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The Spurs will be without Tony Parker for a month. Can they find a way to replace the production of their MVP and stay at the top of the West?
Tony Parker rolled his ankle when he landed on Isaiah Thomas' foot and will be out 2-4 weeks with a grade 2 ankle sprain. There are seven weeks before the playoffs so even if it takes Tony the full four weeks to get back, there will still be time for him to get his rhythm back before the playoffs. The question then is, how will tht team look when he returns? Can they still win at a high enough rate to be a top of the league standings? Who will need to step up? Before attempting to answer those questions, let's take a look at what Parker brought to the Spurs.
The Spurs' MVP
Parker leads the team in scoring and assists with 21 and 7.6 per game, respectively. He had the biggest usage in the team and was arguably their most important player. The offense goes from 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court to 104.6 when he sits. The defense suffers a similar deficit when Parker is not playing, going from allowing only 97 points to 99.9. The Spurs have played so well that even the numbers they get when Parker is off the court would land them in the top ten in the league on both ratings but it's undeniable that they are a much better team with Parker playing. Of course I didn't need to tell you that.
Or this: the Spurs turn the ball over more, get less fast break points and points in the paint when Tony sits. Parker is the Spurs' best slasher, taking over half his shots (52.1%) in the deep paint on an above average field goal percentage. On top of that, he averages almost three assists per game that end with a shot at the rim. Even though the team plays at a slower pace when he mans the point, Parker is a one man fast break, with 34% of his shot attempts coming before ten seconds have passed in the shot clock.
So Parker unsurprisingly has a big effect on how the team plays on both sides of the court. He controls the ball and keeps the pace down unless there is a fast break opportunity, in which case he exploits it. And he breaks down defenses with his penetration. How can the Spurs replace his production? The only answer is as a unit.
There's no one on the team that comes close to being as big a threat to penetrate and either finish or kick it out as Parker. A healthy, in rhythm Manu Ginobili would come close but Pop has been limiting his minutes and Ginobili has been settling into a more perimeter-oriented role lately. Still, if Ginobili can increase his already solid number of attempts per game at the rim (2.6) to anything close to Parker's (5.7) with more minutes, that would be a huge boost. Similarly, Ginobili does a great job at assisting teammates both at the rim and in the three point line, two of Parker's biggest strengths.
Leonard is an excellent cutter and has improved at getting to the rim off the dribble and, with Parker out, he will probably get more touches. The same for Splitter in the pick and roll and Duncan in the post. The Spurs don't have anyone that can score as well as Parker in the paint but they still have players that can combine to provide that much needed inside scoring.
Managing the clock and taking care of the ball
Mills, De Colo, Joseph and Manu all play at a faster pace than Parker, with Manu pushing to almost 4 more possession per game. Other than Ginobili, the other potential replacements all boast an under two assist-to-turnover ratio. To have any chance to survive Parker's absence without becoming a sloppy, up-and-down squad that allows easy points off turnovers and fast breaks, the Spurs will need to, as a unit, take care of the ball and look to get shots by executing in the half court. Regardless of whom Pop picks as the starter, how he manages the clock and how well he takes care of the ball will ultimately define how successful the lineup is.
Who starts at PG and who finishes?
Which leads us to the starting lineup and who finishes the games. I honestly believe the Spurs will not struggle terribly making up for Parker's scoring and have the playmakers to make up for his passing. The problem, then, will be finding combinations that work.
The few games Parker was out this season, Nando De Colo started. Unfortunately, he deferred a lot to Duncan to start the games and basically served as a spot up shooter, which is not his forte. It's understandable for Gregg Popovich to fear that giving De Colo the ball could result in turnovers and easy points for the opponent but that lack of freedom to create severely limited the offensive strengths of the player and the lineup. The results were good on defense and that lineup did avoid TOs, so it's still a strong possibility Pop sticks with it.
Mills has spent even less time than De Colo with the starting lineup but he seems like a good fit. He's fast, can shoot and, while he is not the most creative or dependable of playmakers, having Splitter diving, Duncan popping and Green and Leonard spotting up could certainly improve his ability to create. The biggest problem with Mills is that he is a streaky shooter and not a real slashing threat. He finishes at the rim at an above average rate but takes very few shots close to the hoop and his shot selection needs work. Teams could just play off him to contain the dive man in the pick and roll or guard him without bringing help, taking their chances with Mills taking a contested shot at the rim instead of allowing an open three pointer.
Joseph could be a good option to start the games as he's the best floor general of the three but his lack of experience playing at a high level and his lack of chemistry with the other guys might deter Pop from giving it a chance. The best bet is De Colo starts games with Mills or Neal when he returns backing him up. Depending on match ups, Mills or Neal would finish games, playing off the ball while Ginobili runs things.
Can the Spurs keep the number one seed?
In theory, the Spurs have the players they need to mask Parker's absence well enough to stay near the top of the West. However, of the 13 games Parker would miss if he was out four weeks, only five will be against non playoff teams and three of the non playoff teams (Cleveland, Portland and Minnesota) have really good point guards, which means the Spurs will face some real challenges. The Spurs' three game lead over OKC can definitely slip away if the coaching staff and the players can't adjust to Life Without Tony, especially considering that they will face the Thunder nine days from now.
To have a chance of maintaining their lead, the Spurs will have to keep executing on offense like they've showed they can even without Parker. They will need to rely on ball and player movement instead of incessant 4-downs and high pick and rolls and will need both Ginobili and whoever gets the bulk of Tony's minutes to step up. If they can stay at the top of the standings or near it, they should have three weeks with their full team to make a final push and get ready for the playoffs.