You may not remember, but in at least one respect the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons ended in similar fashions for the Spurs. Both times "The Big Three," were on the bench at the very end, but for wildly different reasons. In the former, it was because the NBA Championship had been well decided. There was happy hugging. So much happy hugging. Last year, the circumstances were markedly different. Even though Game 7 at the Clippers was just a one-possession game, the three future Hall-of-Famers were on the bench for the final play, with Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Matt Bonner on the floor in their place.
I bring this up because there's a scenario out there on the horizon where it's conceivable that such a thing could happen again, where two or perhaps all three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili sit down the stretch of an elimination game, for match-up reasons.
I'm referring to the impregnable Golden State Warriors and their "Death-Ball" lineup of Draymond Green-Harrison Barnes-Andre Iguodala-Klay Thompson-Stephen Curry. It's beyond a small-ball lineup. They use Green, who's about 6'6, as a center. Steve Kerr was cautious while experimenting with the lineup during the regular season, using it in just 37 games and for 102 minutes overall, with a 21.8 net rating. It was more of a weapon in the playoffs, where he used it in 16 of 21 games and 111 minutes overall, with a 15.7 net rating, against obviously much tougher competition.
With Kerr sidelined by complications of off-season back surgery, interim coach Luke Walton has been far more liberal in employing Death-Ball, especially to close out tight games. He's already used it in 12 games for 56 minutes and they've produced an obscene 70.8 net rating, 160.9 offensive and 90.0 defensive.
Or, to put it another way, they've outscored the opposition 200 to 119 in 56 minutes, shooting 64.6 percent from the floor and 66 percent from downtown.
What makes the lineup so effective is its versatility. All five guys can shoot threes, three of them can drive to the bucket, three of them can create for others, there are two elite defenders in there and at least a couple of other above-average ones, and they're all athletic and committed enough in their system to rotate and switch and scramble like crazy on defense. They hardly ever help Green in the post, but if they have to double, they mostly get away with it because there's usually one guy on the other team they're comfortable leaving open.
The conventional wisdom is to attack that lineup with size, but it hasn't worked for a few reasons. For one, Green is one of the league's best post defenders and most teams don't have one good post scorer let alone multiple ones. For two, post scoring isn't all that efficient, no matter how good your inside guys are. And finally, such tactics put teams in a significant disadvantage on the other end, where the bigs can't hang with Barnes or Iguodala outside.
Most teams have given up trying to go big against that lineup. They try to match the Warriors small-for-small, and that goes even worse for the simple fact that the Warriors have better smalls. Regardless of size, the difference between the best teams and the rest usually comes down to the simple fact of who has the most two-way players: guys who excel on both ends of the floor. The Warriors have 7-8 players like that, depending on how charitable you feel like being about Shaun Livingston. Nobody else can match that, but the Spurs can come closer than just about anyone.
One of the main reasons I was so excited about signing LaMarcus Aldridge (aside from the fact that it will enable them to be competitive even after Duncan and Ginobili retire) was the potential for Aldridge and Duncan to form a "twin towers" combo that would punish the Warriors if they dared to go small. In retrospect, that was both wrongheaded and naive on my part. Unless you count Boris Diaw as a second big, there is just no historical evidence of Gregg Popovich staying big against elite small-ball lineups. His counter has been Duncan and four smalls, or Duncan-Diaw and three smalls, or to remove Duncan altogether.
I'm skeptical in the extreme that playing Aldridge and Duncan together would work against the Warriors' Death-Ball lineup, but even more skeptical that Pop would use it in the first place. My guess is he'll pick one guy or the other.
I'm of the opinion that Duncan should be the one playing in that spot, with Aldridge on the bench.
Let's look at the evidence at hand. Duncan is basically better than Aldridge at everything but shooting mid-range jumpers, and that's the least valuable skill to have, especially in a 1-4 alignment. Tim is the better roller to the rim, per NBA.com's Player Tracking database. He's the better individual defender, in terms of field goal percentage allowed in 1-on-1 situations. He pulls down a higher percentage of contested rebounds. Duncan's a far better team defender than Aldridge, a much better passer, he's shooting over 54.5 percent from the field compared to Aldridge's 42.9 and his advanced metrics blow Aldridge's away. (h/t to Chris Itz for pointing out those stats.)
What advantage does Aldridge have over Duncan? He doesn't seem to be significantly more laterally mobile on defense, and is just as hesitant to defend out to the three-point line, as we saw at New Orleans and at Washington. The biggest issue, as I see it, is that Aldridge has been loathe to play in small-ball lineups over his career and doesn't have much experience at it. If you look at Portland's lineups last season, just about every combination with Aldridge in it was alongside a center, usually Robin Lopez or Chris Kaman. He played 57 minutes all year long with Thomas Robinson, who's not good enough of a shooter to qualify as a true "stretch four" and a bit more often with Meyers Leonard, who can shoot but is 7'1.
Perhaps Terry Stotts could've gotten some mileage out of a lineup with Aldridge-Nicolas Batum-Wes-Matthews-Damian Lillard and then another small like C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe or even a Mo Williams from two seasons ago, but it didn't happen.
By now we know how important continuity has been to the Spurs success and it's a weapon that Kerr's Warriors now wield. Most of their rotation has been together for a few seasons and Iguodala has been there since 2013-14. The best way for the Spurs to combat it would be with their own continuity, even if it means leaving their expensive newcomer on the bench.
My gut would be to go with a lineup of Duncan-Leonard-Green-Ginobili-Parker, but I'm open-minded about combinations involving Diaw and Patty Mills. I don't like the idea of Diaw with four smalls for defensive and rebounding reasons, but subbing him in Parker's spot would give the Spurs four shooters, a crafty post scorer and no defensive liabilities on the perimeter. Mills in Parker's spot would allow for the best shooting.
Ultimately I prefer Parker because he remains the team's best penetrator. I think too many teams make the mistake of falling for the trap of going at Green when attacking the Death-ball lineup instead of continuing to attack Curry, their worst defender. He's the guy you have to go against, whether it's one-on-one or off the pick-and-roll, and you force them to help from outside rather than inside, which will mess up their rotations.
To beat the Warriors' killer lineup you need to match it like for like. The means as many drivers, shooters, creators and defenders as possible. You need people who can do everything and who are used to playing with one another. The Spurs have those guys. They've had them for years.