I recently explored the possibility of what changing the starting lineup could mean to the Spurs and concluded that it wasn't worth it. The only reason it was even a question worth asking is the fact that the bench suffered greatly last season. Ill-fitting pieces and down years by key members turned the Spurs' willingness to use their bench depth -- which had been a clear advantage over other contenders in the past -- into a weakness.
The right pieces simply weren't there
Here is an excerpt from Manu's La Nacion (Argentine newspaper) column on Luis Scola, translated:
I keep asking him to roll to the basket. Because playing with Pablo (Prigioni) is different than playing with me. I need a player that dives to the basket. Since he was playing at center, he had to do that, which is not his preference. Pablo, on the other hand, needs someone that pops after screens.
With Tiago Splitter starting and DeJuan Blair in the doghouse, Ginobili didn't have the right type of big man next to him. Out of all the Spurs' bigs, Manu spent the most minutes next to Boris Diaw, who despite his many gifts is simply not a threat after setting a screen. The other big he shared the court with the most was Duncan, who is almost exclusively a pick and pop big or a post up threat. Without an elite dive man to draw the defense's attention and with his explosiveness limited by age and injuries, Ginobili struggled getting to the rim and had to settle for contested outside shots way too often.
Stephen Jackson only compounded the problem, as he shot an abysmal 37% from the field and 27% from beyond the arc and finished with almost as many turnovers (77) as assists (80) while using the most possessions of anyone outside of the Big Three and Gary Neal. Speaking of Gary, he also had the worst year of his career, averaging the lowest true shooting percentage since entering the league and seeing a dip in his assist percentage while being a huge liability on defense.
As a result, the bench never got going and the Spurs' rotation became both short and unpredictable.
The off-season was all about rebuilding the bench
The Spurs decided to rely less on the bench after the attempt to leverage their depth in the 2011/12 playoffs proved hard to do. But the idea was to count on Ginobili, Jackson, Diaw and Neal to provide relief for the starters and hopefully augment leads. Not only did that fail, but the individual performances from each of those guys seemed to suffer from the lack of cohesion in terms of skill set.
Since changing the starting lineup to help the bench would likely do more harm than good, PATFO brought in better-fitting pieces while simultaneously banking on internal development. The minutes that were going to Neal and Jackson will be given to Cory Joseph, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. It seems to be a case of addition by subtraction.
Marco should take care of the scoring that the Spurs relied on Neal and Jackson to provide and it's almost impossible to imagine him doing a worse job of it than what last season's versions of those two did. Joseph/Mills, meanwhile, will take the ball-handling duties that Neal
enjoyed endured. The backup point guard race will be intense, as Joseph's turnover-averse nature is as valuable as his bad outside shooting is damning.
As for the big men, Jeff Ayres brings a skill set that has been missing from the Spurs' bench since Antonio McDyess retired: a mid-range jumper. Since he's a big, physical guy, he'll likely be able to play some center as well as his natural position of power forward. Those two factors open up all sorts of possible permutations in terms of lineups. Aron Baynes, meanwhile, sets such good, hard screens that if he has even mediocre hands (and stops fouling enough to stay on the court) he could be a great pick-and-roll player while providing similar rebounding and better defense than Blair.
Who plays, and in which lineups?
Unlike the starting lineup, there is a place for ample debate here. I doubt the Spurs revert back to the two main lineups construct they adopted in 2011/12--at least fully. But I do believe there are enough interesting pieces to form some great five-man units either using solely bench players or mixing some starters and subs.
If Diaw subs in for Splitter early so that Splitter can sub in for Duncan, Ayres and Bonner seem like much better fits next to Tiago than Aron Baynes. Ayres could benefit from the attention the defense has to pay Splitter when he rolls to the basket in the same way Duncan does to hit open mid-range jumpers. Defensively and on the boards, Ayres has not been a standout but he could give the Spurs a more traditional presence than Matt Bonner or Boris Diaw, which could certainly improve the team's performance in those areas.
If Pop chooses to maximize the time Duncan and Splitter spend on the court together, then the Spurs need someone to pair with Boris Diaw. The bigger Baynes seems like the better fit here, as he is more of a traditional center and can use his more useful trait - his rebounding - to offset Diaw's weakness in the glass. If Ayres proves adaptable to the role of dive man and can rebound consistently, he is also an option. Bonner, much like Blair in the past, will probably see his minutes dwindle because the Spurs finally seem to have better options and his game doesn't seem to match with anyone but Splitter and Duncan.
Who will man the backup small forward spot is hard to predict at the moment because Maggette and Young are still in the race. I still believe the Spurs will make due with a mix of Green and Ginobili, but anything can happen. The weird part is who gets the backup PG spot is strangely intertwined with who plays backup small forward. If the Spurs decide to go with Belinelli at the two and Ginobili at the three, the best fit skill-set-wise is Patty Mills. Belinelli and Ginobili will control the ball and create shots for themselves and others, so what they need is someone that can walk the ball up court, pass it and go spot up. Mills is definitely better than Joseph there and even De Colo seems like a better fit unless Joseph's shooting improves dramatically.
If, on the other hand, the Spurs decide to mix things up and have only one of Ginobili or Belinelli at the two and Green or, say, Sam Young at the three, the Spurs will need that additional ball handler and Joseph becomes the better option. Cory might not be a great pick-and-roll player at this point but he can get the team into its sets and, in some situations, break down the defense through penetration. De Colo is also a good option here, as long as he finds a way to limit his turnovers.
The Spurs still need to figure out what to do with their bench and hopefully they'll get it done sooner than they did last season. The good news is that they have a lot of options that could ostensibly work great because they have players whose skill sets fit well together. I cannot stress enough how poorly last season's bench players played off each other and how it affected team dynamics and ultimately individual performances. That doesn't figure to be a problem this upcoming season, which leads me to believe that the bench, however it is utilized, could go back to being a huge asset for the Spurs, like it's been in the past.