Grades for the Spurs' first quarter: Part I

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

These grades are so much more fun to hand out after a win.

I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that the 117-110 Spurs over Minnesota thriller was a home game, sparing me from having to recap it because I'm not sure I could do it justice or even speak about it rationally, given how awesome Manu played in the fourth quarter. I mean, the dude scored 16 points and had a hand in 26 of their 37 points in the period. Tony Parker, meanwhile, scored a dozen himself and had a hand in 16, and between the two of them they scored or assisted in all 37 points.

That was the best game The Big Three have collectively played in a while and maybe the best, period, if you factor in Kawhi Leonard reprising Ringo Starr's role. (Okay, the best was actually Game 5 of the 2013 Finals, but Saturday night was certainly up there.) Add in Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli and really it's remarkable -- or kinda scary -- how this game was even close, and bordering on a loss, given how many Spurs played so well.

To me, that speaks to two things, and they're pretty related. One, Kevin Love was downright amazing last night to keep Minnesota in the game. I don't at all buy the theory that the Spurs were especially poor in defending him from deep. I've watched a few Wolves games here and there. Those are the shots he gets against everyone. Before last night he was 45-of-128 on threes, which works out to 35 percent. He's a great shooter for a seven-footer, but last night was just one of those games.

Two, the Spurs defense kinda drops off a cliff without Tiago Splitter, which the numbers certainly support, and the T-Pups are precisely the kind of team where his loss hurts them the most. Would Love and Nikola Pekovic have combined for 60 points and 25 rebounds had Splitter been able to play? I severely doubt it. That said, the Spurs probably wouldn't have scored 117 either, nor would they have had to. It was a fun win, but ultimately not the kind you want to replicate against .500 teams if you have title aspirations.

I'm just thankful Ginobili got through it. Last year he was approaching top form in January after a slow start (check the game logs from mid-December to mid-January) and finally the last part of his game -- attacking the rim fiercely -- had finally locked in, meaning Ginobili was fully self-aware. Then, just like that, he hurt his hamstring after a blazing start in that Jan. 13 game vs. the Wolves and his season went to crap after that. He was never the same. Let's hope that doesn't happen again.

*   *   *

Here is your player-by-player report card over the first quarter of the season. I'll do seven guys today and seven tomorrow. The asterisks for the offensive and defensive ratings are because NBA.com and Basketball-reference.com vary so wildly on them (and on many other stats, actually) that I decided just to average them out. If you're smarter than me (not a high  bar to clear, mind you) you can tell me why these two databases are so different.

Jeff Ayres

21 games, 12.8 mpg, 2.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 0.7 apg, 0.2 stl, 0.3 blk, 0.9 TO, .447./NA/.545, 5.8 PER, 97.5* ORtg, 98.7* DRtg, .049 WS48, +2.4 per game

There's almost no correlation between his stats this season and the numbers he put up the past two years for the Pacers, which isn't too surprising because the two teams were radically different in pace, offensive efficiency and style of play. Also, he was more of a garbage-time scrub for them whereas the Spurs' injuries and blowouts have given him a decent chunk of minutes playing with good players (certainly it's night and day between the Spurs reserves and the Pacers backups last year).

I haven't been overly impressed by Ayres' defense, but he hasn't been a disaster there by any means. For the most part he knows where to be, which is impressive given how new he is to the system. I think he already understands the defense better than DeJuan Blair ever did. Ayres has had his issues guarding stretch fours, and he occasionally misplays the pick and roll, but that's not too surprising. Pop has also given him some tough match-ups of late, guarding the likes of Amir Johnson an Kevin Love. Good luck with that, bud.

Offensively, Ayres is definitely no Blair. And this time I mean that as a negative. He's not coordinated at all, his shot is borderline horrific (seriously, by the end of last season even Blair's jumper was better) and his teammates have basically figured out to play keep-away with him by now unless it's an uncontested dunk -- and he's had early-season issues with those too. As a passer, Ayres has flashed some decent court vision and play-making skills, which has been a nice surprise.

The biggest -- only? -- positive so far has been his rebounding. Ayres has pulled down 18 rebounds in 45 minutes the past two games and is averaging nine rebounds per 36 minutes, fourth on the club and far ahead of Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner. Again though, Blair averaged 9.7 boards per 36 last year for the Spurs, even if too large a share of those were offensive rebounds of DeJuan's own missed or blocked shots.

Grade: D+    Numbers should be better considering who he's been playing with.

*   *   *

Aron Baynes

12 games, 9.0 mpg, 2.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.6 apg, 0.1 stl, 0.1 blk, 0.7 TOs, .389/NA/.750, 5.9 PER, 96.8* ORtg, 104.4* DRtg, .010 WS48, -0.7 per game

His numbers are similar to Ayres, but Baynes has really had only one meaningful game playing alongside the frontline players, and it was a tour de force showing at Toronto, where in many respects he saved the team in that second quarter after Ayres stunk up the joint. It's a shame he wound up spraining his ankle in that game because it would've been nice to see him match up against Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic. Obviously I trust Baynes to finish better in traffic than Ayres, but the bottom line is that we just haven't seen enough of him to form any meaningful conclusions. My gut tells me he's too foul prone and inexperienced to be much of a useful defender against elite offenses, but I'd definitely like to see more of him as a fourth big than the other options on the club.

For what it's worth, "The Big Banger" is averaging a double-double per 36 minutes, but again the sample size is just too small and almost all of it has come in blowouts. I remember how Pop soured on Tiago as a rookie because of his perceived lack of toughness and durability, so I wonder if this setback for Baynes will hurt any good will he built up with that Raptors performance.

Grade: C

*   *   *

Marco Belinelli

22 games, 21.8 mpg, 9.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.8 stl, 0.1 blk, 1.0 TOs, .535/.542/.765, 17.2 PER, 115* ORtg, 98.4* DRtg, .182 WS48, +6.8 per game

Belinelli is right there with Golden State's Andre Iguodala, Phoenix's Eric Bledsoe and I suppose Houston's Dwight Howard as THE acquisition of the off-season and while it hasn't exactly been a shock how quickly he's been assimilated into the Spurs, given his history with Manu Ginobili, it's still been spectacularly entertaining to watch.

The Italian Stallion is averaging career-highs almost across the board, in some cases far exceeding all of his past efforts. He's shooting almost a hundred percentage points better than his previous best (in '08-09 for the Warriors) and his PER is almost five points higher than his previous best (in '09-10 for the Raptors). His three-point percentage leads the league by 42 points over Atlanta's Kyle Korver and is 128 points higher than his previous best (in '10-11 for the Pelicans nee Hornets). Ironically, he's doing all of that with a career-low usage rate. He's not getting the ball much, but when he does touch it, he's been incredibly productive. About the only fault you can have with Belinelli's offensive game so far, and this is picking nits, is that he's actually shooting a higher percentage from three than two, and missing a few too many layups for my taste.

What surprised me before I looked up the numbers, especially given the number of flashy passes he's pulled off, is that Belinelli is actually rebounding more than dishing, and doing so at a career-best rate. Maybe it's because of the team's philosophy or the need to make up for the boarding weaknesses of the Spurs' stretch fours. Whatever the reason, he's been far from a shrinking violet on the glass.

Defensively, he's been average but not a liability by any means. And that in itself is fine by me, given his sieve-like past. His best defensive rating before this season came last year for the Bulls and it was 107 if you go by Basketball-reference.com or 102 if you go by stats.nba.com. For the Spurs it's 98.4, averaging between the two sites.

Grade: A-

*   *   *

Matt Bonner

15 games, 12.5 mpg, 3.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.1 stl, 0.1 blk, 0.3 TOs, .476/.448/NA, 10.5 PER, 114.8* ORtg, 101.3* DRtg, .138 WS48, +3.5 per game

The Red Rocket, 33, is just about approaching the end of his usefulness as an NBA player. His scoring, rebounding, usage rates and PER have plummeted, for the fifth straight season, to the point where they're all career-lows. Literally every Spur on the roster averages more rebounds per 36 minutes except for Tony Parker and Patty Mills. You may have noticed the "NA" on his slash line above. He hasn't attempted a single free throw in 188 minutes. That's just embarrassing.

On a positive note, yes, Bonner can still shoot, and his three-point percentage is a perfectly respectable 45 percent. His assist rate has spiked way up, inexplicably. He remains a plus/minus deity, somewhat annoyingly. And it's undeniable that the Spurs know how to score whenever the Mud-butt is on the floor.

I can grudgingly accept the notion of Bonner buying a few minutes of relief for the good players here and there. By no means do I ever want to see him on the court down the stretch of a close game, as was the case against the Rockets a couple weeks back. No, Pop. Please no.

Grade: C-

*   *   *

Nando De Colo

8 games, 8.9 mpg, 2.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 1.5 apg, 0.6 stl, 0.0 blk, 1.3 TOs, .444/.364/.000, 10.4 PER, 90* ORtg, 105.5* DRtg, .045 WS48, -4.0 per game

De Colo has been inactive for the majority of the season and has been hurt by the fact that A) Mills has gotten off to such a great start and B) (knock on wood) Ginobili has been healthy all season. He simply hasn't gotten an opportunity, and as a selfish Spurs fan I hope that continues to be the case. He has lit it up in the D-League for what little that's worth and he's flashed some passing skills in garbage time minutes. He continues to be a turnover machine when he does play, but again that's sharing the court with the third team guys and nobody is really into it.

Perhaps De Colo will get some run at Utah tonight if, as I suspect, The Big Three stay at home. Ginobili did only play 25 minutes against the T-Pups though (albeit the last 15 without a blow) and the whole team pretty much got the Bucks game off, so who knows?

Grade: Inc.

*   *   *

Boris Diaw

21 games, 23.3 mpg, 10.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.8 apg, 0.4 stl, 0.5 blk, 1.4 TOs, .538/.286/.741, 15.1 PER, 109.7* ORtg, 100.2* DRtg, .132 WS48, +5.9 per game

Seeing Kawhi Leonard swipe the ball from some unsuspecting sap and streak down the court for a dunk is breathtaking. Watching Parker twist and contort his body into obscene angles to make layup after layup is mind-boggling. Ginobili's passes have gotten to the point where they don't even surprise anymore, yet they still completely defy description.

Given all that, there is nobody on the Spurs who so consistently makes your jaw drop, so routinely makes opponents look so inept ... as The Land Walrus. He is ridiculous.

For the majority of Diaw's career, both with the Spurs and in previous stops, we've seen him make highlight reels with his spectacular passing. This season however, almost all of his top plays involve drives to the basket, these slow-motion, old-man-in-the-rec-league moves filled with spins, pump fakes, up-and-unders, shoulder dips, and turnaround half hooks, often all on one drive. Diaw lulls you to sleep going one speed and then accelerates halfway through the move and then slows down, then spins quickly, then stops on a dime, and the grace and body control of it all is just astounding. It's almost impossible to tell if the entire sequence is choreographed in his mind or completely improvised. I watch every game and I still can't tell. All I know is that the dude can hardly get off the ground and by the time he's done with his moves he's like a foot from the rim and the defender is nowhere close. Diaw mesmerizes his man to the point that he disappears.

Diaw's been so aggressive in looking for his shot (his 60.4 shooting percentage from two leads the club and tops even -Tiago Splitter's mark) that few have noticed that his three point shooting has been kinda awful (.286) and that he's still mostly a liability on the boards. He remains the team's best defensive option against stretch fours, which as we know can be a positive and a negative. I'm okay with him on the court down the stretch, but not as our biggest guy under any circumstances. I prefer to see Duncan or Splitter on the court with him.

While I want Diaw to continue to be aggressive, I am hopeful that the scouting reports on him will shift over time and that once people start guarding him more diligently, his passing will be an asset. His chemistry with the reserves is undeniable and while I agree that Ginobili deserves to be the league's top 6MOY candidate, I do wish that the Frenchman would get some more recognition there, especially since he's been more consistent over the season's first two months.

Grade: B+

*   *   *

Tim Duncan

20 games, 27.8 mpg, 13.3 ppg, 8.6 rebs, 3.1 ast, 0.4 stl, 1.8 blk, 1.8 TOs, .459/.000./.754, 20.3 PER, 104.8* ORtg, 95.8* DRtg, .164 WS48, +4.9 per game

For the first two or three weeks there, things were looking rather morbid indeed for The Golden God (Ginobili too, actually). His shooting percentages were in the 30s, he wasn't getting up and down the floor nearly as fast as last year, the trajectory of his shot was too linear and the post moves were lacking their usual fluidity. If you weren't secretly thinking to yourself, "My god, is this the end?" then I think you're lying to yourself.

Thankfully, it turns out that Duncan was playing through a minor knock and since that bit of unpleasantness has passed, he's picked it up. Though he isn't quite at last year's peak level, he remains a reasonable facsimile of that guy, and while I'm a shameless Spurs homer, I'd argue that he's still a top-10 player, even at 37. In his last 10 games Duncan is averaging 14.9 points on 55 percent shooting, 10.0 boards, 2.7 assists and 2.0 blocks, and those numbers get better still if you just go by the last five games. Overall, every one of his numbers except the assists and assist rate are still at career-lows, which I guess is alarming, but that's only because the first ten games were so bad. I mean, now that it's behind us we can be honest about it: Timmeh was downright awful to begin the year.

While I'm incredibly encouraged by Duncan's recent form, it must be said that it's been a tale of two seasons for him thus far defensively too. He's one player alongside Splitter (92 offensive rating, 89 defensive rating for the pair) and another altogether without him. It's either all-defense-no-offense or vice versa. Still, he's had quite a few games of late as our top player, no easy feat that on a squad with Ginobili, Parker and Leonard, with a couple of historic efforts recently, becoming the oldest player ever to pull off a 20-20 against the Hawks (against whom he hit the game-winner to boot) and then the first since the 80's I think to have a 20-15 on at least 75 percent shooting while playing under 25 minutes against the Bucks.

I think what I'm trying to say is I prefer Tim Duncan to Kendrick Perkins.

Grade: B

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