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The Spurs' problems with rebounding and turnovers

Despite the bad numbers so far this season, the Spurs' defensive rebounding and turnovers are not a long term concern.


Looking at the standings, Spurs fans have nothing to worry about. The Spurs are 1st in the West with a 6-1 record. Their only loss came against a very good Clippers team. They've had wins over potential playoff teams, a divisional rival, and have even gotten a W in a hostile arena where wins have been few and far between. Considering the upcoming tough six games, it is reassuring to have such a positive record, achieved through great performances by Duncan and a seemingly improved defense. There are only two early concerns so far: turnovers and defensive rebounding.

Traditionally, the Spurs have been near the top of the league in both those areas. For all the changes in philosophy the Spurs have experienced over the last few years, we could always expect them to excel at taking care of the ball and rebounding opponents' misses, up until the beginning of this season. Fortunately, I don't think there's a reason to be alarmed. At least not yet. If thirty games into the season the Spurs are still turning the ball over and allowing offensive boards, I will definitely be worried. At this point though, these seem like problems that should fix themselves as games go by, since they are both probably caused by the following situations:

Health problems leading to strange rotations

Between the stomach flu making the rounds on the team right now, Manu's back spasms, and Pop's lineup experiments, the team has not had a set rotation. The Spurs have used a lot of different combinations so far, some of which the players are not used to. The two areas where familiarity is needed the most are passing and rebounding.

The Spurs need to figure out both the strengths of each lineup and the ways to cover up the weaknesses. When Diaw or Bonner are in, the guards need to contribute on the boards. When TD and either Blair or Splitter are on the court, they need to focus on long rebounds instead of boxing out under the rim. The bigs themselves need to get in sync with each other. The problem is they haven't had enough reps to do it yet with Pop experiments. I am confident they will figure it out once the rotations are set.

Similarly, the spacing changes when different players are on the court. Adjusting and reacting to a ball handler's tendencies are also imperative for cohesive offensive units. So far, Manu and Parker, the Spurs' primary ball handlers, have both missed time, which means both they and their teammates are still adjusting to each other.

Players producing well below their capabilities

As a sub product of the injuries, we are seeing players that are not in the best of shapes, both physically and skills wise. Manu is somewhat turnover prone, but not on simple passes off the pick and roll. So far, he is botching those, as well as forcing some passes that need his timing and precision to be much better than they are now. Tony is usually a dependable ball handler and passer that can carry an offense, but this season he's posting above average turnover numbers and not scoring efficiently. It is reasonable to expect that as these two round into shape, both will get better and the offense will improve, leading to less over-passing and fewer turnovers.

The same happens with defensive rebounding. Splitter, Diaw and Jackson are all posting numbers well below what they produced last season and what we should expect from them. Diaw is not a great rebounder, but his current total rebound percentage is tied for his career low at 8.2%. Jackson and Splitter have been solid defensive rebounders for their position throughout their careers, which means an uptick in production from all these guys is almost inevitable.

Players adjusting to new roles

This season Leonard has been given a little more freedom on offense to look for his shot. He's not handling the ball on pick and rolls, but he has the green light to attack the rim off the dribble. Unfortunately, he is new at this and keeps getting called for charges, as his drives (especially on fast breaks) are predictable. That has led to Kawhi more that doubling his turnovers per game (from 0.7 to 2), turnovers per 36 minutes (1 to 2.5) and turnover percentage (9 to 18.9). With more games under his belt, he will adjust to the new role and pick his spots better before barreling through the paint.

Mills has never been the most judicious guy with the ball in his hands but that doesn't hurt the team when he gets spot minutes off the bench as a spark plug. In the last couple of games, however, Mills played a combined 43 minutes and turned the ball over 5 times. With an increased role, Patty has made important contributions but has also seen his flaws magnified. When Parker returns to form, he will go back to having a more reduced role and both Mills and the team will likely benefit from it.

Finally, we have Jackson spending more time at the 4 spot. It's not exactly a new role for him, but the Spurs have been experimenting with Jack at PF to provide the spacing Bonner brings, while also increasing the team's versatility. This could pay huge dividends down the road, but right now going small hurts the team's defensive rebounding. For all of Jack's tenacity, he is still conceding inches over the guys he battles for boards.

So as you see, the Spurs problems with defensive rebounding and turnovers can be explained away to a degree by how early in the season it is. Some players are not in the best shape, while others are adjusting to new roles. When you add the injuries that have led to some unfamiliar rotations, the struggles almost seem inevitable.

The Spurs might not lead the league in defensive rebounding or finish 3rd in turnover percentage like last season, but they will likely still be among the best in both categories. The team is built in a way that almost guarantees that. This makes trying new things, even at the expense of some key numbers, more than worth it. Hopefully, patience will pay off in the long run, when the Spurs are a better team for going through these issues.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference