Friday, January 16, 2009

The Small Ball Spurs

Times have changed. If pressed, Tim Duncan will now admit to being the San Antonio Spurs starting center. Gregg Popovich's team is shape-shifting, with few observers taking notice. Tim Duncan as center is part of a broader, albeit subtle, change. The Spurs frequently moonlight as a small ball team.

Gregg Popovich has always been willing to mix in small ball line ups if the action on the floor called for it. But this season, his willingness to play small has morphed into a underlying commitment; small ball is part of a larger strategy, which I'll turn to in a moment.

The superficial evidence of the Spurs playing small is easy enough to spot. Michael Finley, who is really a shooting guard, plays small forward. When Ime Udoka plays, he's often used as a small ball 4. The Spurs most effective 5-man units this season are small ballish. Parker, Mason, Finley, Bonner, and Duncan are the most frequent combination, boasting a win% of 68.7. Hill, Mason, Finley, Bonner, and Duncan have a gaudy win% of 80. Both of these line ups feature 4 out and 1 in---in other words, 4 perimeter players and a big. The Spurs' trot out 4 guard floor combinations like Parker, Mason, Ginobili, Finley and Duncan most games for at least a short spurt. Michael Finley does not strike me as a small ball 4, but that hasn't stopped Pop.

Jeff McDonald recently reported these words in relation to the Warriors-Spurs early December contest:

Ninety minutes before his team ran headfirst into a silver and black buzz saw Saturday night, Golden State coach Don Nelson stood on the AT&T Court and accused his good friend and former assistant Gregg Popovich of thievery.

Nelson had just finished watching film of Popovich's Spurs team, running offensive schemes that looked more than vaguely familiar.

“A lot of it he stole from me,” Nelson said with a wink...

...Apprised of the Xs and Os robbery charges Nelson had levied against him pregame, Popovich pled no contest.

“I would imagine he's probably right,” Popovich said. “It's all either his play, or a variation.”

Using Nelson's own medicine against him, the Spurs (11-8) set a season scoring high for a regulation game, surpassed only by a 129-125 double-overtime victory at Minnesota.

Even when the Spurs play 4 out, 1 in with Duncan, there is no guarantee he'll function on the low block. As I wrote a couple weeks back, Tim Duncan is more of a jump shooter this season than ever before. The evidence is indisputable. The amount of time he spends stroking his mid-range game will decline some in the playoffs, where he's sure to spend lots of time on the low block. Nevertheless, Duncan is something of a face and shoot 5 this season.

The Spurs also seem committed to having at least two perimeter bigs on their roster. In past seasons, this meant Horry and Bonner. This year, for a time at least, it meant Bonner and Tolliver. Now rumors suggest that a player like Austin Croshere could be brought in to replace Anthony Tolliver. In other words, more shooting.

The other small ball indicator is the Spurs love affair with the 3 pointer. They rank 5th in 3 point attempts and they shoot the league's best percentage.

Some of this is circumstantial, but I'm convinced Popovich committed himself to more small ball over the offseason. If you recall, the Spurs drafted Hill, signed Mason, and flirted with free agents Jannero Pargo and Salim Stoudamire. 3 out of 4 of those players are 3 point aces, and they're all perimeter players.

Am I suggesting the Spurs are the new Golden State Warriors. Not at all. But it's obvious that one of Pop's strategies this season is to open up the offense and score a little more. As you might expect, team scoring and pace are slightly higher than last season. As mentioned above, the team brought in multiple scoring options for their bench. Put differently, Hill replaced Vaughn, Mason replaced Barry, Finley replaced Bowen, and Bonner replaced Oberto/Horry. In every case, the Spurs get more scoring.

The Spurs will always be a half-court team. When it matters the offense will run through Duncan. They play inside, out. All of that remains true. My point is simply to say that Popovich has committed to a distinct small ball wrinkle in this year's offense. And as Graydon lucidly described in yesterday's Notebook, there is a telos to all this. But what?

I'll call our readers back to a post I wrote earlier this season, The Rise of the Red Rocket. Quoting myself quoting Kurt from Forum Blue and Gold quoting Jones on the NBA (got that?):
The Kings are a bad match up for the Lakers because their centers play a perimeter game that draws Bynum and Gasol out to the three point line and opens up the lane for drives and causes the Lakers defense to break down leading to easy lay ups or open three pointers. Same thing happened against the Pacers and their perimeter oriented bigs and Detroit and Rasheed’s three point shooting from the center position. Teams with quick penetrating guards and perimeter oriented bigs will continue to be a problem for the Lakers as Farmar and Fisher will never be ball stopping guards, so if Bynum and/or Pau are out on the perimeter those guards are going to have a field day and just chop up the Lakers on defense. Against teams like the Pacers and Kings the Lakers are usually able to make up for this match up issue by outscoring them. But when the Lakers shots aren’t falling, you’re going to have issues like this.
And quoting myself, once again:
The Spurs are quick to respect all their opponents, but I suspect that their respect for the current Lakers squad runs a little higher. A great indicator of this respect might be found in the presence of not one but two perimeter centers on tap. It sounds pompous, but in San Antonio everything is geared toward May and June.
Why more small ball? Yes, I think it has everything to do with the Lakers. That, and Popovich is keeping a bower back until the games start to count. Right now, he's priming the engine of his 3 and 4 guards machine. The low post machine is resting in the garage.

Update: Minutes after posting this, the good bots at Google Alerts informed me that Austin Croshere has signed a 10 Day contract with San Antonio....

4 comments:

Pelusa Lehein said...

Can you say prophetic? If I wasn't impressed before, I certainly am now that you called Croshere's signing. Yep, you deserve a fat "I called it!"

Just a great article. I've noticed the slow mutation of the Spurs, but you have a knack for putting my impressions into words and theories that make sense. Truly outstanding work, Tim.

I should've linked to you today...

Latin_D

Timothy Varner said...

Latin_D,

Thanks, but Graydon's piece was poetic. You made the right choice. Besides, from what I can tell, Spurs Report and Spurs Talk boaders have speculated about Croshere since he was waived. But the timing was nice.

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