Dwyane Wade’s dropoff throughout the 2013 playoffs has been steep and sudden.
Just a month and a half ago he was registering his seventh top-10 regular season PER in the last eight years. Now he’s being outplayed by Lance Stephensons and Danny Greens of the world, and can’t get to the rim or play consistent defense because of a right knee injury that’s sapped his athleticism and explosion, spawning the once-inconceivable notion that Wade would be better suited coming off the bench.
While most of the discussion about Wade has centered on what he can’t or isn’t doing offensively, his struggles on the defensive end of the floor have been just as jarring.
Wade’s decision to play through his grueling injury is admirable in and of itself, and a decline in his defensive effectiveness is understandable and expected. But a significant portion of his defensive miscues have stemmed from lackadaisical effort and questionable technique, not physical aptitude.
His incessant tendency to gamble in the passing lanes has always been offset by his superhuman athleticism, but with his speed and quickness diminished, those same gambles have become either ineffective or nonexistent. Danny Green has killed the Heat, and often Wade, by simply finding the right place to stand.
Though Green certainly deserves big time credit for his stellar performance thus far, there’s a reason why he’s been wide-open on a handful of three-pointers: Dwyane Wade’s defense, or lack thereof. By my count, six of Green’s 16 three-pointers have been a direct result of Wade’s defensive miscues, and the blame for another two of Green’s threes should be split between Wade and a teammate.
The Spurs’ offense has capitalized on the Heat’s defensive chaos, effectively providing the requisite spacing, ball movement and timing to maximize their advantages whenever the Heat trap or over-aggressively rotate. This has often resulted in wide-open or near-open three-point attempts for Green, Gary Neal, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard.
According to NBA.com/Stats, since May 22nd (the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers), the Heat have posted a 98.0 defensive rating with Wade on the bench (net rating of +20.0), and a 107.0 defensive rating with him on the floor (net rating of -4.5).
That shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. Far too many possessions have ended with Wade losing Green in a basic half-court set or off a screen, mistiming a help rotation, lethargically boxing out and/or seeming disengaged altogether.
Here is a video breakdown of Wade’s defensive slippage:
Losing Danny Green
Wade’s defense in the first half of this possession is solid, as he’s in good help position without overcommitting and allowing Tony Parker to skip a cross-court bullet to Green in the right corner. But once the action starts, Wade gets caught either watching the ball or expecting to help on Gary Neal.
By the time Wade realizes where Green is, it’s too late — Parker is already in mid-air kicking out a pass to him — and the result is another wide-open three-pointer. The Heat ball watch as a part of their aggressive defensive scheme, but they’ll need to be more cognizant of the Spurs constant movement going forward.
On this possession, Wade’s failure to track Ginobili is either the result of his pain, or a simple lack of urgency — or both. It’s hard to know the exact cause of his lethargy on similar plays, but it’s a common trend for Wade against the Spurs’ shooters (it’s a gamble that hasn’t worked out in his favor).
This is an aggressive mistake from Wade and a moment when his decreased athleticism really shows. In the past, Wade was able to move on the flight of the ball and give a hard closeout without surrendering a blowby. Hear, Wade offers help on Kawhi Leonard but gets absolutely toasted by Ginobili on the recovery.
Wade does what he can here, though there could be an argument he’s a step late. Obviously this one’s on James — but the dunk is on Wade. Shotblockers, especially ones who are 6’3’’, get dunked on occasionally, but this is a haunting reminder of how far Wade’s ability to wipe up his teammates mistakes has slipped with his injury and age.
One of the most important rules of NBA defense is never leave a strongside shooter under (almost) any circumstances. This by far was Wade’s most egregious defensive error of the series — leaving Danny Green, on the strongside, to hedge at a penetrating Neal, only to have Neal quickly dump the ball to Green for the first of his seven three-pointers.
NBA defense is an ongoing triage of threats. Here, Battier basically has Neal bottled up and Miami would live with him shooting over a taller player off the dribble. Essentially, Wade chooses to address the wrong threat, and the patient/possession dies a gruesome death (from Miami’s perspective, anyways).
Leonard has dominated the offensive glass the entire series, and has actually been surprisingly effective against LeBron. Here, however, Wade is his victim, as he barely makes contact with Leonard, who simply steps around him for an easy putback. This isn’t a one-time occurrence either — Wade (and LeBron) has consistently missed boxed outs on Leonard and Green, and each guy has made the Heat pay on a few occasions.
Through three games, Wade has the same amount of rebounds as Tracy McGrady (4), who’s played 85 minutes less than him. Something’s wrong with this picture.
Wade seems to be letting his decreased offensive role and physical limitations affect the cerebral aspects of play, and his confidence and energy are seemingly vanishing through the course of each game. While most of his mistakes are correctable, they’re also the same type of miscues that plagued him against the Pacers and have become the norm with his body in a weakened condition.
As long as Wade — and the Heat, to a larger extent — continues to play lackluster defense and make egregious mental errors, it may not matter what type of offensive performance LeBron James cobbles together the rest of the series. The result will be another Spurs win, and eventually, a fifth championship banner.
The goal posts moved on Monta Ellis. Since Ellis came into the league in 2005, NBA teams have put more emphasis on efficiency and less on per-game production. In the face of that changing barometer for what makes a player great, Ellis’ game has remained seemingly unchanged. This stubbornness combined with the overall lack of efficiency in his game has led some pundits to write him off completely as nothing more than a chucker. After all, this season Ellis posted the lowest PER of any player who averaged 18.5 points or more.
But there is still hope for an efficient Ellis, and it wouldn’t take a total overhaul of his offensive game to do it.
The criticism perpetually surrounding Ellis always seems to far outweigh the praise, but that clouds over the fact that Ellis has some impressive talents. Over the last four years, the only guards who have gotten to the rim more consistently than Ellis are Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, and Tyreke Evans. Playing alongside point guards Steph Curry and Brandon Jennings, Ellis has averaged at least 5 assists per game for four straight seasons.
Ellis checks a lot of boxes in the plus column for a starting guard in the NBA. His biggest problem, at least on offense, is his poor shooting percentages. Ellis can shoot, so his statistics are more a result of reckless shot selection.
This season he shot a paltry 41.6%. While he shot a respectable 45.8% on 2-point attempts, his overall % was dragged down by his abysmal 28.7% connection rate from three (4.0 attempts per game.) 3-point shooting is the hole Ellis’s game in which he may eventually be buried. While he’s had seasons of success (36% on 4.7 attempts per game in 2010-2011), Ellis is just a 31.8% three point shooter for his career which is nowhere near good enough in today’s NBA.
But what if he stopped taking 3’s? That might be a bridge too far for Monta or any NBA guard for that matter. And the Spurs and Grizzlies series showed us what can happen when a defense can ignore a perimeter player. So what if he stopped taking bad threes? This season Monta shot nearly 34% on catch-and-shoot 3’s according the Synergy. But he shot only 24% on threes off the dribble. EUREKA!
What if he cut out off the dribble 3’s completely? Might he be a more efficient player with a more PER-friendly stat line? Here’s a look at Monta’s stats from last season as they were compared to how they would have been had he eschewed off the dribble 3’s and distributed those possessions proportionally among other usage categories (2-point attempts, fouls drawn, assists, and turnovers.)
Old Monta: 19.2 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.1 TO, 41.6 FG%, 28.7 3-pt% “New” Monta: 18.8 ppg, 6.5 apg, 3.4 TO, 44.4 FG%, 33.7 3-pt%
That’s a solid improvement.
So how likely is it that Monta could actually modify his game in this way?
The choice to cut out threes is actually not unprecedented. Just look Dwyane Wade. In 2010-11, Wade averaged 2.7 attempts from downtown per game. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, he averaged 1.1 and 1.0 respectively. Non-coincidentally, Wade posted the highest FG% of his career (52.1%) this season.
But can/will anyone in the Bucks’ organization motivate Ellis to make this change? That remains to be seen.
What is clear is that the Bucks are ready to commit to Ellis to the tune of $36 million over the next three years. Is he worth that money? Let look at Monta’s production and salary as compared to two similar scoring point guards: Ty Lawson and Deron Williams.
On the upside, Ellis scores more points, grabs more rebounds, and gets more steals than both Williams and Lawson. On the downside, he assists less, turns the ball over more, and shoots a worse percentage from inside and beyond the arc. He’s also a total space cadet on defense (but we’re not solving that here!).
Monta’s market value rests on his lightning first step and ability to create offense for himself and others. But don’t sleep on the fact that Ellis’ game could still evolve. He is only 27 years old, and if you look at what his stats might look like if he cut out low-percentage threes, his contract begins to look far more reasonable. Look at Deron Williams’ stats side-by-side with “New” Monta’s.
Sure Williams would still average more assists than Ellis and shoot the three-ball better, but would any team really rather pay Williams $7+ million more for an extra assist and a few more threes?
This season, Ellis famously compared himself to Dwyane Wade and proclaimed, “Monta Ellis have it all.” But the fact is, Ellis would be a better player if he gave up some of that “all,” and fashioned his game around what he does best.
“I’ve been around that man for 10 years and when the competition is at its fiercest, Dwyane Wade steps up biggest.” — Erik Spoelstra as quoted in The New York Times
Spoelstra’s faith in Dwyane Wade is well-founded. Wade has a way of silencing doubters like he splits a double team and rising to the occasion like he leaps past shotblockers. But as Tom Haberstroh points out today at ESPN, this swoon is atypical, even given Wade’s recent history of playoff swoons:
In his past 10 games, Wade has averaged just 4.4 attempts per game in the restricted area, down from his regular-season rate of 6.6 attempts. Remember when Wade’s knee bothered him throughout last postseason? This is much worse. When Wade’s knee plagued him last playoffs, he was still able to find 6.2 close-range shots per game, converting at a much higher percentage than he has been lately.
When Wade was struggling earlier in the playoffs, it only applied a slight drag to the Heat’s offense. But the Pacer defense is super elite and is turning Wade’s inability to attack the paint into a real liability. The Pacers are almost playing him like the Spurs did Tony Allen, backing way off and playing him for the jump shot. In the past, Wade would just use that space to get a running start and evade the waiting defense, but that’s not happening on an weak knee and against the likes of Paul George. As a result, the Heat are scoring 14 fewer points per 100 possessions when Wade is on the court.
That’s a massive disparity, and though the numbers look a bit worse because Wade faces the Pacers best defenders, it’s worth noting that Mario Chalmers has been able to sneak into the heart of the Pacers defense with more regularity.
If it were just his offense that was suffering, Wade would still be a major upgrade over someone like Ray Allen. But Wade’s defense has also slipped dramatically. The Heat rely on Wade and LeBron James playing “big” around the rim. Ripping down rebounds on the weakside and rotating in to swat shots at the rim. Without Wade providing his disruptive brand of defense, the Heat are not able to mop up mistakes when they over rotate or a small player is caught in a mismatch. Even his on ball defense has been lackluster and sluggish.
Spoelstra’s loyalty to Wade likely means he will play his struggling star for the usual 35-plus minutes, but should he?
Would giving sharpshooters like Allen and Mike Miller more time alongside Chalmers and James — the Heat’s two best drivers in this series — provide better offensive spacing? Or would an aggressive defender who can spot-up from 3 like Norris Cole better complement the Heat’s increasingly James-centric attack?
The Heat’s offense is, in essence, two excellent pick-and-roll operating in the space provided by three shooters. The defense is built around an aggressive, trapping philosophy that is only possible with multiple players capable of making plays at the rim and in the passing lanes. Since James and Bosh came to Miami, Wade has been a foundational part of both the offensive and defensive schemes. But if he fundamentally cannot fulfill his role on either end as well as other players, should he receive his normal allotment of minutes?
It’s impossible to imagine Spoelstra curtailing Wade’s involvement in Game 7 of the Conference Finals; Wade’s clutch reputation is an article of religion within the Heat organization.
But lord knows that at this time of year, a basketball scientist like Spoelstra would rather not have to resort to faith.
Stats: Hibbert is using every bit of his 7-2, 280 pound frame to grab 21 percent of the Pacers’ misses when he’s on the court. Hibbert converted 14 of those for putback layups, tack on six extra points for fouls and and-1s. The Heat (read: LeBron James) managed to strip or block him five times after he got the offensive rebound.
Guarding Hibbert looks absolutely miserable. Again, he’s MASSIVE, even by NBA standards. And now that he’s deadlifting around 600 pounds, he’s also much more difficult to move than he used to be. It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Hibbert’s improved fitness. Last season, the Hibbert gave the Heat problems, but he could only sustain his effort for 32 minutes per game. He would lag getting up and down the court and go stretches without impacting the game. Not so, this year. Watch how many of these offensive rebounds come from sprinting the floor and beating many of his teammates, and the Heat big men, down court.
And because he’s so strong, sometimes he’ll just toss the defender out of the way, like he does with Bosh on rebound 25. Remember, the difference in size between Bosh and Hibbert is roughly the same as that between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Hibbert spends a lot of time near the basket in the Pacers offense and is now so strong that once he has his roots down in the paint, no one can wrench him free. Heat bigs will dutifully try to box him out and find themselves directly under the rim, rather than backing out into the paint.
A handful of these rebounds are just a result of Hibbert being way bigger than everyone around him, but the Heat big men are also guilty of leaving him to contest other Pacers’ shots when they probably don’t need to. Birdman is the worst offender here, but Haslem and Bosh also have an instinct to swarm the ball. This is part of why the Heat gave up so many offensive rebounds all season, but it’s particularly damning against a player like Hibbert who is so laser focused on pushing his way to the ball. The Heat may be able to limit Hibbert a little more if they are more judicious about when they leave him to challenge a driving Pacer.
Coaches should show this video of Hibbert to young bigs as an example of what happens when you follow your shot. When Heat players challenge Hibbert’s shot, they often leap to contest the shot then turn to see where the ball went, but by the time Hibbert has let the ball go, he’s back on the ground and bulldozing his way to the rim, looking for a put-back. For most people, not jumping very high isn’t a good basketball strategy, but it seems to work out pretty well for Hibbert. His single-mindedness is amazing, and the Heat big men have not been able to match it defensively.
The Heat front Hibbert a lot, which can have the effect of stalling out Indiana’s offense, but also puts their bigs in a tough spot when it comes to recovering into excellent rebounding position. Even when they can get back between Hibbert and the rim, they are usually pushed closer to the basket than they would like, or not quite in the right spot.
Editor’s Note: Zak Boisvert returns to HoopSpeak with another excellent playbook compilation. Here he examines the Pacers, who run a very screen-heavy offense in which most of the action is concentrated in the middle of the court. Note the number of plays that rely on big-to-big screening, as well as the power of strong cutting. For these plays to work and for the players to maintain proper spacing in tight confines, the Pacers have to be forceful in their cuts.
This video contains plenty of good examples here of how NBA offenses get the ball into the post and help their big men establish deep position. It essentially answers the question: what does a functioning NBA offense look like when only one or two guys can be trusted to dribble and shoot 3′s?
The nomenclature in this video is Boisvert’s. I’m guessing (but not sure) the Pacers don’t have a play called “Jungle Will Wing Duck POP,” though I have been fooled before. Each play name is a compilation of the involved actions. Where Boisvert sees something for the first time, he credits the team. EG– a dribble handoff is just “DHO,” a new look might be called “Indiana.” For diagrams of the Pacers plays, click here, and for more pro style playbook scouting, check out his Spurs playbook here.
Paul George and Kyrie Irving are two of the most promising young talents in the NBA. George is widely considered the most elite young wing defender, Irving the most elite young scorer. I asked Twitter: who will be better in three years?
The paraphrased answer from those who chose George: he’s the far superior defender (undoubtedly true) and a solid offensive player. Add it up, he’s the better, more complete player than Irving, who plays defense like a bewildered deer who accidentally wandered into a busy intersection.
Defense is half the game, the saying goes, and because we don’t have metrics to measure defensive impact as precisely as we can offensive effectiveness, we rely on offense as the overall measure.
On a macro scale, this is true. A team’s defense is as important as its offense. But on an individual level, we intuitively know that defense and offense are not of equal importance.
For some, like, say, Omer Asik, defense is the paramount responsibility. He uses 11.6% of possessions on offense, but is the last line of resistance in almost every defensive possession. His defensive usage percentage, were there such a thing, would be many times higher.
Now take Russell Westbrook, who was second in the NBA with a usage % of 32.8. When he’s on the court, a whole third of his team’s offensive possessions run through him. It’s overly simplistic to look at it this way, but if he is, say, 20 percent of the Thunder’s defense, then we would say that more than half of his impact on the game will come on offense.
The comparison above typifies what might be a general rule: big defenders are more important than little ones, and those who create with the ball are more important than those who only finish. It’s not that cut and dry, of course, but what’s evident with a little bit of thought is that a player’s individual role and his team’s matchup dictate how important each side of the ball is.
Against Chicago, where he might guard Luol Deng and David West and Hibbert might be neutralized by Chicago’s interior defenders, Paul George’s offense would be just as, if not more important, than his defense. But in these playoffs, he’s checked Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, and thus his individual defense has never been more important (or easy to appreciate).
In these specific matchups, his specific defensive talents make him more vital than he might normally be not just to his team as a whole, but the Pacers’ defense in particular.
When we consider all the nuances and peculiarities that flow through any team matchup, a simple question: “which individual is better?” becomes a fraught one.
Consider George’s current matchup. Defense is his first priority, but when Irving plays the Heat, his management of Miami’s traps and his ability to generate consistent offense is more important than how he covers Mario Chalmers.
“Defense is half the game” may be meant to convey how underrated that side of the ball is in general basketball commentary. Though intended to spur a deeper examination, that very examination proves the axiom is, at best, only half true.
Frank Vogel has taken quite a bit of flak for his decision to leave Roy Hibbert on the bench for two crucial possessions at the end of last night’s game. After both plays ended in LeBron James layups, it’s easy to lump the two results together as one in the same. As I’ve written on Grantland today, Vogel was justified for his decision to leave Hibbert on the bench for the final possession, but the one that occurred about thirty seconds earlier and contained the first of James’ two crucial layups was a different story.
No two situations on a basketball court are ever entirely alike. Time, score and situation typically call for different strategies at different times. During the final possession, Hibbert’s biggest asset — his ability to occupy space — was largely negated. His lack of mobility, on the other hand, made him a giant target for Erik Spoestra as he drew up his late game gem (this is lost, by the way, in all the talk about Hibbert. Spo drew up a really great play). Vogel made a smart tactical choice to remove Hibbert and replace him with a lineup that was more suited for a situation likely to result in a quick catch and shoot. It was something that time (2.2 seconds remaining), score (Pacers up a point, meaning any shot beats them) and situation (sideline out-of-bounds after a TO) dictated.
Going back to the Heat’s penultimate possession and things are much different. The score being tied wasn’t a huge factor, but the time and situation changed things drastically. When Vogel pulled Hibbert, the Heat had 15 seconds on the shot clock to work with, enough time to run through a multi-option set play and then some.
Preventing a good shot when only a handful of seconds is a far easier (and obviously different) task than thwarting one with over half the shot clock remaining. Though it’s debatable how useful Hibbert would have been on the specific play the Heat ran (Chris Bosh was positioned as a shooter in the strongside corner, meaning Hibbert wouldn’t have been able to camp out in the paint like normal), the general idea is that Vogel needed to treat this possession like any other one throughout the game. Pulling Hibbert, the anchor of his defense, given those circumstances made little to no sense.
So if you’re going to blast Vogel for leaving his star big man off the floor for a crucial possession, make sure you’re picking the right one.
One of the better-watched NBA Finals since MJ involves the Spurs, actually. Yes, those Spurs. The unpopular ones. In 1999, San Antonio routed the Knicks in front of a large national audience, a far larger audience than would ever see either team again. New York was the main draw, but this was San Antonio’s launching pad for a decade of renown. Many forget, but young Tim Duncan was lithe and quick–not unlike young Kevin Garnett. Before he was Shaq-branded as “The Big Fundamental,” Duncan was something else entirely. He was so many exciting possibilities. He was a shot-swatting power forward in a center’s body who could pass like a guard. As a rookie, he scored 32 points in his first career playoff game as the announcers lost their minds. It would have seemed inconceivable, back then, that his glory would play to crickets.
It’s almost remarkable that the Spurs haven’t caught on after so much time. Eventually, a brand has to build, especially if it’s synonymous with success. Much of catching on nationally is just about cluing the public into who you are in the first place. Appear in the playoffs, thrive in the playoffs, and you have yourself some cachet. Familiarity equals brand recognition and brand recognition brings the ratings. Peyton Manning in the playoffs? “Let’s watch, I am familiar with that person,” so says the casual fan brain.
But, after 16 years, the San Antonio Spurs have failed to prompt that thought process. Since the least-viewed-ever NBA Finals in 2007, the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker triumvirate hasn’t grown in fame or stature, apparently.
That those Finals came against LeBron James is notable because it served as James’ introduction to a whole lot of casual fans. Back then, not too many Americans wanted to tune in for some kid futilely “fighting” Goliath. Some years passed, LeBron became a better known figure. Many grew to love him, and later, to despise him. As a consequence, Game 1 of last year’s Finals drew the best number since Shaq and Kobe in 2002. Miami’s 2011 Game 6 demise drew the best Game 6 number since Reggie Miller fell to those same Lakers in 2000.
It can’t all be explained away by “small market.” The Green Bay Packers have parlayed victories into status as a “public team,” despite their small market. You could say that basketball is different, but the Thunder are a consistent ratings draw. The public watches Durant and Westbrook like they play in Madison Square Garden.
So what the hell is it? Why are we at a point where basketball’s best franchise also might be terrible for the sport’s bottom line, should this success continue? I’ve listed a few theories.
Big Man Bias
We like to watch the lil’ fella. Spurs-Warriors actually drew far better early ratings than Spurs-Grizzlies in a higher round. Some of that is because the Bay has more people than Memphis, but I also suspect Stephen Curry’s influence. People enjoy watching a normal-sized person go up against titans (See: Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, and oddly, not Chris Paul). Tony Parker should qualify as a draw, but the Spurs are in large part defined by Tim Duncan. Big men don’t sell sneakers, and Duncan certainly doesn’t sell himself. That brings us to our next theory.
The Spurs Hate You
Okay, maybe not “hate you.” But they’re certainly, publicly indifferent. I once tried to write a (positive) piece on a specific Spurs topic, and found the swift access rejection to be a little surprising. I shouldn’t have been too disappointed, I suppose, considering how Chris Ballard and Joe Posnanski have both written about the difficulties of getting access to the Spurs.
There’s been a long line of national writers in town looking for stories, and seemingly none of them leave with info they came for.
This isn’t a criticism, just an observation: The Spurs are collectively aloof, and secretive enough to contribute to their own lack of popularity. They shroud themselves in camouflage, and we’ll never know the reasons because they’ll never tell us. This is why the familiarity of seeing the Spurs for near-20 years doesn’t matter to fans. Fans don’t feel like they know these guys in the first place. I’m enough of a basketball nerd to have favorable impressions of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan. But to many, the Spurs are an opaque borg-like entity, devoid of feeling or free will.
The Spurs Make Basketball About Something You Hate
Generally speaking, basketball strategy pieces don’t tend to generate a lot of hits. Some writers can pull off delving deeply into O’s and X’s, but it’s incredibly difficult to get readers to take that dive with you. I used to think that readers eschewed this (to me, fascinating) information because it’s too complicated and they’re busy and Dancing With the Stars is on. I’ve come to feel that this is only part of the picture.
The problem with basketball strategy is that many hoops lovers don’t want basketball to be about basketball strategy. This sport is about individual accomplishment. How many rings does Kobe have? Can he catch Michael? Is LeBron the new MJ? How does he prove he’s a “winner” with “killer instinct”? This way of viewing the NBA conceives of team success as resultant from individual will or genius. It’s a world apart from appreciating how San Antonio’s Motion Weak offense probes defenses till someone like Danny Green gets an open 3.
The Spurs are innovators, the first to grasp the corner 3′s potential. But, in that innovation, they’ve learned to chuck hero ball for a more collectivist approach. Suddenly, basketball isn’t about Kobe draining a game winner because he’s “an assassin.” Basketball is about executing a superior strategy, with even the best players serving more as cogs than deciders.
The Spurs Were Branded
Ever try to get rid of an unseemly nickname? It’s tough, isn’t it? I’m not sure as to the origins of “The Spurs are Boring,” but damned if the trope isn’t sticky. Perhaps Shaq’s framing of Duncan as “fundamental” has done much to dissuade folks from ever paying attention. It’s a shame because the Spurs create new ways of playing more than they honor old ways of playing. They’re more wildly creative than fundamentally sound.
Either way, the meme has stuck. The San Antonio Spurs have lost a national election that they never tried to win in the first place. For them, the journey’s been fantastic. So much winning, so much respect around the league. For the NBA, their success has been TV ratings poison and a real threat to league popularity. I’m not interested in how the Spurs feel about it. I’m interested in why Joe Sports Fan doesn’t feel anything for them. Actually, that’s a lie. I am interested in how the Spurs feel about it, but they’d never tell me. I’ll probably have better luck getting Joe’s side of the story.
[NOTE: Below is 15 beautiful minutes of the Spurs playbook. Zak Boisvert, and assistant at Iona College, designed his own nomenclature for these plays by combining the standardized names of each action within the play. So " "Power Mix Double Rip" signifies "power" action (a flex cut out of transition accompanied by a pass from point to trailer) into "mix" (signifies any kind of misdirection. In this case a dribble handoff back to the point guard) and "double rip" which would be a double back screen for the trailer that just handed it off to the point guard. Got it? Now enjoy ... -- Ed.]
The best basketball players in the world make the game look simple, but when it comes to the NBA at least, it is often anything but. Explaining the on-court action at the highest level, especially when it comes to defensive breakdowns, often requires a nuanced examination that sometimes exposes deeper, systemic issues that are bigger than a player simply making a mental error.
This definitely holds true to the Matt Bonner Problem the Memphis Grizzlies had yesterday afternoon. As the Spurs 3-point ace feasted on open looks all game long, many in the Twittersphere were calling for the head of whichever Grizzlies defender (mainly Darrell Arthur) was foolish enough to leave one of the most accurate perimeter marksmen in the league. But Arthur, who certainly isn’t a flawless defender, was mainly a scapegoat for an unrefined Memphis defense that for the past few years has built its reputation by relying far more pure chaos — of which Tony Allen is often the catalyst — rather than disciplined system like you’d see in Chicago or Boston.
What Bonner, Gregg Popovich and Spurs exposed with their sharp execution and excellent ball movement wasn’t so much shoddy individual defending but the general lack of a detailed plan for these scenarios. Each of four 3-pointers made by San Antonio’s resident sandwich expert were the result of completely different mistakes, made, with one exception, by different players — a major red flag for Memphis going forward. Here’s a look at each of those Bonner makes and what they tell us.
Play #1: Ginobili in space is a very dangerous thing
With just under two minutes to go in the second quarter, Manu Ginobili receives a screen from Boris Diaw on the left slot. Zach Randolph plays a “loose” coverage, looking to contain the drive from Ginobili as the on-ball defender, Quincy Pondexter, trails over the top of the screen. The crafty Argentine widens his arc as he comes off and manages to pull Randolph into a switch. From there, Ginobili gets to the middle of the paint, collapsing the Memphis defense and kicking out to a wide open Bonner on the perimeter for a wide open look.
The mismatch, while clearly not something that worked in Randolph’s favor, certainly shouldn’t have been a deathblow in and of itself. Teams like the Bulls drill their bigs (and all players, really) to position their stance in order to influence a player to drive into help, which for Chicago is “towards the baseline.” Randolph instead chooses to try to make Ginobili drive with his weaker right hand, which on some level makes sense, but in doing so he makes two big mistakes — he gives up the middle of the floor (a major no-no which we’ll get to in a sec) and positions his feet so poorly while influencing him right that the Spurs guard can blow right by him with minimal effort.
Middle penetration is typically the absolute worst-case scenario for a defense. When the ball gets into the paint, defenses are forced to collapse and give up open shots, offensive rebound positioning or fouls. It’s why teams like Boston, Chicago and San Antonio build defensive systems that keep everything away from the middle of the court and makes you wonder why Randolph would actively concede such prime real estate.
The blame game: Player’s get drawn into switches at times, so it’s hard to fault Randolph for that. It is, however, entirely on him when it comes to his lazy foot positioning after the switch. But the whole “forcing middle” thing is where you encounter a massive gray area that lies player mistakes and coaching mistakes.
Detailed teams will cover these scenarios practices in walkthroughs so it’s entirely possible that Randolph was supposed to force baseline and screwed up. If he was supposed to force this iso to the middle, then Jerryd Bayless does a very poor job of pinching the driving gap and forcing a non-penetrating pass back out to the top of the key.
That said, it’s also possible that head coach Lionel Hollins didn’t have a special plan for these situations and Randolph made his own judgement, went by the scouting report and tried to make Manu use his weak hand. Either way, the player that isn’t at fault is Arthur. The Memphis big man simply reacted to a middle drive and collapsed down to try and stop the ball before it got to the rim– something he’s been trained for years to do as a frontcourt player and shouldn’t have had to do had Randolph, Bayless and Hollins been on the same page.
The Play: Know your personnel
Just a possession later, the Spurs push after a Memphis miss and run an early pick-and-pop between Bonner and guard Gary Neal. Arthur looks to string out Neal, a poor maneuver against a shooter like Bonner, while Bayless goes over the top of the screen. This combination gives Arthur no chance to recover and contest the Bonner 3.
The Blame Game:
The standard coverage against a pick-and-pop guy like Bonner is to stay attached to him and hedge one step toward halfcourt while the on-ball defender goes underneath. Both Bayless and Arthur did the exact opposite of that which again leads to question of whether it was player error or two unprepared Grizzlies making things up on the fly.
If that was the right coverage, then a small part of the blame goes to Keyon Dooling, who was poorly positioned to “stunt and recover” on Bonner.
Dooling should be located near the elbow in his off ball positioning, a “gap 2” position that would allow him get to Bonner on the air time of the pass, stunting and disrupting a quick catch-and-shoot, while still being able to scramble back to his own man, Corey Joseph, lurking near the break.
The fact that all three players seem so out of sync suggests that Hollins and his players need to tighten up the details on defending this action.
The Play: Ol’ Faithful
Bonner’s next 3 comes later in the second quarter. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan execute a pick-and-roll on the left wing that gets forced to the baseline. As Duncan dives to the rim, Ed Davis, guarding Bonner all the way up at the top of the key, drops down on the rolling Duncan. Parker sees this and makes an easy pass out to Bonner for the open jumper.
The Blame Game:
It’s easy to blame the young Davis for making what looks like an idiotic decision. But it is very likely that the pre-game plan, whenever Duncan was involved in a pick-and-roll, was rotate big to big in order to avoid a smaller wing be forced to rotate onto the Spurs big man and, in turn, be forced to battle him the post.
With Davis being just a second-year player in his first playoffs, it’s entirely possible he missed that this coverage was only in effect during the times Bonner was on the bench. Then again, there’s a chance that Hollins and the Memphis staff made it a hard and fast rule and Davis was just following orders. If it’s the latter, then Tony Allen is almost solely at fault for skimping on his duties to stunt and Bonner and force him to make the +1 pass to Ginobili on the wing.
Allen is already recovering back to his own man as Bonner is going back into his shooting motion when instead he should be stunting aggressively enough that Bonner either makes the extra pass or is forced to drive left into a crowd. It’s an incredibly selfish play on Allen’s part as he’s choosing to let someone else’s man score (and thus let Davis get blamed) rather his own mark possibly get a shot off because Allen helped a teammate.
The Play: Double trouble
San Antonio pushes after a miss in transition again, with Ginobili moving into the frontcourt and receiving a double ball screen from Bonner and Tiago Splitter. Like in Bonner’s second make, Arthur gets caught stringing out Ginobili while Bonner pops to the wing with no one near him. The result, of course, was another made 3.
The Blame Game: It should be noted that this play — the double drag in transition — is really hard to defend, especially since it’s not really a staple action for the Spurs (though they do run it enough for it to have been scouted). Ideally, the play would have been defended with Arthur sticking tight to Bonner and Gasol sagging back near the nail as Manu turns the corner. This would require Prince to do what he does already, trail over the top, and Gasol to quickly move into position to stop Ginobili from immediately coming off the screen and attacking the rim (Arthur would also have to jam Splitter or at least slow his roll and not just stay glued to Bonner). Like I said, it’s a viscous play to stop.
What actually happens is Gasol gets lazy and merely calls for a switch, having Arthur try to stop the ball handler while he just stays deep and picks up a rolling Splitter. Not only does this have a very ad hoc feel to it, but it’s another somewhat selfish play on the part of a highly acclaimed Memphis defender (It should be noted, that Gasol, for all his great defensive attributes, isn’t always good about communicating screens or getting in a great defensive position during pick-and-rolls).
Nitpicking at Gasol’s work on this play and consequently placing the fault at his feet overlooks the fact that his on-the-fly switch tells us one of two things — he either blatantly ignored the proper coverage, or there was no real coverage in place for this action to begin with and he adjusted on the fly to something that wasn’t ideal for the situation. Given all the pleasant things we hear about the Spanish big man and the general theme of coaching clumsiness coming up during these breakdowns, my money is on the latter.