My pal and yours J. Gomez posted a very well-written article this morning about Gregg Popovich's lineup shuffling and the positives that could stem from it. Naturally, there are some parts I agree with and some parts I don't.
Starting Boris Diaw as a stretch four:
I feel like there's a bit of a misunderstanding between Jesus and me on this. I'm not deadset against starting Diaw instead of Splitter against stretch fours. My preference would be Splitter, but I certainly understand the argument against it.
My position is this: Offensively, I don't accept the argument that against a team like Houston playing big allows Dwight Howard to "hide" in the paint on Splitter while Terrence Jones can cover Tim Duncan on the high post. Okay, well what's the difference between that and what the Spurs normally face every night when they play big vs. big? They're used to their two bigs being guarded by two other bigs. Their offense has all kinds of plays and sets and counters for this. Personally, I'm fine with the idea of Howard camping in the paint against Splitter because I trust the Duncan vs. Jones match-up anywhere on the floor. Duncan can simply shoot over him in the high post or the elbows or pass over him to guys making back cuts. If Duncan decides to post and the Rockets switch, then he gets to draw fouls on the overly-aggressive Howard. I'm also keen on seeing Splitter post up smaller guys. I think he's gotten stronger this season and I like his dinky little hook shot and array of floaters.
On the other end of the floor, I'm just not buying that Diaw is all that more mobile or rangy a defender than Splitter is. Tiago isn't the best leaper by any means (neither is Boris), but he's a lot quicker than people give him credit for being and he's got a longer reach than Diaw too. I think he's plenty versatile enough to play a foot or two outside of the paint and scramble back if need be.
And I'm fine with the prospect of someone like Jones shooting wide open threes. More than fine with it, in fact. The more he shoots, the less that guys like James Harden and Chandler Parsons have the ball. Don't forget that one of the main reasons the Spurs almost won the title against Miami was because their defense let Chris Bosh take wide open threes, content to give him anything he wanted outside of 18 feet. Eventually Bosh figured it out and stopped shooting them, to the Spurs' chagrin. The list of NBA bigs you absolutely have to cover outside begins and ends with Dirk Nowitzki.
Playing small With Leonard at the four:
If the Spurs do insist on splitting up the Duncan/Splitter tandem, then my preference would be to use Leonard as the four man over someone like Diaw or (especially) Bonner. Leonard is a better, quicker defender than those guys, a far superior rebounder on either end of the court and I feel playing small actually suits his offensive game more as it allows him to operate nearer to the basket as a power forward. He can have post-ups against 6-7 guys or just drive with just one rim protector to worry about instead of two. Leonard has greatly expanded his skill set since becoming a Spur but for all intents and purposes he's still a natural three on defense but a tweener on offense that the Spurs are shoehorning into a small-forward role because that's what the personnel dictates. Leonard was a beast against Miami while playing at the four, and I am not about to let anyone forget that.
The extra advantage of putting Leonard at power forward is that it enables Pop to put two out of the threesome of Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli on the floor, guys who can shoot threes, pass, dribble (well, mostly), and are relatively interchangeable defensively. I'm far more comfortable with the notion of playing small for long stretches with Belinelli on the team than I was with Gary Neal because the Italian Stallion has more size and is more responsible on both ends of the floor. He's less likely to chuck up a 20-footer five seconds into the shot clock or leave guys wide open on defense -- the Rockets game withstanding.
The Red Menace:
I understand the temptation to play Bonner against a squad like Houston, especially with Diaw injured, but his place on the court should never come at Leonard's expense. Not only do you need a secondary rebounder to make up for Bonner's complete inability to board, but you really need somebody to guard Harden and Parsons. Trusting Ginobili and Belinelli with that task down the stretch in a one-possession game while leaving the younger, springier, defensive-minded wings on the bench was a colossal tactical error. Not to mention that it probably sent a bad message to the team: We value offense more than defense. It was a grim flashback to the 2010, 2011 days, when getting stops was the rarity rather than the norm. Above all else, defense has to be this team's identity.
When discussing Bonner's underrated defensive prowess, people inevitably mention his post defense. What gets lost in the equation is his defense out on the perimeter, where he doesn't have nearly the range, lateral quickness or floor sense to be at all adequate. Take Bonner outside the paint on defense and he really has no idea what he's supposed to do. He cannot even remember to foul who's he supposed to foul. The only scenario where I'd prefer him to Leonard is when I need advice on where to buy a corduroy jacket. (Note: I'd never do this.) The Red Mamba is a cute little toy you bring in to play a few minutes with the bench in the second or third quarter where it can't kill you. There is no way you play him in crunch time.
It's just mind-boggling. Cut it out, Pop.