Gary Neal is in a slump. We all know that. We've seen it so far on the RRT, and really, over most of the second quarter of the season. He has the third worst PER on the Spurs, yet he plays the eighth most minutes. Why? Is Pop losing his edge? I've heard a lot of grumblings that Nando or Patty should be getting the nod over Gary to back up TP, and judging by the basic statistics, these grumblings have excellent merit. In this post I'm going to try to hash out why Pop still lists Gary as our #2 PG. Because personally, I refuse to believe Pop has lost his edge. His coaching has been nothing short of masterful the last two seasons, and I can't imagine that he has overlooked "the Gary situation". Somewhere in the infinite basketball wisdom-pool that is Pop's brain, there is a good reason that Gary is still seeing (relatively) heavy minutes as opposed to Nando or Patty. Let's dive in and get all wet with wisdom. Gross.
Gary is pure offense.
First of all, Gary plays offense. Gary does not play defense. He tries (doesn't he?), but his slow-footedness and poor decision making send even average point guards right past him and into the lane. We have tolerated this because the guy can make anything. No shot is too difficult, too off-balance, too crazy for Gary. On top of this, he has proven he has the clutch gene: Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Because his contribution to this team has almost always been when the Spurs have the ball, I'll probably focus on the offensive statistics more than the defensive. It's not like Nando and Patty are defensive juggernauts either (although Patty is a hustlebug).
As of late, however, Gary has been missing. A lot. His shooting percentage is down from 43.7% last year (45.1% in 2010-2011) to 41.5% this year. In December and January he shot 38.3% and 38.8%, respectively. What's more, his 3PT percentage has plummeted this year, from 42.0% last year to 35.8% this year. I never thought I would see the day where Gary would pass up on an open shot, but so far on the RRT he has done it several times.
Is he injured?
It's possible he is hurt. He left the game in Dallas on 12/23 with a strained right calf, and the injury could still be giving him trouble. I'm not convinced of this, as I can't recall any time recently where he appeared to favor his calf, though I suppose it's possible. His minutes are down since the calf strain. In November and December he averaged nearly 24.8 mpg. (This was also predicated by Kawhi's injury; during that time Gary averaged 28.6 mpg). In January and February he has averaged 19.4 mpg. Still, if the injury is significant AND Pop still values him as Tony's backup in the playoffs (which I am assuming he does), then I think his drop in minutes post calf-strain would have been bigger.
Regardless of whether he is injured, Pop has decided to leave him in despite the shooting woes. Patty has seen his minutes decline every month, and Nando has seen his minutes decline since November and December. Gary is Pop's choice backup PG. This is fact.
Gary needs continuity.
Here is a very interesting statistic that may explain the recent perception of Gary's slump. Gary shoots better with less rest. In games with 0 or 1 day of rest, Gary has shot 42.5% from the field and 38.8% from 3PT. (These numbers improve when SEGABABA's aren't included). In games with 2 or 3 days of rest, Gary has shot 35.3% from the field and a pathetic 21.7% from downtown. So it seems that Gary is a player who needs to get in a groove over a period of several games. Taking extra rest days appears to throw off his groove. Now I'm not sure when the clamoring started, but the calls for Gary to play less have certainly crescendo-ed in the last few weeks. Consider this: Over the last 21 days, the Spurs have played 9 games. A third of them have been with 3+ days of rest. Now the sample size for these games is small (Gary has only played in 9 games with 2+ days of rest), but perhaps Gary's shooting can improve as our schedule picks back up. Not saying it is certain, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on.
Gary is hard on himself.
Of all the players on the team, Gary beats himself up the most. Even when he makes shots, you will see him smack his hands together and frown as he wonders, "Why can't I do that every time?" Gary expects to shoot well, and when he doesn't he gets mad at himself. I think Pop is sensitive to this fact. If he plays Nando or Patty, it will only continue to undermine Gary's confidence.
It's all about the playoffs.
With Pop, we know every decision is made with the playoffs in mind. The regular season is the pre-season. The playoffs are the only thing that matter. Regardless of how Kobe feels about it, the Spurs are a team focused on nothing but a championship run. Given this train of thought, his decision to play Gary must mean he thinks Gary needs to be the guy come playoff time. Last year, Gary averaged 7.5 ppg on 47.6% shooting in 15.4 mpg during the playoffs. Pretty good numbers considering he also shot 44.5% from 3 PT land. Unfortunately, he played horrendously against the Thunder in those last 4 games, shooting 28.6% from the field and 27.2% from 3 with increased minutes (17.8 mpg). He and Danny Green have a lot to do with why we lost that series.
As is seen from the OKC series, a confident, consistent Gary is a key to our playoff success. Maybe more important than any statistic, Gary has the playoff experience that Patty and Nando lack. And he has proven that he can handle the pressure.
Personally, I think Nando is too turnover prone to be successful in the playoffs, especially against the quick, lane-clogging Thunder. He is also not a scorer; his value lies in his distribution. Patty is a good shooter, but he could be just like Bonner in the playoffs, going completely cold under the bright lights. I don't think we can take that risk. He also does not score off his own playmaking; 80% of his shots are assisted, as opposed to Gary's 60%.
Gary and Nando have the same A/TO ratio at 1.5 (Patty's is 1.2). Gary is a better scorer, can bail us out of a bad possession, and given that playoff games are generally two days apart, Gary can get in to a groove in the early rounds which he can hopefully sustain deep into the playoffs. I give Gary my vote of confidence, and I think he will get out of his slump very soon. Keep shootin Gary.