After three years with the Spurs, Gary Neal left to join the Milwaukee Bucks, and his departure leaves a void to fill. In the Finals against the Heat, the Spurs were hurting for better ball-handlers and the loss of the combo guard certainly didn't help matters. But San Antonio signed Marco Belinelli in hopes that he can be more productive and efficient than Neal.
Gary Neal filled a big role for the Spurs over the past three years. He could handle the ball, create his own shot and shoot for a high percentage when doing so. But in his final year in San Antonio, Neal lost his touch from beyond the arc and his downturn in shooting production combined with his average playmaking and subpar defense made him the go-to scapegoat for Spurs fans (including yours truly) when things went wrong. His inconsistent performance was not nearly as big a problem as some made it out to be, but it was bad enough to make PATFO find a replacement.
And as far as replacements go, Marco Belinelli fits the bill. He's very similar to Neal in terms of ball handling and shot creation, not to mention how frustrating to watch they can be at times. Belinelli isn't as pure of a scorer as Neal is, but he is a better playmaker, which is what the Spurs need when Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are on the bench together.
To compare and contrast Neal and Belinelli, I've created a couple of clips of each with the ball in his hands, running the pick-and-roll. We'll begin by looking at how Gary Neal navigates defenses to call his own number, and then see him setting up others.
Gary looks to shoot first
As you can see in the video, when he's on, Neal is hard to guard. The first play is part of his Game 3 outburst in the Finals and an example of how good he can be. He gets the ball in transition, a situation in which he's known to jack up threes. As he gets to the top of the arc, he sees Mike Miller laying off of him and cutting off the lane. As he uses Tiago Splitter's screen, Miller makes the mistake of going under the pick, and Neal drains it.
The second clip is similar to the first. Neal's in transition, coming down the right side, and has a set of staggered screens waiting for him. He takes the first one and probes the driving lane ever-so-slightly before he sees LeBron sitting there patiently. So he moves on to the second screen, sees the defense laying off of him again and makes them pay. The third is nothing more than a quick brush pick in transition where he pulls the trigger probably a bit too soon. Anyway, he gets a clean look but the shot doesn't go down.
Then it's a couple of plays looking at his distribution. As you can see in both clips, he looks for his shot first. Neal is a scorer, and as such, he is thorough in exhausting every scoring option before he passes. He fires up a series of shot fakes, dribbles around, then takes the pick on both occasions. He also hesitates a bit to let the defense fall into place, which creates a passing window to get the ball to the roller/popper. On both plays Neal does this well, but you can see he is not a natural play-maker when he commits the cardinal sin of jumping to pass. In these clips it works out OK, but it's little things like this that irked people about his playing style and his role as back-up PG.
Marco the playmaker
Now, let's take a gander at what Belinelli is able to do with the pick-and-roll, which he ran a lot of as a member of the Bulls with Derrick Rose out last year.
What jumped out to me is how smooth of a passer he is. In the first play he and Nazr Mohammed begin a pick and roll, but when Nazr sees both defenders playing Marco, he slips the screen and drops down to the baseline. Belinelli makes a pass that an ever-decreasing number of NBA guards can make consistently, and Mohammed cans an open mid-range jumper. Finding Nazr like he does here is the same kind of entry pass that is repeatedly necessary when playing with Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner.
In the second play, Belinelli is running the angle pick-and-roll in the same fashion that San Antonio's shooting guards do, especially Manu Ginobili. He ends up getting a driving lane moving through the paint to his left, and when the defense collapses, he kicks out to a shooter for an open corner three. To be successful in San Antonio's system, a guard must be able to penetrate, find the open man, and hit him with an accurate pass. This is something at which Belinelli excels. In fact, I'd say he does this much better than Neal ever did.
As a scorer, Belinelli is similar to Neal in that they aren't too picky about the shots they take. Their true shooting percentages for last year were nearly identical, with Belinelli at .513 and Neal at .512, so they score at roughly the same efficiency. Off the pick-and-roll, Belinelli is more likely to drive the lane than Neal is and, because of that, he gets to the line more. As you can see in the last play of Belinelli's video, he takes some pull-up shots off the dribble, quite like Neal. That wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that he doesn't hit as high a percentage of these as Neal does. Belinelli thrives off of driving the ball off the pick-and-roll, but his penchant for bad jumpers is something he should definitely curtail in the upcoming season.
Marco Belinelli is a role player, just like Gary Neal was, and his main job is to come in and generate offense. They play at similar levels -- although I'd give a slight nod to Marco because of the passing ability -- and both do a decent job as ball handlers in pick-and-roll sets. And both are very comfortable taking shots with the game on the line. Expect Belinelli to have his glorious moments as well as some plays that will make fans want to rip their hair out. His arrival in San Antonio will not significantly help or hurt San Antonio's chances, but he'll certainly keep the team from missing Gary Neal too much. And when you're talking about a team that was one sequence away from being NBA champions, that's not a bad thing at all.