With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter manning the paint, it's almost expected that the team should boast a defensive unit good enough for a top ten standing. The notion that a Duncan-Splitter combo will strangle the interior slashes of the opponent is not a new one. In sixty games of sharing the floor in 2012-13, the pair (when measured as a two-man lineup) restricted opposing FG% to 41.4%, and generated a handsome Defensive Rating of 92.7. An unquestionably elite performance. Given the tall timber's penchant for roaming in the restricted area, then, what is required to propel the team as a whole to the next echelon of defensive dominance?
It starts with a collective commitment from the rest of the roster. A little tinkering to the rotation and a couple of new faces don't hurt, either. Last season, San Antonio were proud owners of a number of key defensive indicators that the majority of NBA teams would kill to achieve. Whether it was keeping Opp. FG% to 42.9% in their 58 wins, placing third in the Association for defensive rebound percentage at 74.9% (behind only Golden State and Houston), or fourth for opposition True Shooting %'s at a paltry 51.6% (courtesy of HoopData.com). Recently, PtR paid homage to the Spurs' propensity to defy and withstand the hallmarks of opposing offenses, and detailed the growing reputation of Danny Green as a "3-and-D" wingman.* But what about Tony Parker -- far from being regarded as a defensive menace -- and the removal of 22 minutes of Gary Neal from the nightly lineup?**
Sure, substituting the likes of Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres in to replace Neal and DeJuan Blair may seem minor to the casual onlooker. Not quite. It is actually difficult to adequately describe just how much of a defensive albatross Gary Neal was for San Antonio, in 2013 especially. Neal was one of the team's chief defensive liabilities, mustering an individual Defensive Rating of 101.4 over his 68 regular season appearances. Spurs fans will remember Neal's rise from obscurity and his role as a streaky shooter (with a clutch performance or two along the way). Don't let that distract you from his identity as the definition of a one-way player, though.
Belinelli himself is not exactly a brick wall on the defensive end. Nonetheless, it's worth looking at how the team has fared when the Italian gunslinger has been plugged in alongside rotation bigs. For example, through eighteen games together, the Splitter-Belinelli tandem has earned a Defensive Rating of 81.1. We're crippled by the reality of a small sample size here, but this mark is currently the Spurs' best of any combo that has logged greater than 100 minutes together on the season. It's a figure that's overwhelmingly weighted by the stature of Splitter and is certain to balloon back out toward a more reflective and sustainable number. Belinelli, however, has (thus far) given honest, near league-average D and has avoided the sieve-like play that proved costly for the team with Neal on the floor.
Stepping away from the team's bench help for a second, if we know that three of the Spurs' five starters can more than hold their own when called upon on D, where do Parker and Danny Green stand as a backcourt playing heavy minutes? According to basketball-reference.com, Tony Parker managed 2.3 Defensive Win Shares (defined as "an estimated number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense") in 2012-13, roughly middle of the pack on the San Antonio roster. So far this season, the Parker-Green unit has been a stingy one, holding the opposition to 41.2% on field goal attempts. And Tony Parker ranks in the top twenty in the league for individual defensive efficiency (of players who have played a minimum of 10 games, and average at least 20 minutes per outing).
Even if a lot of these glittery numbers regress somewhat, the progress of Parker on the other side of the ball deserves recognition. It's the one component of his game that has always been the critic's choice: accountability and consistency on D. As much as anything, this is a Point Guard-driven league, and Tony has earned these numbers having battled Ty Lawson, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving, to name a few. Meanwhile, Green, who is frustratingly prone to the occasional defensive lapse or gamble, still comes in at second in the NBA's individual defensive rankings.
Key factors help to comprise these measures: the quality of opponents, the makeup of the Spurs' units on the floor, injuries, personnel etc. Yet, we're a quarter of the way through the 82-game grind. There is enough available evidence to support the incremental improvement of Parker's defensive efforts. He has boosted his own Defensive Rating from 97.6 this past year to 95.4 through twenty-two early-season bouts. Expect Parker's individual stats to gravitate and regress closer towards those of last season, but if he can continue his recent output on the perimeter, he -- and San Antonio as a team -- will be richly rewarded for his sustained advances.
* These are key discussion points, and if you haven't already, take some time to absorb PSherman's excellent breakdown of Danny Green.
Statistics used are from NBA.com/stats, unless otherwise specified.