The Spurs are 8-1 on the nascent campaign, they've won six games in a row (in a nine-day stretch, no less), they're the current holders of the NBA Regular Season Championship Belt, they're second, behind the 9-0 Indiana Pacers in winning percentage and scoring differential, and they're in the top ten in both offensive efficiency (t-6th with Atlanta) and defensive efficiency (second, behind the Pacers, naturally), one of three teams who can claim that, along with the Dubs and T-Pups.
Remarkably they've achieved all that with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili giving them next to nothing on the offensive end of the floor, both of them performing like replacement-level guys so far. It's too early to be alarmed by that, but it's worth keeping an eye on.
Gregg Popovich has remarked that the Spurs won five of their first six games playing "C+ basketball," and came away with some of those wins through some combination of experience, chemistry (what he refers to as "corporate knowledge") and good fortune. Their play has obviously improved over the past three games, on both ends of the floor, as they've led for all but 11 seconds over the past 12 quarters. One can certainly make a case that the collective experience of the players with one another has helped them early on while a bunch of their opponents are still learning each other's names.
What I want to spotlight from that game though is the play of newcomer Marco Belinelli, who theoretically should be having all kinds of growing pains adjusting to his new teammates, and vice versa. However, he's 30th in the NBA so far at +45 (and sixth on his own team) and as Grantland.com's Brett Koremenos and SAEN's Dan McCarney have pointed out on Twitter, Belinelli is so far averaging career-highs in PER, Total Shooting Percentage, Efficient Field Goal Percentage, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes. In most cases, his averages vastly trump his previous best efforts. The initial returns are that Marco has been good for the Spurs and the Spurs have been good for Marco.
It has long been accepted that veteran free agents struggle when they first join the Spurs because it takes them awhile to learn the team's voluminous offensive and defensive playbooks and because they over-defer to the Big Three. Robert Horry, Hedo Turkoglu, Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel, Richard Jefferson all struggled to various degrees in their maiden voyages with the Spurs. In some cases they never stopped struggling (or got a second chance to).
Belinelli has a couple of built-in advantages that most of those guys didn't, though. First, he's in his prime at 27 years old. Aside from Turkoglu, the rest of those dudes were past their primes when they joined the Spurs, with Finley an old 32, Barry and Horry 33 each and Van Exel 34. Jefferson was 29, but as it turned out he'd already lost too much athleticism to be effective anymore as a player, and unlike those other guys he didn't have the jump shot, the head, or the heart to compensate.
Secondly Belinelli is Italian, one of ten internationals on the Spurs, and there's just no getting around the fact that this team runs a European, slash-and-kick offense predicated on up-tempo motion and ball movement. A twitter follower wrote to me, in response to that flow chart I made, that the Spurs are the NBA's answer to "tiki-taka" the revolutionary style of soccer popularized by Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Basically, it's making a bunch of short, quick, safe passes, retaining possession, always probing the defense and eschewing taking on defenders one-on-one off the dribble or blindly crossing it into the box and hoping for the best and instead trying to rope-a-dope, tire and frustrate the defenders and trying to catch one guy out of position for the perfect through-ball instead. I think it's a pretty good comparison because the Spurs don't emphasize much one-on-one play either, choosing to go for open shots off the pass instead.
Belinelli has always been an enigmatic and wildly inconsistent shot creator and shot maker, but hasn't played with too many guys like him in his previous stops in the league. His previous high in PER came in 2009-10, in Toronto, when he hooked up with Jose Calderon, Turkoglu, Andrea Bargnani and (wait for it) ... Rasho Nesterovic, when the braintrust over there tried to surround a young Chris Bosh with a bunch of Euros. With the Hornets, there would be a $500 fine if anybody besides Chris Paul ever dribbled or passed the ball. The Bulls' problems last year have been written about to death.
Let's take a look at a few of the plays in the game against the Wizards, in which Belinelli scored 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting (2-of-2 from three), with eight assists, five rebounds and no turnovers, with a +19 in 23 minutes of work.
2nd Quarter, 8:12 to go, Belinelli misses 10-foot jumper:
"What's the big deal?" you're asking. "The guy missed a shot." Well, the cleverness and the instincts are what struck me here. Belinelli sensed that a man was right on him, and instead of attempting a very difficult reverse layup on the move and having the shot swatted into the fifth row, he pump-faked his man off his feet, turned and in one smooth motion created about six feet of open space for himself with a step-back jumper. If it reminded you of Manu, it should've. That he missed the shot is beside the point -- Belinelli gave himself a great look with the move.
2nd Quarter, 4:52 to go, backdoor layup:
I love everything about this play. By now I hope it's obvious to you that if you're a perimeter guy on the Spurs you better be able to execute a back cut and play without the ball. Belinelli had Washington's Bradley Beal, a young, inexperienced defender, overplaying him like crazy to his shooting hand. Sure, he could've opted to just drive right, and might have even scored. Marco's not the quickest guy in the world though, and Marcin Gortat is athletic enough -- when he's not trying to attempt a Dream Shake, anyway -- where he likely would've recovered enough to foul Belinelli at least.
Throwing the bounce pass to Duncan on the high post, though, forced Gortat to commit all his attention to the Golden God, and once Belinelli cut there was no way the Polish giant could hope to recover in time.
Third Quarter, 1:44 to go, Patty Mills three-pointer:
Another play where discretion proved to be the better part of valor for Belinelli. He could've attempted a tricky layup here and no one would've faulted him, even though the result in all likelihood would've been John Wall slamming the ball off the backboard. Instead, Belinelli coolly whipped the pass over in the corner for Patty Mills, right in his shooting pocket, perfectly in rhythm and did so in midair. There are people who would dismiss this play as relatively simple and there are those who've actually played basketball.
4th Quarter, 11:14 to go, Boris Diaw layup:
To extend the soccer metaphor, this is what we would call a "perfectly weighted" pass, so of course the recipient had to be the streaking Land Walrus, who sprinted ahead of the pack and finished it off for two. Seriously though, this pass was ridiculously difficult to pull off. Jan Vesely is a pretty crummy player, but he's still an athletic dude who can get up. The margin of error to get the ball over him but not past the baseline was tiny. We've seen Ginobili pull this off a thousand times, but to have a second wizard on the team almost seems like cheating, doesn't it? Call me a hater, but I just don't see Gary Neal ever being able to make this play.
4th Quarter, 10:17 to go, Jeff Ayres dunk:
Okay, this isn't an assist. It's not even a hockey assist. It's the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the pass for the dunk. What it's an example of, though, is smart, team basketball. Belinelli pump-faked Beal out of the play, which led to Eric Maynor rotating over to contest. Instantly "Italian Ice" knew he had a 4-on-3 advantage and he non-chalantly tossed it over to Ginobili up top -- not because he thought Manu had an open three but rather because he knew Gino would make the next right play in a choreographed sequence, with the defense on skates. When you've got guys running around, scrambling, always a rotation behind, anything besides a dunk or a WIDE OPEN three is poor execution.
4th quarter, 8:37 to go, Belinelli jumper:
Another pump fake. Again, notice how much space he clears for himself with a simple lift of his head and his torso. His up fake is almost as convincing as Ginobili's. There's literally nobody within seven feet of him afterward. This is basketball porn.
Outside of maybe the pass to Diaw, none of these plays are all that spectacular in a vacuum; in fact, most look ordinary. That's just it though. Already Belinelli looks like he's been a Spur forever, the way he's seamlessly fit into the operation. It's not the least bit shocking to me though. I thought whatever struggles he had as a Spur would be on the defensive end. I wasn't worried about him offensively at all. The guy knows how to play. He's been drilled for years on the fundamentals and he understands the European game. You pass, you cut, you do everything quick, either pass, drive or shoot. The ball doesn't stick. The learning curve and chemistry and all that comes with the American guys. He could play with Ginobili and Diaw blindfolded.
Maybe I'm overstating it. It could just be that Belinelli is a late bloomer and that it's taken him some time to find his footing in the league. People forget that Ginobili didn't break out as a star until he, too, was 27. It must be said that Neal, too, has been putting up career-high figures so far with the Bucks and that his PER is more than three points above Belinelli's. Maybe both guys just needed a change of scenery. With the Spurs Belinelli's role is radically different than it's been in past stops. His usage rate and scoring rate are way down, and his assist and rebound rates are way up.
For years the Spurs have needed a secondary passer on their bench and now, it seems, they finally have one, a Ginobili doppelganger, minus the bald spot and the defensive playmaking. So far, it's a masterstroke from General Manager R.C. Buford.
More from Pounding The Rock:
- J.R. Wilco talks about how the Spurs gelled against the Knicks on The Phil Naessens Show
- Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs at Utah Jazz
- Pop Nots: The top ten questions that Gregg Popovich should never be asked
- Morning Rehash: Popovich conducts a Wizards beatdown
- Spurs ride bench to beat Wizards, 92-79