Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Improved perimeter play has sparked the Spurs' solid D

Spurs guard Tony Parker checking Golden State wingman Harrison Barnes.
If you don't know, now you know: the Spurs sit 2nd in the league's Defensive Rating rankings. San Antonio trails only it's Saturday opponents -- the Indiana Pacers -- for it's ball-stopping prowess.

With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter manning the paint, it's almost expected that the team should boast a defensive unit good enough for a top ten standing. The notion that a Duncan-Splitter combo will strangle the interior slashes of the opponent is not a new one. In sixty games of sharing the floor in 2012-13, the pair (when measured as a two-man lineup) restricted opposing FG% to 41.4%, and generated a handsome Defensive Rating of 92.7. An unquestionably elite performance. Given the tall timber's penchant for roaming in the restricted area, then, what is required to propel the team as a whole to the next echelon of defensive dominance?

It starts with a collective commitment from the rest of the roster. A little tinkering to the rotation and a couple of new faces don't hurt, either. Last season, San Antonio were proud owners of a number of key defensive indicators that the majority of NBA teams would kill to achieve. Whether it was keeping Opp. FG% to 42.9% in their 58 wins, placing third in the Association for defensive rebound percentage at 74.9% (behind only Golden State and Houston), or fourth for opposition True Shooting %'s at a paltry 51.6% (courtesy of HoopData.com). Recently, "Pounding The Rock" paid homage to the Spurs' propensity to defy and withstand the hallmarks of opposing offenses, and detailed the growing reputation of Danny Green as a "3-and-D" wingman. But what about Tony Parker -- far from being regarded as a defensive menace -- and the removal of 22 minutes of Gary Neal from the nightly lineup?*

Sure, offseason manoeuvring and substituting the likes of Marco Belinelli and Jeff Ayres in to replace Neal and DeJuan Blair may seem minor and inconsequential to the casual onlooker. Not quite. It is actually difficult to adequately describe just how much of a defensive albatross Gary Neal was for San Antonio, in 2013 especially. Neal was one of the team's chief defensive liabilities, mustering an individual Defensive Rating of 101.4 over his 68 regular season appearances. Spurs fans will remember Neal's rise from obscurity and his role as a streaky shooter (with a clutch performance or two along the way). Don't let that distract you from his identity as the definition of a one-way player, though. Look, Belinelli himself is not exactly a brick wall on the defensive end. Nonetheless, it's worth looking at how the team has fared when the Italian gunslinger has been plugged in alongside rotation bigs. For example, through seventeen games together, the Splitter-Belinelli tandem has earned a Defensive Rating of 81.5. We're crippled by the reality of a small sample size here, but this mark is currently the Spurs' best of any combo that has logged greater than 100 minutes together on the season. It's a figure that's overwhelmingly weighted by the stature of Splitter and is certain to balloon back out toward a more reflective and sustainable number. Belinelli, however, has (thus far) given honest, near league-average D and has avoided the sieve-like play that proved costly for the team with Neal on the floor.

Stepping away from the team's bench help for a second, if we know that three of the Spurs' five starters can more than hold their own when called upon on D, where do Parker and Danny Green stand as a backcourt playing heavy minutes? According to basketball-reference.com, Tony Parker managed 2.3 Defensive Win Shares (defined as "an estimated number of wins contributed by a player due to his defense") in 2012-13, roughly middle of the pack on the San Antonio roster. So far this season, the Parker-Green unit has been a stingy one, helping to hold the opposition to 40.4% on field goal attempts, while Tony Parker ranks 11th in the league for individual defensive efficiency (of players who have played a minimum of 10 games, and average at least 20 minutes per outing). Even if a lot of these glittery numbers snap back to reality -- in one way or another -- the progress of Parker on the other side of the ball deserves recognition. It's the one component of his game that has always been the critic's choice: accountability and consistency on D. As much as anything, this is a Point Guard-driven league, and Tony has amassed these numbers having already battled Ty Lawson, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving, to name a few. Meanwhile Green, who is frustratingly prone to the occasional defensive lapse or gamble, still comes in at fourth in the NBA's individual defensive rankings.

Key factors help to comprise these measures: the quality of opponents, the makeup of the Spurs' units on the floor, injuries, personnel etc. Yet, we're nearly a quarter of the way through the 82-game grind. There is enough available evidence to support the incremental improvement of Parker's defensive efforts. He has boosted his own Defensive Rating from 97.6 this past year to 92.2 through seventeen early-season bouts. Expect Parker's individual stats to gravitate and regress closer towards those of last season, but if he can continue his recent output on the perimeter, he -- and San Antonio as a team -- will be richly rewarded for his sustained advances.

* Neal also registered an average of nearly nineteen minutes per contest in the postseason for the Spurs in 2012-13.

Statistics used are from NBA.com/stats, unless otherwise specified.

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