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When Manu Ginobili went down earlier this season, it seemed like the beginning of the end for the San Antonio Spurs. Already entrenched in a battle against father time and a compressed schedule, the last thing the Spurs needed was for their best player, who was playing some of the best basketball of his career. Surely, without Ginobili, the Spurs would be lucky to float around the seventh or eighth seed and they’d have to hope Manu would be back in time in order to get back in shape for the playoffs.
But that wasn’t the case. It never is with the Spurs. When someone goes down, someone else steps right in and fills the spot. It hasn’t necessarily been just one player for the Spurs, but every night it seems like a new guy is stepping out of his comfort zone to deliver a necessary and unlikely breakout performance.
You’ll this happen a few times every year, most times with young players. They get an opportunity and they have their one shining moment. But rarely does it happen every night. For San Antonio, this has become a common occurrence. Whether it’s Gregg Popovich’s coaching or just Spurs management continuing to sign lowkey free agents that can play, or a combination of both, the Spurs always trotting out unheard of players that contribute.
It may be early, but this season, everything come together so perfectly for the Spurs. Well other than the fact that Manu Ginobili got hurt. But without Manu, it has allowed for the Spurs to churn out playmaker after playmaker night after night. It’s almost as if the Spurs have a perfectly assembled roster with the exact balance between star power and contributions from role players. According to Basketball Reference, Tony Parker has a usage percentage of 25.8% this season. Before he went down, Ginobili’s usage percentage was 25.2%. Not far behind those two guards is Tim Duncan, who has used 24.9% of the Spurs’ possessions when he is on the floor.
With Manu, Parker and Duncan all healthy, they eat up 75.9% of San Antonio’s possessions when they are on the floor. That’s about as balanced as you are going to get from a set of stars. But with Ginobili out, that left a hole wide open for a quarter of offensive possessions to be used up. As efficient as Ginobili was during the first five games of the season – he had a ridiculous 35.19 PER – it is nearly impossible to replace him, but the Spurs have managed to weather the storm, winning five of the seven games they’ve played so far without Ginobili.
Hit the jump for the rest of Mark’s piece on the Spurs…
Richard Jefferson has been the most consistent player to step up for the Spurs this season. You wouldn’t know it based on the number of pleas from Spurs fans to amnesty Jefferson while they had the chance this off-season, but the 10-year veteran actually shot 44% from beyond the arc last season, good enough for 5th in the league, while playing in 81 games. The problem was that Jefferson, like most of his teammates didn’t show up in the playoffs, knocking down only 35% of his three’s, which led to the Grizzlies knocking the number one seeded Spurs out of the playoffs in round one.
The combination of the sour taste in their mouths from their playoff loss, the fact that Jefferson has three years and $30 million left on his current deal with the Spurs and the impending arrival of rookie Kawhi Leonard, who was already a comparable if not better defensive player, led for most to call for Jefferson’s head. At one point, it seemed like Jefferson had been cut as Yahoo Sports! infallible Adrian Wojnarowski reported they were going to amnesty Jefferson but on opening day, Jefferson was still in black and white.
Jefferson is either motivated by nearly getting tossed out of a pretty good situation or spent a ton of time working on his shot this summer, because the guy is shooting the lights out this season. If a season most expected to start a bit sloppy because of the long layoff and lack of a standard training camp, Jefferson, much like the rest of the Spurs, has looked as fluid as ever. Six of his nine shot attempts per game are coming from beyond the arc and that’s exactly what the Spurs want from him, especially when he’s making a surreal 56% of those looks. Remarkably, Jefferson ranks third in the entire league in points per possession on offense (behind only Ray Allen and Ryan Anderson) for players that use at least 10% of their team’s possessions and trails only Kyle Korver in points per possession in spot-up opportunities.
Those numbers are out of this world. Even though Jefferson will fall back down to earth with his shot at some point, if “earth” is the same mark he shot last season (44%), then the Spurs will continue to have one of the better offenses in the league.
Outside of Jefferson’s outstanding play, Daniel Green has been the most impressive role player for the Spurs so far this season. Green was a castaway from the Cleveland Cavaliers last season when the Spurs picked him up. He only played eight games in total last year, mostly in garbage time, and he spent most of his time in street clothes or in the D-League.
But Green’s not one to shy away from an opportunity. Because Pop has been switching up his looks on a nightly basis, Green has had some pedestrian games in which he didn’t play much but he had his breakout game when the Denver Nuggets came to town. In a back-and-forth battle with a tough Nuggets team, Green looked just like Ginobili. Okay, maybe he wasn’t dribbling with his left hand and eurostepping from end-to-end, but he was torching the nets, contributing in all areas and was the driving force behind their surprise 121-117 victory. Green had 24 points, seven rebounds, two assists (two turnovers), two steals and two blocks in that game while shooting nine-of-13 from the floor (three-of-three from three).
That was Green’s first 30 minute game of his NBA career and he looked comfortable at all moments. Green wasn’t given 30 minutes of burn again until last night against the Trail Blazers, another very tough Western opponent, and Green delivered again. He had 13 points, a pair of three’s, six rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a steal versus Portland as the Spurs notched yet another improbable victory.
Green sets a perfect example for those with limitations on their game. He’s aware of his role and aware of his duties: hit open shots, defend and finish your transition opportunities. So long as Green does that, the Spurs won’t lose anything when he’s on the floor. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Green has finished 83 possessions in 12 games this season and 49 of them have either been spot-up shots or transition buckets. Green never has anything called for him. His job is to move around the floor, create space for Duncan and Parker to play their respective one-on-one games, and once the ball starts swinging, square up and knock it down. And while he’s not a terrific defender because of a lack of elite athleticism and fundamentals, he’s opportunistic and heady for a third year player that’s rarely gotten burn.
The former North Carolina Tar Heel has identified his NBA talent as shooting and he’s taking an average of two three’s a game this season, though that’s a bit skewed by the games he gets into for just a few minutes. Point is: He’s taking the shots he’s supposed to take and he’s making them at a 48% clip. His shooting efficiency paired with his pretty good assist and rebound rates have Green sitting pretty with a 22.39 PER 12 games into the year. You can’t ask for more out of Danny Green.
Unlike Green, rookie Kawhi Leonard came into this season with some expectations on his shoulders from Spurs fans and he has looked like a great player for the Spurs so far this season. There are still holes in Leonard’s offensive game as he is one of the few Spurs who can’t spot up from three-point range, but his contributions inside of 15 feet have been impressive. His best offensive game came against the Milwaukee Bucks when he made nine of his 12 shots from the field on his way to 19 points. Leonard didn’t make a three but he had four baskets at the rim one inside of nine feet, two inside of 10-15 feet and two 16-23 foot jumpers. Leonard has looked great as a cutter, as it usually frees him up from 12 feet on in and it allows him to get some easy buckets, which is good for someone still trying to find their way on that end of the floor.
Leonard has only been in the NBA for about a month now but his reputation as a defensive stopper has already been tested. He’s had his moments but against a trio of isolation players like Kevin Martin, Stephen Jackson and Kevin Durant, Leonard showed that he still has some work to do before he is an elite stopper. That said, the youngster never lacks energy on that end of the floor, and, sadly, just being active on defense is something worth noting about Leonard.
As an observer, it’s become a bit of a tradition to see someone like Danny Green come in and flourish for the Spurs. Last year it was Gary Neal, who came out of nowhere and shot 42% from three as a 26-year old rookie. There’s just something about the situation that makes me say “This kind of stuff only happens in San Antonio.” It’s a combination of a few things: 1) the player is on the Spurs, who are famous for being one of the most well run organizations in sports, 2) Pop has put his faith in them, which is one of the ultimate blessings in basketball, 3) the San Antonio crowd feeds off of the unheralded players swishing a three just as much if not more so than a three by Ginobili or a dunk by Duncan and 4) Sean Elliot and Bill Land, a broadcasting duo known for being extremely biased, start gushing to no end.
The Spurs are likely to be without Ginobili for another six weeks or so and though they’ve done well without him to this point, this is a different team away from home and they have that nine game rodeo roadtrip coming up next month. That’s a tough stretch to deal with without one of your star players, no matter how well the role players are playing. Eventually, Richard Jefferson’s three-point percentage will come down, as will Danny Green’s PER, and the Spurs will be forced to rely a bit more heavily on Parker and Duncan than they have during this initial stretch without Ginobili. And as Gregg Popovich has noted, while San Antonio’s offensive efficiency may rank second in the NBA behind only the Thunder, their defense is the sixth worst in the NBA. The Spurs have been winning because of their offense but once some of those open shots stop falling, they will have to depend on a horrid defense.
But I’m here to tell you not to write this ballclub off. After they hit a rough patch and lose four out of six, plenty of folks will look to bury the Spurs, but it’d be unwise of them to do so. The Spurs are not a team that will simply go away. It’s not something Duncan, Parker or Manu will do. It’s not something Pop will do. It’s not something management will do. Heck, it’s not something Danny Green or Richard Jefferson or Kawhi Leonard will do, because they’ve been around that team just long enough to get it. Even when completely healthy, this team may get bounced from the playoffs. They may get outplayed by a superior team. But don’t mistake that for one second as this team fading away. I’ve thought that many times before only to be proven wrong by a 24-point outing from Danny Green or a three-point barrage from Matt Bonner that gets that San Antonio crowd all fired up.
So enjoy the San Antonio Spurs this season. This is an odd group of players – the best power forward of all-time on his last leg, still automatic with his jumper, one of the quickest point guards in the league who used to be the national star that Lamar Odom is but has faded from the spotlight since his divorce, a red-headed three-point specialist whose physical abilities remind nobody of rocket-like characteristics, a small forward who was supposed to be amnestied but wasn’t, a bunch of guys who couldn’t find a locker elsewhere, much less a role, and eventually a European shooting guard who can look like the best player in the league when he’s on – with an extraordinary coach that is still churning out wins even with a mediocre cast of characters. And though I said this team will never fade away, the fact is that they will, and if you consider yourself a basketball fan it’d be tough to explain missing out on a such a rich, fun, magical, and unlikely basketball experience.
And of course, the team that brings all those things together is the San Antonio Spurs. Isn’t it always?