The Spurs will play against CSKA Moscow tomorrow and it will be the first time we'll see how the team looks coming into the season. The core players are pretty much set; the top seven are Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kahwi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw. There is less certainty with the bench but there will definitely be continuity in terms of which players the Spurs will rely. The question then, is about lineups. In this first post, I'll take a look at the starting lineup and then try to figure out what the bench units will look like.
Nothing was wrong with last year's starting lineup
The Spurs starting lineup last season was among the best in the league. Granted, they played less minutes together than most others but they still ranked second in terms of net rating among lineups that were on the floor together for more than 300 minutes, outscoring their opponents by a ridiculous 18.1 points per 100 possessions. That was largely due to their stingy defense, which led the league by allowing only 87.7 points per 100 possessions. It's hard to imagine any other five-man unit doing better.
And it makes sense that the starters are this good. Parker has a great pick and roll partner in Splitter and a great pick and pop big in Duncan. Green and Leonard are very good spot up shooters, which helps make up in terms of spacing for Tiago Splitter's lack of range. Those are also the five best defenders the Spurs have to offer, which easily explains why teams had such a hard time scoring on them. So what reason would there be to change what has worked in the past?
Lineup imbalance killed the bench
No other Spurs lineup ranking in the top ten in minutes came even close to matching the starters on defensive rating, yet five boasted a better offensive rating. That seems to signal an imbalance in lineups that's hard to ignore. Ideally you'd have a few lineups that excel at both ends of the floor but the Spurs seemed to emphasize defense with the starters while the bench had to survive with offense. Is there is a way to have more balanced lineups by exchanging parts?
Parker, Leonard and Duncan are going to start no matter what. That leaves Splitter and Green as the players that could come off the bench. Let's start with Green. Is there a chance the team can do better with him off the bench while either Ginobili or Belinelli starts?
Neither Manu nor Marco seem like great fits
The starting lineup with Manu in Green's place was surprisingly abysmal on offense last season, averaging a measly 97.3 points per 100 possessions. Still, it's not hard to project improvement solely from a better understanding of roles and more time to get acclimated to one another. Manu has always been a good spot up shooter (even in last season's down year he averaged a stellar 41.8% on spot up threes) so he could play a role similar to Green while providing more offensive versatility. But the switch would likely not improve the starting lineup significantly on either end, as a) Manu would either take touches from Parker, Duncan and Leonard or b) provide a less efficient 3-and-D game than Green. So it seems that Ginobili's shot creation gifts are a better fit with the bench.
Belinelli is an intriguing option, if only because it would allow a more regular pairing of Green and Ginobili, who worked great together last season. But once again, Belinelli is not as good a shooter as Green -- who is, really? Also, Marco would be a downgrade defensively and his playmaking gifts would be redundant with a lineup that has its offensive hierarchy already defined to accommodate the one-two-three punch of Parker, Duncan and Leonard. So while starting Belinelli could improve the bench by adding Green to it, the starting lineup would certainly suffer.
The Spurs simply need Danny Green's elite 3-and-D skills in the starting lineup to balance out the ball-dominant Parker and the emerging Leonard. The bench, on the other hand, needs all the playmakers it can get. Having Leonard come off the bench could actually make some sense but since he is evidently being groomed to be future star, it's unfathomable to see Pop making such a decision.
So the guards and wings should stay the same. How about the bigs?
Sending Splitter to the bench could affect Duncan
The starters with Diaw in Splitter's place scored almost a point more (106.7 vs. 105.9) while allowing a still very good 94.1 points per 100 possessions. The starters with Diaw in Duncan's place allowed a couple more points than that (96.2) but scored an outrageous 112.9 points per 100 possessions. Who knew Boris Diaw played so well with the starters? His ability to create makes him a fantastic complement to Tony Parker, who can use him as a safety valve when teams try to trap the ball. And Diaw's atrocious rebounding is hidden when he shares the court with Duncan and Leonard.
Splitter would have a lot more space to work if he came off the bench and Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli would have an elite dive man to feed the ball to on pick and rolls. But more importantly, playing Splitter with the reserves would mean no more lineups lacking a true defensive big man. Now that the Splitter-Duncan starting frontcourt experiment has proved to be successful, the Spurs could revert back to it if they need to in the playoffs and there's no reason why they can't be on the court together in crunch time. So what's the downside of starting Diaw, then?
It puts a significantly higher burden on Tim Duncan.
With Splitter on the court, Duncan was usually tasked with guarding the opponent's weaker offensive big man. Tiago was great guarding post players but his biggest contributions came defending the new breed of perimter-oriented bigs. Because Splitter handled those forwards, Duncan had the chance to hang close to the rim to contest shots and shut down driving angles before they even appeared. Duncan's help defense was outstanding last season and a huge part of that was due to him being freed of the responsibility to guard his man closely.
Similarly, Splitter was often the designated screener out on the perimeter, while Duncan worked more pick and pops inside the arc. Instead of setting and resetting hard high picks to allow the guards to explore, Duncan was able to be more selective about when to get involved on offense. Not to mention the mid-range looks the team created for him by using Splitter's roll to the basket to draw the defense inside while Duncan stepped out as a shooter. In order to preserve energy and be fresh for the post-season, Duncan needs someone that can play center on offense and either center or power forward on defense -- as the match-ups demand. Diaw simply can't do that.
It really doesn't seem the starting lineup should be tinkered with. Duncan and Parker have killer pick and pop chemistry, Green and Splitter are perfect in the roles they are asked to fill and Leonard's potential will likely be more quickly realized if he is able to play next to the right mix of players instead of being thrown into the fire by having a unit built around him. Expect the starters to, just like last year, be one of the best lineups in the league and to smother opponents with their defense.
In an upcoming post, I'll take a look at the bench to figure out what units could work best.
Stats via MySynergySports and NBA.com/Stats