The Spurs have been playing poorly and losing more games than anyone is used to going into the playoffs. And now we know that they will face a Lakers team that is missing Kobe Bryant but will have Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Some fans are starting to panic, which is understandable.
We will have plenty of coverage on the match up, but I want to focus on our guys for a minute. I think the Spurs have had two main problems for a while now: the bench is struggling, and the offense is not good enough. While I understand why others might be worried about those two very serious issues, I am not. I'll tell you why after I break down each problem the Spurs have been having.
Why is the bench struggling?
The Spurs starters have the second best net rating in the league when it comes to five-man units that have shared the court for more than 300 minutes, trailing only the Heat starters. They are the stingiest defensive unit under those parameters, edging out the Grizzlies starters. There has been some slippage since the All Star break but it hasn't been significant. The starting unit is great.
But to make the first unit great, Pop removed Tiago Splitter from the bench and injected him into the starting lineup in order to beef up the defense. That left the second unit without one of its foundational pieces. When you combine that with some underwhelming individual performances, injuries and, let's just call them, experimental rotations throughout the season, you get very inconsistent bench production.
And then there's Boris Diaw. He was great for the Spurs last season as a starter, where his tendency to pass up shots was mitigated by playing with two scorers (Parker and Duncan) and two shooters (Green and Leonard). Duncan helped with the rebounding, and his chemistry with Parker allowed him to help when teams trapped Tony on screens. It worked very well when the Spurs had the ball, but defensively that lineup wasn't where Pop wanted it. So with Splitter starting, Diaw finds himself on a second unit that can't mask his flaws.
No one is hurt more by Diaw's presence on the court than Manu Ginobili. Ginobili often relies on pick and roll sets and Diaw kills the spacing. If he's on the ball setting a screen, his man will leave him and focus on Manu, knowing that Diaw is not a scoring threat. If he's off the ball, his man will cheat off him and slide towards the paint. If Manu passes to Boris on either set, he likely won't shoot and the Spurs have to start over.
Manu can't really take over and carry that second unit anymore, unless the right players are around him. But if you give him the correct tools he can do a better job than the guys that have taken over for him while he's been injured. With Ginobili out, those bench scoring problems have only intensified. And it's simply because none of the other options is as good as Manu. And since the bench has mediocre-to-poor defensive players that have been laboring under inconsistent rotations, it's been very hard to set a defensive identity as a unit, which means the defense has been poor, too.
Why am I not worried?
Because now that the regular season is over, I expect the Spurs to rely heavily on their starters. I'm pretty sure Splitter or Duncan will always be on the court, just like one of Green or Leonard and Parker or Manu. At the very least least I think that'll be Pop's plan after his previous strategy (having two separate units) failed in last year's Western Conference Finals against OKC. To start the playoffs, Manu will likely share the floor with either a P&R dive man or a shooter to kick it out to. And by playing with the starters, the flaws of guys like Neal and Diaw will be masked, like they have been in the past when they were in the starting lineup. This is also one of the areas in which the T-Mac addition might pay off, as he can give the Spurs another playmaker.
What's up with the offense?
As Spurs fans, we are wired to worry about defense, since it was the backbone of the championship teams. But the defense has been good all season long. Since the All-Star break there's been some slippage, but the Spurs are still pretty great. Since late February, they've been allowing 100.6 points per 100 possessions, which has them ranked 5th in that stretch, instead of the 3rd place they have occupied in the season ranking for defensive ratings. The offense on the other hand, took a nosedive from an offensive rating of 107.4 to 103.9, which makes it the 17th best in the league since the All-Star break.
By removing Diaw from the starting unit, the Spurs basically went with the all-defense approach most fans clamored for. Splitter, Green, and Leonard can't really create for themselves consistently and can't really distribute, either. So Parker has to score and distribute, at which he was fantastic early in the season. The bench, meanwhile, was always going to have trouble scoring without Splitter rolling to the basket and Bonner spacing the floor. The second unit doesn't generate points unless Manu creates open looks while the shooters are hitting shots.
Then, Parker and Manu get hurt at different times, and the Spurs went for extended stretches without one of their primary scorer/creators. Most lineups that include neither Parker nor Manu have trouble scoring; that's pretty evident, and the numbers confirm it. But it is also true that, at this point, Manu and Tony are also not interchangeable, and not only because Manu has taken a step back. The sets they run are different, and thus so are the players they need around them. The starting lineup runs a lot of sets that need ball and player movement, and Manu is more of a pick and roll player.
To those problems you can add the fact that a number of Spurs players, including Ginobili, just couldn't buy a three pointer over the past couple of months. As a team, the Spurs three point percentage went from a stellar 38.4% before the All-Star break (good for 3rd in the league) to a middling 35.8%. So the Spurs were without their perimeter scorers for a while and the threes weren't falling. What did they do? They went back to Duncan in the post. The pace slowed down and Duncan's usage went up. That hurt the Spurs fast break attack, making a poor turnover differential more costly. The Spurs didn't capitalize on opponent turnovers, but opponents still converted Spurs miscues into points.
Why am I not worried?
Because, God willing, Tony Parker will be back at full force this Sunday, and Manu will at least suit up. With Tony getting the role of primary option back from Duncan, the Spurs will likely pick up the pace. You add a couple of Kawhi Leonard OMFBs, and you get some easy points. It's likely Matt Bonner gets some of Diaw's minutes and that should provide a boost for the offense, as he can space the floor properly and hit the three. Speaking of three pointers, if Ginobili and Neal go back to anything close to their career averages that would provide another boost to the offense. Duncan will hopefully still get touches in the post, but he will also work that pick and pop game he has developed and Parker understands so well.
This team, when it's healthy and the pieces are in their proper place, is a very good offensive squad.
The Final Word
As you can see, the two biggest problems the Spurs seem to have right now (inconsistent bench production and a slow, predictable offense) don't figure to be that big of a deal IF Parker and Ginobili are healthy. Despite the team playing uninspired ball to finish the regular season, it doesn't seem like the Spurs have a flaw we hadn't already detected in the past. It is, like it's always been, about having the stars healthy.
Will they be? Let's hope so, because the Spurs desperately need both (but Parker especially) to play at a high level in order to put enough points on the board. Without their featured players, the Spurs are unsurprisingly nothing special, not matter how good the system might be.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats