There's no mincing words: Tim Duncan continues to have a terrible year on offense. Right now his True Shooting percentage is .432%, which, if it were to hold, would be a career-low by a country mile. These are his shot charts for this year and the last:
Yikes. Those missed mid-range jumpers from his preferred spots (top of the key, left elbow, left baseline) are killing Timmy's efficiency, but he is not finishing at the rim particularly well either. Compounding the problem, Tim is not getting to the line enough. Even after a strong showing against the Celtics in which he had eight freebies, his free-throw rate is still at a career-low. Offensively, the team is doing far better with Duncan off the floor, going from scoring only 99.8 points per 100 possessions when Big Fun plays to a 106.2 offensive rating with him on the bench.
Those numbers are clearly too low to sustain; some regression to the mean is bound to happen. But as the bad offensive games continue to pile up, the idea that the Spurs should do something about it is gaining momentum. Obviously Duncan is way too valuable in other areas to see his minutes reduced significantly. And since it's his jumper that seems to be causing the most damage, the thinking goes that starting Boris Diaw and moving Duncan closer to the hoop might be the solution.
Why playing Diaw next to Duncan more could end up hurting the Spurs
That idea was proposed in the comments section and endorsed by our fearless leader J.R. Wilco in this post. It obviously makes sense, as it would allow Duncan to operate closer to the rim full time while Boris Diaw, who is scorching from outside, takes those pick and pop jumpers. The numbers confirm that Duncan takes more close shots with Splitter off the court, as 37% of his attempts come inside five feet with Tiago on the bench as opposed to 29.3% with Splitter next to him. When sharing the court with Diaw, Duncan takes 38.5% of his total shots withing five feet and his field goal percentage jumps to 55.1%.
So why not start Diaw next to Timmy then or at least maximize the time they spend on the court together? One simple reason: it's November. If this was the playoffs, there would be a very strong case for more Duncan-Diaw or even Duncan-Bonner lineups for the reasons stated above. But with six months of regular season still to go the Spurs need to have Splitter there with Duncan to make life easier for Big Fun. Splitter has played an integral part on the Spurs' defensive success this season and taking him out of the starting lineup will almost certainly result in a decrease in defensive efficiency. The only way that doesn't happen is if Tim Duncan goes all out on the defensive side, exerting himself much more than he does now.
And without Splitter, Duncan would also likely have to work for his points even harder. The Spurs with Tony Parker on the court rarely run spread pick-and-rolls anymore and when they do they are often set up to free Parker to either score himself or kick it out after multiple picks. Considering pick-and-pop jumpers would be off the menu, Tim would likely have to work for his points the old fashioned way: by creating them against the other team's best post defender. The reason Big Fun takes all those jumpers in the first place is to limit the amount of effort he has to exert on offense in the regular season and save himself for the playoffs.
A big change in minutes distribution and rotations could also wreck havoc on Diaw's new-found aggressiveness. With Duncan, Parker and Leonard sharing the floor with him, would he really stay in attack mode or would he go back to deferring too much? Knowing BoBo's modus operandi, I'm guessing it would be the latter. The cure might be worse than the disease.
So while I'm a huge proponent of changing lineups to take advantage of mismatches, I think the Spurs should basically keep running very similar big man rotations to the ones they trot out now. What they need to do is introduce small adjustments.
How to get Duncan going
The Spurs don't need to break up the Splitter-Duncan front court to get Timmy inside scoring opportunities. The first few possessions of the Celtics game are a perfect example of how to do just that:
Those are two great high-low passes by Splitter that resulted in buckets. They came within the flow of the offense, one out of a "motion strong" set and one out of a "motion weak" set. When the Spurs execute their offense correctly, they make up for any potential spacing problems with off-the-ball movement or clever plays like the two above. The problem has been that Parker is breaking up plays more often than in the past or is almost exclusively creating pick-and-pop jumpers for Duncan and not much else.
I'm not criticizing Parker for calling his own number because he has earned that right. And the results speak for themselves, as Tony is having a fantastic offensive season and the team scores at a significantly higher rate with him on the court. Working that quick pick-and-pop game as much as possible also made a lot of sense in the past, as Timmy had gotten ridiculously good at it. When everything is working, the Spurs starters have enough offensive firepower to battle anyone in the league. The problem is that when something is not working - like Tim's shot now or Tony's shot at the beginning of the season - the offense sputters. But it doesn't have to.
I mentioned before the Celtics game that creating looks for Duncan on pick-and-rolls could help him get going offensively and that's entirely doable. The Spurs' motion offense needs one big to be a trailer and another to be a post. Who occupies which spot is interchangeable and dependent on what variation the team is looking for. There are multiple options that can turn into a side pick-and-roll and the Spurs could simply maximize the amount of times Tim occupies the position that will turn into the screener as the set segues into a P&R without significantly altering their offense.
There is also the possibility to have Duncan on the court with Manu Ginobili a little more or run the offense through those two even if Parker is on the court. Manu is still a pick-and-roll savant that looks for the dive man almost to a fault. The two actually had a pick-and-roll opportunity against the Celtics out of a time out and it ended in a trip to the line for Duncan. With a few more pick-and-rolls, plus those high-low opportunities and a couple of deep post ups created within the flow of the offense, Duncan should get enough inside looks to balance out the outside shots that he should absolutely continue to take.
Duncan has simply been too good a mid-range shooter over the last five years to simply forget how to hit those shots. I'm no expert, but I don't see any obvious mechanical flaw in his shooting motion. There's the possibility that his legs are tired, which would actually be concerning, as the season has just started. Or it could all be in his head. Regardless of the reason, this is Timothy Theodore Duncan we are talking about. He will get past it. If his shooting form is off, he will spend the time in the gym to fix it. If his legs are giving up on him, Pop will simply cut his minutes. And if it's a psychological thing, he has six months to work through it before the post-season. He needs to be patient and just keep shooting, and we need to be patient and know that the misses will eventually turn into buckets.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats
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