The Spurs at the quarter pole: Part 2
Tuesday's Part 1, was a look at how the Spurs main players are doing. In today's Part 2, I'm focusing on some big picture stuff for the team and what it means going forward. (This was written before Tuesday's Spurs vs Jazz game.)
1. A good problem to have
Some coaches have a philosophy that guys don't lose their jobs because of injury. Others, like 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, for example, do not share that view. It makes the situation with Aron Baynes and Cory Joseph intriguing. Both are playing well enough that a legitimate argument can be made that they shouldn't be benched when Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills return to the fold.
Of the two, the bigger longshot to keep his job would be Baynes. While his offense has been just as efficient and prolific as Splitter's, if not more so, he's not the defender that Tiago is. He's strong and athletic, but he can't move as well laterally and is too foul prone. Also, Splitter's salary probably figures into the equation too, though it shouldn't.
Baynes will still get to play on some SEGABABAs and in blowouts, but he's probably headed for a sharp decline in playing time sooner rather than later. Of course, given Splitter's fragility and the chronic problems he's got with his calves, there's a decent chance Baynes will be called upon again at some point.
Joseph has a more interesting case. He's clearly a superior defender to Mills and Pop obviously values that. He also was the backup once upon a time before Mills usurped him last season. It's true that the team signed Mills to a lucrative new contract this past summer, but Joseph is younger and is superior to the Australian in almost every aspect, not just defensively. He gets to the rim better, creates for others better, rebounds far better. He's as good of a mid-range shooter as Mills, if not better.
Pop will likely play all three of his point guards and maybe the odd man out will be Belinelli. Maybe Ginobili will be rested more, and it's doubtful he'll go the whole season without straining or pulling something or other. Still, if we're talking about a straight "Who's better: Mills or Joseph?" debate, I'm not convinced that Mills is the answer.
2. Spurs offense is regressing to the unfair.
Now that Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have figured out how to play with Aron Baynes, and he with them, the Spurs offense has started to look more like itself over the past ten games or so. They scored a season-high 123 Saturday against Minnesota (without Ginobili and Parker, ironically enough) and have dinged the scoreboard for at least 99 points in seven of their past eight games.
After being ranked in the 20's for the first 15 games or so, the Spurs are now tenth in the league with a 105.3 offensive rating, compared to sixth last year. They're ninth in field goal percentage at 46.2, and fifth in three-point percentage at 37.6. Last season they finished second (48.6) and first (39.7) in those areas, respectively. All the ball movement stats, as far as assists, turnovers, secondary assists, passes, touches and so on are comparable to last season. The one real drop-off so far has been bench points, from a league-leading 45.1 last season to seventh in the league this year, at 37.9 points per game. The difference is understandable when you consider the absences of Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli.
The one area where the Spurs have offset some of their shooting problems is at the free throw line. They were dead last in the league last year at getting to the line, with 20.0 attempts, but are up to 22nd this season with 21.8 freebie tries per game. Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili in particular have all gotten to the stripe more.
Defensively, they're still performing well despite Splitter's absence. They rank third, with a 97.2 defensive rating and second in points allowed per game, at 94.0. As far as the shooting goes, they're fifth in opponent field goal percentage (43.3) and seventh in opponent three point percentage (33.1). As always, they've been stingy with the fouls, allowing only 21.1 free throw attempts per game.
Where Splitter's absence has shown is in how opponents are attacking them. The Spurs have slid from 11th last season to 16th this year in attempts in the paint and from third to 20th in forcing opponents to settle for mid-range shots. Thanks to Paul Garcia at ProjectSpurs.com for compiling the numbers.
Certainly there is potential for the Spurs to finish in the top five in both categories, but I expect the offense to keep improving and the defense to slide a little. They're just going to play too many high-powered Western foes and it'll eventually catch up with them. But he trends have been strong, as they should be during this soft stretch of the schedule.
3. Spurs are still ahead of schedule.
At 15-5 the team is on a 61 win pace, and considering that the seventh-seeded Mavs are currently on pace for 60 wins, the Spurs will need every "W" they can get. San Antonio is a game ahead of my projections because they have four good road wins, at the Clippers, Warriors, Cavs and most recently the Grizzlies, compared to just three bad losses, at Sacramento, home against New Orleans and at Brooklyn.
For the next block of ten games, the two I've got pegged as losses are at Portland and at Dallas. Anything above 8-2 will be terrific and anything below that knocks them down a game.
4. The Red Mamba is back in the rotation.
Thankfully, once Matt Bonner returned from a bout with a nasty stomach virus, Pop quickly returned him to the rotation in place of chucking sensation Austin Daye. Bonner isn't just getting steady minutes, he's already started eight games this season, tied for the second-most of his career, behind the 67 he started for the Spurs in 2008-09. Rocket's shooting a healthy 45.7 percent from the field, 42.6 percent from the three and has already scored almost half as many points (98) as he did all of last season. Best of all, Bonner's brought the floater back! 23.5 percent of his attempts are in that 3-10 foot range, and he's hit 52.6 percent of them.
Bonner did the job defensively against Zach Randolph the other night and had him so unnerved on the other end defensively that Z-Bo couldn't even focus on his game. If he can keep taking shots aggressively and not get manhandled on the glass, I'm all for him as a fourth big. Mainly I like that he's not Austin Daye.
5. Anderson needs to look for apartments in Austin.
Finally, I think it's time to send Kyle Anderson to the D-League full time. He's hardly playing at all with the Spurs and hasn't been even decent in the scant minutes he's received. He's made one more shot so far (3) than Splitter (2), in 25 more attempts. His release was slow as it is, and now it's become positively glacial because he's so hesitant to shoot and you can tell he's thinking about it. He doesn't have a feel yet for where his spots on the floor are or what defenders will and won't give him. Defensively he's even worse. He loses track of man and ball constantly, allows people to drive by him like he's nailed to the ground and gets overpowered in the post.
The Spurs have no room right now to coddle a rookie. They're a team of veterans and their sole focus is winning another title and sending out Duncan and Ginobili on a winning note. Anderson's development should be further down Pop's list of priorities than where he's going for dinner. Both Anderson and the team would be better off if he was sent to Austin for a good spell so their coaching staff can put in the time with him that the Spurs coaches can't afford to. It would also allow him to regain some confidence and to work on his conditioning, which isn't improving in San Antonio with him sitting on a bench all night. I wonder what, if anything, the Spurs are waiting for.