Ginobili needs to be the one breaking down defenses when Tony can't. He needs to get to the basket and finish or draw fouls when no one else can get anything. He's the one who has to provide that because he's the only one that can provide that. De Colo is too turnover-prone and inconsistent right now and Mills' limited court vision and lack of strength make him better suited to be a shooter. The only guy other than Parker that can do it all at a high level on offense for the Spurs is Manu.
I said it was scary because Ginobili's health is always a question mark. But, unfortunately there aren't players like him available as insurance. Even at this age, Ginobili is still an elite offensive player and Pop is wise to pin a big part of the Spurs' title hopes to him because without him, those title chances would dwindle significantly. It is like it's has been for a while now: Tim is the foundation, Tony is the star but Manu is still the X factor.
Coach Pop seems to have decided to settle on the guys he trusts to answer the call in the post season. No more time relying on a huge rotation that's reduced as soon as the the playoffs get tough. No more balancing two completely separate five-man units. The Spurs will likely rely heavily on their starting lineup and will need Ginobili to carry the bench, as Neal and Jackson hopefully hit some threes and Diaw gives Duncan and Splitter a breather. I'm not sure if it's the right decision; time will tell. But it seems that's what Gregg Popovich is going for after last season's unsuccessfully ending . It might not be exactly what some of us were expecting, but it makes sense and would explain the current rotation. Let's hope Pop's right.
Stats courtesy of Hoopdata, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats