The Spurs completely overhauled their big man rotation in the offseason. It's obvious they have upgraded from a talent standpoint but whether the newcomers fit is another issue. After a somewhat controversial article by Jesus Gomez suggesting David West's skill set was not what the Spurs needed, we decided to ask our own Michael Erler for his opinion as well as bring in 48 Minutes of Hell's Matthew Tynan to offer his view on the subject.
This is part 1 of the discussion. Enjoy.
While I thought Jesus raised some salient points on the topic of David West, I'm not on board with the idea he'll be a bad fit. I mean, we know what he is. He's never been a big-time rebounder (though I think it's important to note his rebounding percentages jumped when Roy Hibbert left the floor last year, which means he dealt well with more responsibility on the glass), and he doesn't block shots, but the Spurs have never really had that type of player manning the middle for the second unit anyway. That group will have to continue to rebound by committee and stay disciplined in its defensive schemes.
On the flip side, I think the reserves are going to be lethal offensively. The fact West doesn't range out to the 3-point line doesn't bother me, as the Spurs' system allows for plenty of success in that 18-foot range. I also think it's going to do wonders for Boris Diaw, who will now have more freedom operate closer to the basket. He's so good at utilizing the junk in his trunk to exploit those mismatches in the post against lesser physical specimens, and now he's not going to have a non-shooting big man occupying space down there next to him.
As far as the proven commodities go, the Spurs' big-man rotation looks really good on paper — on offense, in particular. We know what each individual of that foursome (Timmy, LMA, Boris and West) is capable of doing, and they all have skill-sets that should mesh quite well. They're all serviceable-to-great shooters; they all pass well; they all possess high IQs; and they're all average defenders or, in Duncan's case, much better.
The only missing ingredient, on the surface at least, is the dirty-work guy, an element that's been crucial to the success of Spurs title teams of the past. Nazr, Rasho, Tiago — hell, even late-career Big Dave — there was always a big man to take the pressure off Tim, especially on the defensive end. Splitter has been that guy in recent years as Duncan has maintained his leaner frame to take pressure off those knees, so it's going to be interesting to watch how that role is filled. But Aldridge is probably a better defender than most give him credit for, particularly in post-up situations. That's where the Spurs will need him most in the wake of Tiago's departure.
Interestingly enough, of all players with at least 80 defensive post-up possessions last season, Splitter allowed the second fewest points per possession (.62) in the league, per Synergy data. Right behind him, allowing just .67 points per possession on post-ups: LaMarcus Aldridge.
The wild card here is Boban Marjanović. We just don't know much about his ability to play in the NBA, outside of the fact he's roughly 12 feet tall and could probably pick me up with one hand by palming my cranium like a basketball. And I have a large head. If he just turns out to be a gigantic body who can make life difficult for opponents around the rim and in the paint, then great. That would be a major plus for San Antonio.
I'm ambivalent about West.
He's only going to make the veteran minimum, after all, so for that salary it's practically impossible for him to not provide value. Ultimately I feel how much he contributes will have less to do with him than on how Pop uses him. While Matthew raised a number of strong points about the offensive potential of a Diaw-West pairing, that combination doesn't excite me in the least on the other end of the floor. Somebody has to rebound and somebody has to protect the basket. Also, when you factor in that the second unit will likely include Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Kyle Anderson, that looks like a really undersized, sluggish and unathletic second unit to me.
The alternative, as I've suggested, will be to stagger Tim Duncan's and LaMarcus Aldridge's minutes so one of them is always at center in any competitive situation, leaving West, Diaw or Kawhi Leonard in small-ball lineups to fill the four spot. As a whole I like the Spurs bigs quite a lot --how can you not?-- but there's no question that some of their skills are overlapping, such as both Duncan and Aldridge preferring the left side of the floor for example. If West gets 15 minutes a night, I'd prefer as many of those minutes to come with Duncan as possible and feel that Aldridge would be a better natural fit with Diaw.
Regardless of how Pop jiggers the rotation, West should be a worthwhile addition, even in the decline phase of his career, if for no other reason than you can count on him to try, which we cannot say with any degree of confidence about Diaw until February or March. I expect him to be our third-best big until the All-Star break, and then maybe lose some minutes to Diaw thereafter and especially in the playoffs.
Those are two nuanced, smart replies that made me reconsider my stance as I was reading them. But they don't really answer my very simple (perhaps simplistic?) concern: the Spurs have no back up center, unless Marjanovic surprises, and that's a problem.
Positions are more fluid than ever but there are things that separate power forwards from centers. Two stats paint a good picture of the different roles: how prolific players are as rim protectors and how many of their rebounds are contested. There tends to be a dramatic difference in those numbers between the two positions.
Aldridge, Diaw and West contested very few shots per minute compared to traditional centers. I'm cautiously optimistic LMA could improve on that area because he has the physical tools, but he has not been good at it in the past. The eye test clearly shows that Diaw is obviously not someone who can anchor a defense. History says West has never been asked to. And unlike Aldridge, he doesn't seem to have the physical tools to do it.
As for rebounding, both Aldridge and West feasted on uncontested boards. Only 33 percent of Aldridge's rebounds were contested and only 30 of West's -- a minuscule amount that ranks near the bottom among rotation big men. Diaw was, surprisingly, a little bit better with 35 percent of his boards being contested. Most centers hover over and around 40 percent, with the true rebounding beasts getting close to 50 percent. One of those guys' role is going to change dramatically, as they are going to have to bang with bigger players and go for the rebound. I think the same thing that happens with rim protection applies here: Diaw can't do it, Aldridge doesn't want to/has not done it and West might not be able to even if he wants to.
Matthew mentions the Spurs have never had that rebounding and rim protecting big but that's not entirely accurate, at least by this definition. Both Splitter and Baynes checked the marks that seem to determine who is a real center and who isn't. So even if, like Michael suggests, Pop staggers the minutes to avoid the Diaw-West pair (which he might not do. Remember the Blair-Bonner pairing?), it's possible that the Diaw-Aldridge and West-Aldridge pairings require some adjustment as well. The fit is far from seamless.
My question for both of you: When was the last time a Spurs bench unit was known for its defensive presence, and why is that the focus or concern here? I understand this team is now pretty stacked and nitpicking is kind of necessary because of that, but the Spurs have mixed and matched with undersized front-court backups for years now, and have done so successfully. Cory Joseph was as solid a rebounder and defender as there is in this league at the point guard position, but Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli were the other backcourt components in play here, alongside Diaw and a sort of streaming rotation of centers. The reserves did put up some stellar defensive-efficiency numbers last season (which was an absolute necessity considering the relative offensive struggles), but I'm not sure that had as much to do with the personnel as it did the scheme in general.
Nobody's going to single out any individual from the bench group as a stalwart defensively, especially now that Cory is in Toronto. It's always been a group thing, and despite the fact he's more of a traditional power forward than anything else, the acquisition of West on a minimum deal — and I agree with Erler here, in that he's almost guaranteed to wildly outperform his contract — is absolutely an upgrade from an intelligence standpoint. Baynes has made major improvements in his still-young NBA career (I still can't believe the contract he just got), but filling the void he left with West is something I'd take 100 times out of 100 chances.
I'm also curious as to what you're talking about here, Jesus: Including Splitter in the convo of second-unit center isn't totally applicable, considering he was the clear-cut starter when healthy. Furthermore, Baynes was hardly a shot-blocker or rim-protector, and he was only a slightly better rebounder than West (who spent most of his time next to Hibbert) as the center and primary big man of that bench group. In fact, West's defensive-rebounding numbers without Hibbert on the floor last season were better than Baynes' stats by a tiny margin. I'm not trying to assert the Spurs have a natural center to replace Splitter on this roster, at least as far as we know, nor am I saying it's going to be easy to find someone to fill that role. There are legitimate questions as to whether Aldridge and West can adequately function as the de facto center at times, which they will be asked to do. We saw what Robin Lopez did for LMA, and Jesus documented all the big men West has teamed up with during his career, so the adaptation to new roles will be a point of interest for sure.
But I keep coming back to this: It's been a while since the Spurs have had a shot-swatting, glass-gobbling big man anchoring the bench group, and yet they've managed to prevent a drop-off in terms of defensive rebounding. With the additions that have been made, I don't believe they'll be demonstrably worse in this capacity, if they're worse at all. For all the understandable concern over Kyle Anderson's athleticism, he does project to be a good rebounder at his position; and while we know next to nothing about Jonathon Simmons the NBA player, the one skill I'd bet money will translate is his athletic, ball-hawking defensive ability.
My biggest concern lies within that starting front-court, particularly between Aldridge's ears. He's expressed his disinterest in playing the five in the past, so can he get past that? If he can buy in, and understand that Duncan is going to make life quite easy for him if he does, the Spurs' big-man rotation is going to be ridiculous. They will miss Tiago's defense and Baynes' willingness to mix things up and make things ugly for the Dwight Howards and Boogies of the world, but if — and it's definitely an "if" — there's full commitment from the newcomers, I believe their impact will more than make up for those losses.
And that reminds me… What were y’all’s reactions to the recent Aldridge interview with USA Today?
Continued in Part 2.