At long last the Spurs have their #fullsquad back, for the first time since Jan. 4, the blowout home win against a Clippers team missing Chris Paul. While the result against Dallas was a bit underwhelming, a mere six-point win at home against a mid-range Western team, it was encouraging just to see everybody suited and booted, as it were.
Much has been made of the fact the Spurs nominal starting five has logged just 137 minutes together and not at all in 2014 (remember, Pop was experimenting with Marco Belinelli in Green's place in the starting lineup in early January, before the rash of injuries hit, so maybe we can blame him for messing with natural order of things). To that end, Pop seemed intent in making up for lost time because he played the hell out of the starting lineup, especially in the first half, at the expense of the second unit.
How much did the starters play together? 19:18 by my count, which doesn't seem like a lot, but it's 40.3 percent of a 48-minute game. That's a staggering number for the Spurs. I can't emphasize that enough.
A Heat vs Thunder Finals would be a bore
Yeah, yeah, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, I get it. But doesn't anyone remember what happened two years ago?
When we think of starting units that log a ton of time together, the teams that usually spring to mind are Portland, Indiana, Memphis, maybe Oklahoma City. Well, this season the Blazers starters, unsurprisingly, have played the most minutes together, since they were all healthy until LaMarcus Aldridge went down at the All-Star break. Portland's guys have played 1,095 together over 54 games, which works out to 20.3 per game.
The Pacers guys are next at 1,043 over 52 games and 20.1 per game.
The league-leaders in terms of average, which I guess makes sense when you think about their terrible bench, is Minnesota, where Nikola Pekovic-Kevin Love-Corey Brewer-Kevin Martin-Ricky Rubio average 21.9 over 42 games.
Believe it or not, but this is actually an uptick for the league leaders compared to last season. We think of Indiana's guys as never being off the floor, but they only averaged 19 minutes together last season, while Portland, with J.J. Hickson in Robin Lopez's place, were a tick behind at 18.9. Memphis' starting five averaged exactly 18.0, before and after the Rudy Gay/Tayshaun Prince trade.
The Spurs' starters, meanwhile, averaged 11.7 minutes -- basically the first six minutes of the first and third quarters -- over 31 games last season. Even after we add that 19:18 to boost this year's average, that figure has shrunk to 8.7 minutes over 18 games so far.
You can understand why the Spurs starters don't play as much as their counterparts. For one, Pop as a rule limits the minutes of his star players. More importantly, he's got at least one of his best five players on the bench, and arguably two, so he's going to want to mix them into the lineup and especially down the stretch of games more than typical bench guys.
Anyway, the score was 45-39, good guys, for the starters over that 19:18 against Dallas, which works out to 112-97 over a full game, not too shabby at all, especially offensively. (Did anyone else notice that after three quarters of fits-and-starts that San Antonio and Dallas' offenses basically solved each others' defenses by the fourth quarter, just trading scores and combining for 70 points in the final period?)
Interestingly enough, a Tim Duncan-Boris Diaw-Kawhi Leonard-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker lineup recorded 8:38 in the game together, including the closing stretch. I found this significant because if this isn't the Spurs best lineup (7.3 net rating), then it's certainly the one that Pop feels the most comfortable with as far as its versatility playing against opponents big or small.
Substitute Belinelli for Leonard and that lineup becomes a defensive holocaust. Sub Belinelli for Ginobili and it's still pretty bad. Keep Splitter in and just sub Ginobili for Green and the offense dries up. Keep the starters in except for Splitter and things get fairly awesome, albeit in a small sample. Apparently Boris Diaw is the linchpin to the whole operation, just like we thought back in October.
The point is that it would be awfully nice if Gregg Popovich had a healthy team the rest of the way so that he could streamline the rotations, the way Miami has done since pretty much the All-Star break. (Sometimes Erik Spoelstra plays Greg Oden, sometimes he doesn't, but Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and Norris Cole are pretty much the three bench guys he relies on, with Michael Beasley as the ninth man and Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis completely expunged from their rotation.)
The Spurs had a solid, ideal 9.5-man rotation going Sunday against Dallas, with Aron Baynes providing 5:37 of capable spot duty overlapping the first and second quarters as the fourth big. In the second half, those available minutes were absorbed by Splitter, who needs the work. I know the numbers say that Jeff Ayres is the rangier defender, and his passing is an asset, but I'm just too fed up with his terrible hands and foul-prone tendencies to put up with him anymore. He had a nice stretch for a couple of weeks in January, when Splitter was first injured, but he's been a complete disaster for well over a month now and he needs to sit. I know the likely answer come the playoffs is C) none of the above as Pop will likely just stick to a three-man rotation among the bigs, doling out the extra time to Leonard in small-ball, but if he has to pick one guy for those spot minutes in the second quarter where every coach rests their main guys, I'd rather go with Baynes who has less glaring negatives than Ayres or Matt Bonner.
The rotation and minutes range that Pop used against Dallas is one l'd like to see the rest of the way, though I suppose I'd be open to some experimentation with Cory Joseph because he's too good to banish in my view. I wouldn't be opposed to Pop giving Parker some rest against some crummy opponent like the Lakers, for example. I just don't want Pop to fool around anymore with Ayres or Bonner. Let's get some continuity going here and really see what this team can do.
(Say, were you aware that Miami comes to town on Thursday? I wonder if there will be an ESPN radio promo to say that the Heat are playing OKC in a Finals rematch.)
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Against the Mavericks, Parker was excellent in his return to action after missing six games to heal his various maladies. But let's be real, the Mavericks were the perfect opponents for him to face after the layoff, with their defensively inept Jose Calderon/Monta Ellis backcourt. He'll face stiffer competition soon enough, and he always gets up for Kyrie Irving.
Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express News solved the mystery this morning, revealing that it was Parker's call to play in the All-Star Game despite his injuries. I think it was a bit selfish of him, especially since being an All-Star is a bit old-hat for Parker these days, but it's not my career. I forget who, but somebody in the Spurs blogosphere, perhaps even a Pounder, wondered on Twitter a while back who was the last Spur to do the same thing, that is play in the All-Star game and then immediately take time off due to injury, and I was wondering the same, the answer on the tip of our collective tongues.
Then during a broadcast, against Portland I believe, Sean Elliott revealed that he had in fact done the same thing. Elliott played in his first All-Star game during the 1992-93 season and then missed the next eight games. As I recall, he was scheduled to participate in the slam dunk contest too, but pulled out of that.
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I noticed that Splitter guarded Dirk Nowitzki a few times way outside of his comfort zone, on the elbows extended, and while the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer did hit a few ridiculous shots on him, Splitter fared okay out there and contested some shots. It was a nice trial run for Splitter, who may be called on to do similar things against Portland's Aldridge, Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka or Houston's Terrence Jones if he wants to stay on the floor in the playoffs.
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Now that the All-Star break has come and gone, we've entered the stage of the season where teams aren't even bothering to pretend they're not shamelessly tanking. A few are more egregious about it than the others, but nobody in the NBA -- not even the Sixers -- is more blatant than New Orleans. They've lost seven in a row and nine of their last ten and have recently announced that Jrue Holliday will be shelved for the season. I can only guess that Anthony Davis will follow suit shortly enough.
I think the light dawned on the organization during the All Star break that they have no chance to make the playoffs, so now it's full steam ahead as they're desperately trying to sink to a bottom-five record so that they don't have to trade their first-round pick to Philadelphia as part of last offseason's Holliday/Nerlens Noel trade. They are currently three games "out" of that bottom five spot, with three teams between them and fifth-worst Sacramento. (The Kings and Pelicans play Monday night.)
Sadly, there are no Sixers-Pelicans games left on the schedule because that one would've been epic. There is Pelicans-Bucks on Mar. 7 though, so set your DVRs to that puppy on League Pass.