No less an authority than Gregg Popovich claimed that the Spurs are playing better than they have at any point all season, though he was quick to caution that they're still not at championship level according to his discerning eye and I'm inclined to agree. Yes, traditionally the Spurs find themselves in March and start looking like the Death Star (they're 41-7 in March since 2012, according to Jeff McDonald of the Express-News) but a couple of tweets from Trey Kirby of "The Starters" ought to slow your big picture roll...
Spurs have the third-best record in the league since Jan. 1 at 19-9. Also 6-7 against .500 teams and 1-4 against West playoff teams.— Taco Trey Kerby (@treykerby) March 9, 2015
Both Popovich and Manu Ginobili have raised concerns in recent games that the team's ball movement hasn't been as consistent as in the past and just going by the eye test it sure does appear that Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, who are both on hot streaks at the moment, are turning into black holes. So far it isn't hurting the team, though the signs are troubling, not just because of the skewed shot distribution for the two, but also where they're shooting from.
Parker's resurgence and Leonard's emergence, along with Tiago Splitter returning to the starting lineup, has allowed the nominal Spurs starting five to return to the dominant force they've been the past couple of seasons, spacing issues be damned. They have a 13.6 net rating (109.8 offensive, 96.2 defensive) over 123 minutes on the season, according to NBA.com's stats database, which is the best net rating of any Spurs lineup that's played over 40 minutes together and is line with what they've done together the last couple of years (14.6 net in 262 minutes in 2014, 18.1 net in 364 minutes in 2013).
The problem is that as well as the starters have been running lately, they're still not as efficient offensively as they can be. The Spurs have never been as extremist as Daryl Morey's Rockets, but generally they've patterned their offense the past few years on a macro level to what Ginobili has always done individually, shooting mostly layups or threes and eschewing the inefficient mid-range shot as much as possible. While Tim Duncan has mostly junked his jumper, Parker and Leonard have done the opposite.
Only 25.5 percent of Leonard's field goal attempts have come from three, and while that may seem like a good thing considering that he's shooting by far a career-low 31.2 percent from downtown, we have to realize that despite all the highlights of him picking off the ball from some hapless ball-handler and slamming it down at the other end, that only 21.3 percent of his attempts have come at the rim, also a career-low by a huge margin. Basically, those uncontested coast-to-coast jams represent the only inside buckets Leonard gets nowadays. 35.8 percent of his shots, according to basketball-reference.com, come from 10-22 feet. Leonard's shooting 43.2 percent from 10-16 feet and 42.7 percent from 16-22 feet and while both percentages are respectable, it's just not the best way to run offense.
For Parker meanwhile, only 25.3 percent of his attempts have been at the rim, a career-low despite his increasing forays the past few games. 30.5 percent of his attempts have been long twos, the most since 2009-10 and he's shooting below 40 percent from both 10-16 feet and 16-22 feet. For a fellow shooting 47.8 percent from three, one would think he'd shoot more from behind the line.
Perhaps Leonard and Parker are feeling constricted by the lack of spacing that the Duncan-Splitter (or Duncan-Aron Baynes) pairing affords them and that may well be true. Regardless, some small-sample success in their mid-range shooting is fool's gold. Both have to find a way to get to the rim more and to turn some of their long twos into threes or the percentages will catch up with them sooner rather than later.
The issues the starters are having pale in comparison to the bench, however. When we think of the bench we tend to think first and foremost of Ginobili, who averaged just 10.3 points in January and then 8.7 points in February, despite shooting the best percentage of his season in that month, 45.9 percent. He's shot well so far in March as well, but the bench overall has struggled, and lately the team has been reminiscent of the 2013 Spurs.
Believe it or not, the top five most common lineups featuring Ginobili have struggled for the Spurs this season, with net ratings somewhere between +1.8 and -31.3. However, a common denominator of all of those lineups has also been Boris Diaw. In fact, Diaw has played alongside Ginobili in the seven most common Manu lineups and eight of the top nine, according to NBAWowy.com. The Spurs "money" lineup of Duncan-Diaw-Leonard-Ginobili-Parker have killed people the past two seasons, including the playoffs, but they've been a -12.1 net in this season, the third-most common Spurs lineup. Diaw has played with Ginobili in 789 of Manu's 1313 minutes so far this season (60 percent), the most of any teammate. Their net rating together is 5.0, according to NBA.com, while Ginobili's overall net rating is 8.0. A bit of fifth-grade math and we find that Ginobili's net in 524 non-Diaw minutes is a very solid 12.5. In fact, it would lead the league if you discount the ridiculous Warriors.
Diaw is killing the bench's spacing. He's shooting just 31.8 percent from three and nobody is covering him out there. A career-low 28.2 percent of his attempts are coming at the rim and he's converting only 58.4 of those after hitting 76.2 and 68.6 of his layups the past two seasons. He's so rotund and ground-bound these days that people are swatting his shot more than ever, no matter how many pump-fakes and spin moves he employs trying to navigate his way through defenders. He's also become decidedly less effective as a playmaker. He's not drawing double-teams in the post anymore or operating out of the high post. After averaging at least 2.8 assists every month from February of 2014 on, including the playoffs, Diaw averaged just 1.9 assists in February (and has four in three games so far in March). He hasn't been any good in his own end, either.
Reserves Diaw, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Matt Bonner all shot above 40 percent on threes last season and are all below that in 2014-15, as are Leonard and Danny Green, who frequently play in bench-heavy lineups. Cory Joseph is shooting about the same percentage from downtown as Mills and much better inside of three, which makes you wonder why Mills has taken his rotation spot. Ginobili is still creating shots for the others, but not nearly as much as coming out of it as it did last year, when the bench routinely turned close games into blowouts for the Spurs.
Pop has had a shorter leash with Diaw of late and has replaced him Bonner at times or just chosen to go small. The Spurs top-three Duncan-anchored small-ball lineups have all been fantastic, but they've totaled just 54 minutes. They all had Leonard as the stretch four as well. In fact, according to NBAWowy, Duncan is 17.7 net in 115 small-ball minutes. Baynes has also fared incredibly well as the only big in 29 minutes. It hasn't worked nearly as well for Splitter in 27 minutes.
With the league going smaller and smaller, I'd expect Pop to take press his small lineups' advantage, especially if Diaw continues to disappoint. If you're going to go down, you might as well go down with your five best guys, and more and more the evidence mounts that Green is a better bet than Diaw.