I was having a chat online with a fellow Spurs megafan today and along the same lines as we have been talking for years, some things have become painstakingly clear.
The Spurs Bench - Best in the league and still underestimated by their own coach and PG
OK, here we go. The Spurs have, bar none, the best bench in the league. In fact, The Bench is the key to victory. However, we misuse these guys. Now I know PtR is loaded with Trade-Bonners but the truth is this: Matty has improved year over year in rebounding (boxing out), position defense, even blocks shots, defense, and has added a very serviceable running hook that seems to stun everyone except Patty Mills when he uses it. All of this improvement and he remains potentially among the top 3 in 3pt % in the league, if he had the minutes. Bonner's best season for 3pt % with an elite-level .457 was in 2010-11 when he was contending for starting and played more minutes than McDyess and nearly 3x as many as Splitter. However, he's on course this year to play under 1000 minutes, about 60% or so what he played in his most effective years, which is confounding given his improvement, Duncan's (seemingly irrelevant) age, the Spurs lack of big-man depth, and the one big thing: When he's on the floor, most of the time, he's open!! Or so it seems.
Here's my observation: The Spurs right now have potentially 40% of the top-10 3pt% shooters on the Spurs roster, 75% on the bench: Belinelli, Mills, Bonner and Green. These guys are very often open, and mostly the only ones that are not as consistently open are Green and Belinelli. I propose one reason the bench is so effective is because the bench PGs, such as Mills or Joseph, tend to more readily find their open shooters at the perimeter, and Parker tends to not find open shooters unless they are named Kawhi.
Look, Tony Parker is an elite PG like no other. He's truly the key to victory for the Spurs. But one weakness is finding these open shooters.
However, I think the problem is more institutional. I don't blame Parker. Here are some of the things I have seen in the first half of this season.
- Nando De Colo breaks out those crazy passes like Manu, and they turn into turnovers because #1 he's usually playing with other low-utilization teammates and the receiver of the pass can't handle it, and #2 the whole team doesn't know to expect those kinds of passes from anyone except Manu
- Ayers spent all but the past two or three games with passes bouncing off of his hands or chest, but when he gets the ball he usually does something great with it. I don't think he knows to expect a pass, like ever. For this reason, he's surprised by the ball.
- Only in the past couple of games have the Spurs truly figured out that Belinelli shoots best on the move and works best without the ball. We see this great chemistry with Marco and Manu mostly because Manu plays this way so it's natural for him to expect it. The injuries to Green and Leonard allowed Marco more minutes and I see it as the team becoming more familiar with his strengths, and more trusting, more likely to get the ball to him
- The Bench is most awesome mostly because Manu is their leader. And one thing Manu does that Parker, Green, Joseph don't do is to think that whoever is on the floor with him is also supernaturally-gifted, so he will make wicked bullet passes to Bonner under the basket or between-the-leg passes to Ayers or really believe that Timmy can make a 3. We hear and say the "offense runs through" Manu or Tony or Timmy, but the truth is that Manu flows the offense through to the other players far more than the leader of the starters does.
- The bench is great. They play a lot more minutes than most other teams' benches play. But they need to be playing more minutes alongside the starters in order for them to reach their full potential. That's the point I was making about Bonner's minutes vs. production.
- The reason our perimeter shooters are so frequently open is because the opponents know full well that Tony is unlikely to get the ball to them. They can afford to clog the lane and leave Bonner/Belinelli/Mills/Green wide open because the gamble normally pays off if they can double team Tony or Tim or Tiago in the paint. The paint will free up as soon as Tony starts to pass to these 3pt shooters and force the opponents to play perimeter defense.
This whole thing is baffling because we all know Pop is a brilliant strategist. I think our bench is best because they are underestimated by other teams, and that is true even for the starters. But it mystifies me how the Spurs' coaching staff seems to also underestimate their own team.