Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's the Personnel, Pop

Jeff McDonald has turned in a should-read article replete with quotes from Coach Popovich about the Spurs lackluster defense. This is typical Popovich banter, always pre-packaged and ready for arrival in mid-January. But somehow, this season, Pop's analysis strikes me as more than a motivational ploy.

We've recently written that the Spurs are not as good as their record. Popovich seems to agree: “The only thing that's saving us is that everybody else is beating everybody else up, so our record looks basically as good as anybody else's,” Popovich said. “It's fool's gold, as far as I'm concerned.”

According to McDonald, the first game stat Pop looks at is field goal percentage defense. Basketbawful wrote about this area of concern a couple weeks back, saying:
This kind of shocked me, but the Spurs are only 21st in the league in field goal percentage defense (45.7), which is barely better than the Heat (45.8) and Warriors (also 45.8). The fact that they're one of the best teams in PPG allowed but one of the worst teams in FGP allowed tells you pretty much all you need to know about the pace of their games.
It's hard to argue with the evidence, especially if you've watched any games of late. The 76ers might the toughest match up in the league for San Antonio. Their athletic 3s and 4s recently obliterated the Spurs defense, and notably Bruce Bowen. Young and Iguodala cruised to 27 and 21 points, respectively. Meanwhile, the laterally-challenged Bowen and Finley registered plus/minuses of -13 and -26. Philly scored at will.

The painful truth is that the Spurs have hard-to-overcome personnel issues--not insurmountable, but terribly problematic. The Spurs will struggle to defend athletic wings. Bowen's decline causes one to wonder how effectively the Spurs will successfully limit the offense of playoff go to scorers, such as Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. In their recent game against the Lakers, Pop only gave Bowen 6 minutes of playing time (although, truth be told, I suspect Bowen was given the short hook because of offensive, not defensive, limitations). As I noted after the game:
The Spurs played last night's game with basically one swing player: Michael Finley. Ime Udoka didn't make it off the bench and Bruce Bowen logged a mere 6 minutes. The Spurs used a trio of Hill, Mason, Ginobili at one point. In the '08 Western Conference Finals, Kobe Bryant averaged 29.2 points on 53% shooting. Nothing had changed last night. It looks as if Popovich has decided that Bowen can't slow Bryant, so he might as well put his team in a better position to trade baskets.
Coincidentally, might this offer a partial account for Pop's frequent forays into small ball?

When the Spurs play Kurt Thomas and Tim Duncan together, they have a front court whose foot speed is closer to slow and plodding than quick and nimble. This creates difficulties against 4s and 5s that can score by facing the basket and putting the ball on the floor. This is obviously qualified by the fact that Thomas and Duncan are on most short-lists of good defensive big men. It's no surprise then that they are an effective tandem against certain, if not most, line ups. This criticism is only relative to quick, athletic frontcourters. Thomas and Duncan can't stick with the long speedsters. Pop doesn't have a body on his bench to play alongside Duncan that is particularly suited to defend athletic, turn and face bigs. Austin Croshere is not the solution to this problem, no matter how much he potentially helps elsewhere.

Another issue along the frontline, one that certainly contributes to an opponent's field goal percentage, is the Spurs' lack of a second shot blocker. Kurt Thomas, again, is a good defender, but he's not exactly the Sultan of Swat. Duncan hasn't played alongside a great shot-altering center since David Robinson, with Rasho Nesterovic checking in as the closest qualifier. The Spurs defense, as most readers of this site know, attempts to force perimeter players baseline and funnel them into the clutches of its shot blockers. Although it's not an absolute necessity, the Spurs D is better outfitted with twin towers who can spike the set of opposing penetration.

This brings us back to McDonald's sobering piece:

“We suck on ‘D,'” Popovich said, with the “D” standing for defense.

That was the entire text of Popovich's State of the Team address, as succinct as it was devastating. All follow-up questions fishing for a silver lining were quickly rebuffed.

Do you mean all game long, or just in fourth quarters?

“No, pretty much throughout,” Popovich said. “Both individually and team-wise, we suck. We're pretty consistent that way.”

Surely there is a way to fix this problem, some sliver of hope on the horizon?

“I don't know if I have an answer to that,” Popovich said. “If I did, we wouldn't suck quite so bad.”

The Spurs can always seek to address their personnel issues through trades or free agent acquisitions, except that they are extremely short-handed on assets and teams are not looking to give away the sort of player(s) the Spurs need in return. Even if the Spurs were able to land a player who has the physical wherewithal to stand in the gap, there is no certainty he could learn the system quickly enough to boost the Spurs back into the realm of the elite. These defensive issues pose the most critical challenge to the 2008/9 championship run. Color me anxious.