Last season, Tony Parker wasn't at his best. By most compound metrics the Spurs' star point guard was actually an average player. His points, assists and true shooting percentage suffered a substantial dip compared to the two prior seasons and his defense was a serious problem all year long. That's not the type of performance the Spurs were expecting when they handed Parker a contract extension for three years last summer.
All signs point to Parker declining. He's 32, he has a lot of miles on those legs and he's not the fastest guy on the floor most nights anymore. He's also struggled with injuries recently more than in the past. He was having a very good year, averaging almost 17 points on above 50 percent shooting, until a hamstring strain sidelined him in December. He never regained his consistency after that. Even his excellent March was a mirage, as he couldn't sustain that level in the series against the Clippers.
Defense was never Parker's calling card, which makes the lack of scoring so damming. So the question now is whether Parker can ever be the driving offensive force on a championship team again. The answer is not clear-cut either way, at least from how he played last season.
What we associate with decline on the offensive end for players like Tony is an inability to get to the rim or finish once they are there. In that area Parker remains among the best in the league. In what was decidedly a down year he still was one of the most prolific players when it came to total drives and field goal percentage on drives. On a per minute basis he scored at the same rate as Russell Westbrook. The few times he attacked in isolations yielded good results as well, per Synergy Sports. He's not as good as he once was but Parker is still a good option when he makes a move towards the rim.
It's three other areas in which Parker has struggled: mid-range jumpers, free throw attempts and transition scoring.
It's no secret that Parker needs the mid-range shot to fall to punish defenders that go under screens or help defenders that dare him to pull up. It makes his driving game deadlier, as it forces opponents to play him closer, making it easier for him to blow by them. That's even more important now that his quickness has dwindled and teams zone up more, leaving a big man near the rim as much as possible. Unfortunately, his accuracy from those spots has decreased. After shooting an excellent 48 percent in 2012/13, Parker shot 45 percent on 2013/14 and just 41 percent on 2014/15.
Since big men didn't have to leave the paint to contest his shot, Parker didn't force the issue by going all the way to the rim against a set defender as much as he has in the past and as a result his free throw attempts per minute decreased significantly. He was also one of the worst players in the league in transition, ranking in the 18th percentile, and was assisted on just 22 percent of his close shots. There were no easy points for Parker inside and with his pull-up not falling from mid-range, the only area in which he truly excelled on offense was corner shooting.
While the numbers look more like an outlier caused by injuries than the natural decline of an aging point guard, Parker's days as a number one option are likely over. The only way he could come close to resembling his 2013 self would be if his mid-range jumper were to return and the Spurs maximized the spacing by going with a stretch four. Only then he would have enough room to make up for the step he has lost. The truth is right now, he looks better served picking his spots instead of being relied on nightly.
The good news is the Spurs might be ready for him to make that transition.
Even if he never plays like in 2012/13 again, Parker is far from a burden. He's getting paid a very reasonable $13.5 million next season. Tony doesn't need to be a top five point guard in the league to earn his keep. He just needs to stay healthy, run the offense and be as close to a neutral defender as he can be. If Kawhi Leonard truly blossoms into a dominant offensive player or San Antonio can attract another scorer, Parker could thrive on a smaller role, as he did when the offense ran through Duncan and Ginobili.
His development as a corner shooter will allow him to play off the ball and still be effective and his November numbers show that when he's healthy, he can still be a difference-maker. The challenge will be to get him to the playoffs in one piece and for that to happen he will need to find the balance between setting the table and going into attack mode. Parker's had the green light for most of his career, so it might not be easy to dial back his aggression, at least at first. If he accomplishes that, however, he will not only live up to his contract but likely extend his career as well.
Next season will be very telling as it pertains to Parker's ability to continue to play at a high level. There are only three possible results: 1) Parker could return to the elite, 2) he could settle into a secondary role or 3) he could show last season was not an outlier but his current state. Two of those results would allow the Spurs to likely remain among the elite, provided Duncan doesn't retire. If the third scenario comes true, anything short of a leap to superstardom by Leonard would severely limit their chances of being a true contender without a roster overhaul.
The Spurs don't need Tony to go back to his All-NBA form but they do need him to rediscover his touch from outside and show a mature floor game next year. If he doesn't, the tail end of his contract could look ugly. Fortunately the way his skill set has developed over the years should make a transition into a slightly smaller but equally important role relatively simple. Parker's days as a first offensive option might be over but that doesn't mean he can't remain one of San Antonio's key players.