The blowout win over the Warriors was a pleasant surprise to begin the year, a nice little sucker punch to Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and the rest of their basket of deplorables, and they pulled out some coin-flip games against the Kings and Heat as well. Tuesday night's game against Utah was a setback, sure, as Utah's coaching staff seemed to figure out the Spurs one tiny weakness to exploit -- that being of course "literally everyone but this guy."
Still, a 4-1 start isn't too shabby, right? After a hectic, compacted opening week to the schedule, the fellas will finally get to kick back for a couple days, assess where they are and maybe hold a practice. Should your humble narrator use the occasion to celebrate the numerous positives or to ruin your afternoon with some concern trolling?
Yup, afraid so.
The good news is that pretty soon here Danny Green will return to the starting lineup. The Spurs have mostly been using a 10-man rotation in his absence, and it stands to reason that they will continue to do so when he returns. So the obvious question is who do we vote off the island, Jonathon Simmons or Kyle Anderson.
Well, for those of you expecting this to be a missive against Slo-Mo, surprise, surprise, he is spared from my wrath for today. I think he's fine as a ninth or tenth man. He still turns down shots like an Instragram model getting unsolicited prom invites from dweeby teens, but I've come to grudgingly embrace his positives. His length bothers people. He moves the ball. He rebounds.
No, the correct answer, I fear, is Tony Parker.
Just hear me out before you assemble with the torches and pitchforks. Indulge me in an intellectual exercise for a second. If you could take away his long, impressive list of accomplishments and his rather exorbitant salary and Tony Parker was instead Tony Smith: 34-year-old journeyman point guard, what incentives would there be for him to play? What points are in his favor? What does he bring to the table that the 10 other gentlemen do not?
He doesn't have size. He doesn't defend well. He doesn't shoot three-pointers in volume as is the current norm for his position. He no longer gets to the rim or the free-throw line very much. His tear-drop is mostly a fond memory. Admittedly, five games is a small sample size in the extreme, but it's alarming that you have to go to the second page to find The Wee Frenchman among the PER leaders for point guards. Currently it stands at 5.22, which ranks 58th for his position. It's a worse figure than you'd typically get from a D-League call-up and about half of what we should reasonably expect from Nicolas Laprovittola or Dejounte Murray. Of course, we need to point out that Jeff Teague ranks 59th at the moment, and I thought he'd be a huge upgrade for the Pacers over George Hill, so what do I know?
Beyond his poor individual stats, lineups featuring Parker have not fared well, as you likely guessed. The Spurs have been outscored by 11.3 points per-100-possessions according to NBA.com's stats index, and that's the worst of any rotation player on the team. Conversely, they've outscored teams by 28.1 points per-100-possessions with him sitting. There's a legitimate argument to be made that so far he's been among the worst regulars in the league.
The main reason I don't believe that Parker has a place in the rotation, much less the starting lineup, is the strengths and weaknesses of the players around him. Kawhi Leonard is the type of ball-dominant wing the Spurs have had to compete against for years, from Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to James Harden. What all those superduperstars have in common is that their point guards have been point guards in name and size only. In reality they were shooting guards in point guard bodies. Whether we're going back in the time to John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong and Steve Kerr for Jordan, Derek Fisher for Bryant, Mo Williams, Mario Chalmers, Matthew Dellavedova and Kyrie Irving for James and Patrick Beverley for Harden, none of those point guards, save maybe "Delly," has been much of a distributor, and only Irving can create his own shot. These players fit well with the stars because they were good three-point shooters and didn't need the ball.
That doesn't sound much like Parker, does it? But it sounds like Patty Mills, who was in the starting lineup against the Pelicans when Parker was being rested and managed just fine. The lineup of Gasol-Aldridge-Leonard-Anderson-Parker have a -31.0 net rating in 28 minutes, while the same four starters with Mills had a 49.9 net in 15 minutes. Again, the caveat of extremely tiny sample sizes applies.
It's clear that the Spurs miss Green. They're so desperate for three-point shooting in the starting lineup that they have Gasol and Aldridge letting it fly. Perhaps those concerns will be alleviated by Verde's return, but my hunch is that the starting lineup would be maximized with Mills, thus giving Leonard two inside and two outside options, whereas Parker mucks up the spacing and leads to guys shooting 18-footers.
The tricky part here is not just demoting Parker from the starting lineup but removing him from the rotation entirely. Perhaps he'd be able to penetrate easier against backup units, but it would still mean one of the young wings losing their spots, unless you want to go small-ball with the reserves with Anderson as a stretch-four, and honestly that's an idea I can get behind because I haven't exactly been sold on the David Lee renaissance. I just know that I like Jonathon Simmons' athleticism and play-making and that I see the value in Anderson as a glue guy.
The bottom line is regardless of whether you want to argue that Mills' game has developed to the point where he deserves to start or Parker's has regressed to where he no longer deserves his spot --perhaps it's both-- Mills no longer needs Manu Ginobili at his side to make him a viable rotation player. He can get those same set-ups from Leonard, and if anything his looks should be even better with Leonard and Aldridge drawing so much of the defense's attention.
As for Parker, please don't interpret this as some hit piece. His struggles over the past couple years do not diminish his legacy in my eyes in any shape or form, and I would hope you feel similarly. He's still a surefire Hall-of-Famer, one of the most accomplished point guards in NBA history and his jersey will be hanging from the AT&T Center rafters the minute he decides to call it quits. The important thing to remember is that when Parker was 23 or 25, the pundits and critics were all positive that he'd be finished at 30. Heck, I thought he was going downhill in 2010. Instead, he returned with a vengeance and carried the Spurs on his back for a few years. I thought he was the league's third-best player as recently as 2012-13.
All good things come to an end eventually. Tim Duncan retired, Ginobili's fuel light is glaring brightly and Parker's right there with them. Ginobili hasn't been a starter for years and years now, and we've reached the point where it's time to look at whether Parker should continue to be.