This is the first installment of a running series in which I'll take a look at the Spurs' players and give an opinion on what part of their game I'd love to see them improve. It doesn't mean these players don't already have a valuable skill set or that they absolutely need get better. The idea is to come up with realistic ways in which every one of the Spurs' players can evolve; if Kawhi Leonard starts playing like Lebron James that would be as awesome as it's unlikely to happen. Instead, I'll focus on small areas of improvement that would not only make the players better individually but also help the team.
We'll start with Tony Parker.
As these stats show, Parker had a fantastic season. He kept the team going when Manu Ginobili went down, displaying leadership and upping his game when it was needed the most. Tony was one of the best guards in the league throughout the year and was recognized with an All-Star berth and MVP discussions. He led the team in minutes per game, points, assists and free throw attempts. Simply put, Tony was the most important part of one of the most balanced and beautiful offenses the league has seen in a while. The Spurs finished with the best record in the West in no small part thanks to Parker, who also showed an edge to him that was absent in previous seasons.
The downside to being so important to the success of a team is that your opponents can key in on you. That's what happened to Tony in the playoffs. He still led the team in all the offensive categories, but couldn't carry the team past a Thunder defense that did everything in their power to stop Parker even at the risk of freeing up other players. They sent Thabo Sefolosha, their best perimeter defender, to guard Tony and helped constantly on the P&R when they couldn't trap him and make him surrender the ball. This strategy slowed down the Spurs' offense enough to allow OKC to seize the momentum of the series and ultimately win.
How can he improve?
Tony has gotten better over the years. He was always a dangerous slasher but couldn't really shoot, so he went to work and developed a mid-range jumper. He wasn't particularly good at using screens to navigate the defense, but now he excels at it. He wasn't a particularly creative and gifted passer but has now become an above average distributor. No one will confuse Tony with Steve Nash, but Parker can now operate on the P&R with proficiency not only as the scorer but as the passer, making him a great offensive weapon. His defense has also improved. He relies less on help and tries to stay in front of his man; he's not close to a lockdown defender at the PG spot, but he holds his own.
There's one aspect of Parker's game that, if improved, would make him even more deadly and important to the Spurs: the corner 3.
At first glance, there's not a lot of reason for optimism. Parker shot a career worst 23% from 3 last season and is a career 31% shooter from deep. Not exactly a deadly sniper. A closer look at the numbers, though, shows that there is hope for Parker as a corner shooter. Last season, he took 5 long jumpers a game connecting on 39% of them, which shows there's nothing wrong with his shot. He was only assisted on 21% of those, though, making Parker a good off-the-dribble shooter. Spotting up is a different skill set; one that Parker hasn't developed. That's one of the main reasons Manu came off the bench all these years: Parker needs the ball in his hands to be effective.
Now, while Parker's numbers as a 3 point shooter are pretty terrible (last season his eFG% form 3 was worse than Rondo's), when you break it down further, he's not a bad corner 3 guy in limited attempts. Last season he shot 33% from the corner on 8-24 shooting, and the year before he shot 37% on 18-49. That's 35% over the last two seasons. The amount of shots is too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but it looks like Parker would only have to improve marginally to become an acceptable corner threat, since the league average of makes from there is 37%.
Why is it important for Tony to improve as a corner threat when the Spurs already have shooters and handing him the ball has worked in the past, you ask? There are two reasons: one, the OKC series emphasized something that has always been true about Tony: he is not all that effective without the ball. He can score off backdoor cuts and that give-and-go play they had going with Manu worked for a while, but Tony's contributions are limited when the other team forces the ball out of his hands. And two, the potential emergence of Kawhi Leonard.
If Summer League was any indication, the coaching staff is considering giving Leonard a more prominent role in the offense. He will most likely still be primarily a floor-spacing spot up shooter, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Kawhi run a few P&Rs this upcoming season, since it will probably be a key part of his development. Now, I mentioned that Manu and Tony sometimes struggle to coexist because of Parker's limitations as a spot up shooter. When Manu is running the P&R and Tony is in the corner, his man sags off him and helps on the rolling big. Manu is such a good P&R player that he can usually still get the roller the ball or take it himself and score in traffic. Kawhi, on the other hand, needs all the help he can get, as he is inexperienced in this role. If Parker's guy cheats off him, Leonard will see the spacing disappear (if Tony is on the strong side) or could turn it over trying to find the roller when Tony's man helps of the opposite corner (if Tony is on the weak side).
By becoming a better corner shooter, Parker will not only improve his game and score without using so much energy, but will also improve the versatility of the team as a whole. If teams force the ball out of the Spurs' first option (Parker), there will be other options to execute the half court without having a weak shooter on the floor. That would make the already deadly Spurs offense even harder to stop.
Stats via Basketball-Reference, Hoopdata and NBA.com