“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.”
-James M. Barrie
Grayed and grounded by winter and the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs continued their stumble through December, securing their first losing month since 1999.
In the past month the Spurs’ performances have drawn evaluations of “pitiful” and “entitled” from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who also qualified his statements by praising his players’ effort under the circumstances. The Spurs’ system, praised for its adaptability and resourcefulness, still isn’t meant to hold up under the extended absences of Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard—the two players most responsible for finding and preventing easy shots.
Mike Conley continued the recent trend of quality point guards torching the Spurs, scoring 30 points on 10-13 shooting. Tim Duncan and Danny Green have been the Spurs most indispensable available players this month, but they haven’t been able to plug every leak that springs in the defense. The Spurs have increasingly used zone defenses to compensate, with some success against the Grizzlies’ second units, but the combination of Conley and Marc Gasol (17 points, nine rebounds, five assists) solved it quickly enough once they reentered the ball game.
The damage, as has been the case recently, occurred early. That starting lineup simply doesn’t have enough pop offensively, and the Spurs quickly dug deficits at the outset of each half. The combination of Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Green, Tiago Splitter, and Duncan combined to shoot 6-20 with four turnovers and just 16 points in 12 minutes. That type of production over an entire quarter simply isn’t feasible against most teams—even if, theoretically, it puts four of the team’s best five available defensive players on the court.
And it’s not like there are any readily available solutions. The Duncan-Splitter alignment remains the core of what the Spurs want to be defensively, and in 13 minutes against the Grizzlies they posted a stout 88.9 DefRtg, but they played 12 of those minutes alongside the Joseph-Green backcourt, compounding a lack of shot creation with the lack of spacing when the two share the court.
An argument can be made to insert Ginobili into the starting lineup for Belinelli, removing that unit’s lone defensive liability and injecting a heavy dose of shot creation and playmaking ability. But that leaves a rusty Patty Mills to carry the second unit and exposes Ginobili to minutes the team doesn’t want him to carry into April and May, especially considering that they’re already counting on Duncan for 34.5 minutes (!) this month. And it’s not as if those minutes have been the easy variety, operating at a slower pace (93.57) with higher usage (24.8).
The Spurs get credit for being deep, but that depth features limited role players, and it’s all tied together by their stars’ well rounded skill sets creating a system that allows Popovich to use creative and adaptable lineups. Their best defensive lineups thrive because Parker carries the half court sets while Leonard creates unscripted opportunities with his athleticism and activity. The bench lineups thrive because they can stagger front court minutes around Ginobili thanks to Boris Diaw’s versatility, providing enough defense to make its firepower count.
But Diaw has been notably absent, playing only 10 minutes and piling up four turnovers last night, and it’s fair to start wondering what might be ailing him. Without him the frontcourt rotation has been a wreck, even if Matt Bonner has stepped up as a solid rotation player.
If there’s any solace, it’s that the Spurs’ decline hasn’t been due to a massive collapse of any individual player’s game (well, perhaps Diaw), but the absence of two players that operate as cornerstones. Without them, even Popovich has had problems balancing lineups that don’t harm the Spurs’ offense or defense, even if individual players are doing well.
Cory Joseph has been solid, scoring 18 points against the Grizzlies on 9-13 shooting. But his success remains largely disconnected from the overall health of the offense in ways that don’t apply to Parker or even Mills. Mills has predictably struggled with his rhythm after months away from the basketball court, but the team’s pace ramps up under his direction, providing just enough oxygen to act as a catalyst.
This December schedule would be brutal even under ideal circumstances for a Spurs team that doesn’t tend to ramp up until after the All Star break. But they’ve survived it, assuming Parker and Leonard can return to the lineup in January. If there’s any bit of optimism to take away from December, it’s that it’ll be over soon.
(All stats provided by NBA.com)