Currently, nothing makes Spurs fans as perturbed as Gregg Popovich opting for Matt Bonner ahead of Tiago Splitter. While it's not always the case, for the last few weeks, the line between the team's third and fourth bigman has definitely blurred.
Looking at minutes player per game for the season, it appears as if Splitter (19.8 minutes) is the preferred choice over Bonner (17.2 minutes). A closer look, however, shows things aren't as clear as they seem. In the last five games, the gap has narrowed -- 17.8 minutes per game for Splitter, 17.4 minutes per game for Bonner.
Going further, when games are close, Pop has shown he trusts Bonner more. In the first half of games, Bonner averages 9.8 minutes for the season, while Splitter average 9.6 minutes. Additionally, Splitter has played 38.6% more garbage minutes this season than Bonner (with garbage minutes determined as time when either team is up by 15 or more points).
Why Are Spurs Fans Frustrated?
First of all, Splitter has been productive in his playing time. The highly touted bigman from Brazil via Spain has been sizzling over the last eight games. In that span of games, Splitter is averaging 8.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in only 17.9 minutes per night, while shooting a ridiculous 75.8% from the field. Early in the season, he was struggling to finish on the low block, but he has obviously solved those issues.
Bonner, on the other hand, has stalled. In those same eight games, he's averaging 4.0 points and 3.1 rebounds in 15.9 minutes per game, while shooting 41.1% from the floor and 31.6% from beyond the three-point arc.
Looking at those numbers alone, I can't blame Spurs fans for second-guessing Pop. That said, the frustration goes deeper. Bonner, even when he's played well in the regular season, has routinely been a playoff disappointment. Fans of the team are tired of the Spurs getting burned by a player who has a history of not producing when he's needed most.
And with Splitter, Spurs fans see two things that remind them of the championship days: defensive ability and size. This season, Splitter has done great work protecting the rim. His rate of blocked shots is through the roof compared to his rookie season and he can be counted on to at least alter shots near the basket. At nearly 7-feet and equipped with long arms, Splitter looks like the type of player that has been by Tim Duncan's side to help anchor elite defensive units.
As for Bonner, no one has ever accused him of protecting the rim and though he's 6-foot-10 in shoes, his short arms and limited athleticism make his practical height closer to 6-foot-8.
So, What's Pop Thinking?
Although Pop rarely if ever tells the media why he does what he does, a few conclusions can be made based on his rotations as of late.
1. Pop believes Duncan and Splitter are both centers
Of course Pop would never admit this because he swears up and down that Duncan is a power forward, but it's plain to see otherwise. During his rookie campaign, Splitter played next to Duncan for a grand total of 30 minutes during the regular season. This year, the two have played together for 67 minutes -- a paltry 4.5 minutes per game.
2. Pop doesn't trust Splitter defending the perimeter
When Pop does play Duncan and Splitter together, it's almost always when the opposition has two traditional bigmen on the court. However, if a team is utilizing a three-point shooting bigman or has gone small, Pop almost always splits up the Duncan and Splitter tandem.
As examples, Pop played Duncan and Splitter together in overtime against the Rockets when Houston had Luis Scola and Samuel Dalembert on the court. On the other hand, when the Magic had three-point specialist Ryan Anderson next to Dwight Howard, Pop decided to counter with a small ball lineup in overtime.
3. Pop values Bonner's ability to spread the floor
Whenever the offense bogs down and the other team is packing the paint, Pop's go-to move is to insert Bonner. This is obviously mostly a subjective observation, however there is some statistical proof: In games the Spurs enter the fourth quarter with 75 points or less, Bonner is averaging 19.9 minutes. In the rest of the games, Bonner plays 13.7 minutes per outing.
Why Does Pop Suddenly Value Offense So Much?
When trying to figure out what Pop is thinking, it's important to remember that he was an assistant coach for two men: Larry Brown and Don Nelson. Brown is arguably the best defensive coach of all-time and Pop undoubtedly learned a lot from him. But don't forget about Nelson, who is regarded as the most innovative offensive coaches in history.
When Pop was an assistant under Nelson, the Warriors were a team that won with offense. Nelson relied on three-point shooting and often used small lineups -- especially when trailing. In fact, in Pop's last season in Golden State, the Warriors spent much of the season starting a rookie Chris Webber at center and 6-foot-8, 220-pound Billy Owens at power forward.
Nelson's way of coaching became known as Nellie Ball. Here's Wikipedia's definition:
If you want to point to a specific breaking point, I'd point to the second half of the 2007-08 season. While the team's defense remained elite, the offense began to stall. The second half of that season featured numerous scoring droughts, which carried over into the playoffs. During the 2008 postseason, the Spurs scored 92 or fewer points in all eight of their losses. In the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, the Spurs lost in five games even though they held Los Angeles to 93.4 points per game -- 15.2 points below their regular season average. In fact, the Spurs held the Lakers to fewer points in the WCF than the Celtics and their legendary defense did in the Finals.
Pop's reaction to the sputtering offense was to put an end to the Bowen era and input Michael Finley, Matt Bonner and Roger Mason, Jr. into the starting lineup the following season. As expected, the offense improved in 2008-09. And, inevitably, the defense regressed.
The culmination of the transformation was last season. The 2010-11 Spurs scored 111.8 points per 100 possessions, the best mark in franchise history. Riding that wave of scoring to go along with the league's 11th ranked defense, San Antonio finished the year at 61-21.
Best Offenses in Spurs History
1. 2010-11 - 111.8
2. 1994-95 - 111.7
3. 1983-84 - 111.2
4. 1993-94 - 110.4
5. 1995-96 - 110.2
Pop has apparently conceded that the Spurs can no longer be a dominant defensive team, so in order to be successful in the regular season, the team must be an elite offensive team. That way of thinking has continued this season. The Spurs are 10-5 despite a defense that is ranked 19th in the league. How is that possible? Their offense is the league's fourth best, which is especially impressive considering Manu Ginobili has been sidelined a majority of the season.
But Isn't Splitter an Asset on Offense?
If you look at Splitter's stats, one would assume he's a player who helps the Spurs on the offensive end. On the season, he's shooting 58.9% from the floor and, right now at least, he's the team's best low post scorer -- and that's including Duncan. Splitter is averaging a very respectable 14.9 points per 40 minutes and has improved his free throw percentage from 54.3% as a rookie to 71.4% this year.
Unfortunately, advanced statistical analysis shows that Splitter is an offensive liability. And an undeniable liability at that.
As a rookie, the Spurs averaged 97.8 points per 48 minutes Splitter was on the court. That was far and away the worst mark on the team.
Team Points Per 48 Minutes
Manu Ginobili - 107.8
Matt Bonner - 104.6
Tim Duncan - 104.5
George Hill - 103.1
DeJuan Blair - 102.9
Tony Parker - 102.7
Gary Neal - 102.6
Richard Jefferson - 102.4
Antonio McDyess - 100.9
Tiago Splitter - 97.8
This season, that trend has continued. The Spurs are averaging only 94.8 points per 48 minutes when Splitter is playing, which is again by far the lowest number on the team.
When Splitter and Duncan are on the court together, the offense stagnates even further. In the 67 minutes the two have played together this season, the Spurs are averaging 85.3 points per 48 minutes. It's a very good defensive tandem (92.4 points allowed per 48 minutes) but not good enough to overcome the lack of scoring.
Ironically, the player Splitter flourishes next to is Bonner. In the 161 minutes the two have played together, the Spurs average 98.8 points per 48 minutes. When Splitter plays without Bonner on the court, the Spurs average just 90.1 points per 48 minutes.
And that brings up a point that Pop obviously knows very well: Unlike with Splitter, the Spurs score better when Bonner is on the court. In the previous three seasons, the Spurs have scored 4.9 more points per 100 possessions when Bonner is on the court. So far in Splitter's career, the Spurs score 5.6 points less per 100 possessions when he's on the court. That's a spread of 10.5 points per 100 possessions (which translates to about 9.8 points per game for these Spurs), and for a coach who is in running a team that currently wins with a version of Nellie Ball, that evidently isn't something he can look past too easily.
Is Splitter Doomed as a Spur?
I do not believe so. While it's impossible to argue against him being a liability on offense right now, it's not an irreparable situation.
The main reason why the offense dies when Splitter enters the game is he has a bad habit of dominating possession after possession. In Europe, that was expected out of him because he was the team's number one option -- especially after Luis Scola left for the NBA. Each time up the court, his team either ran a pick-and-roll with him or posted up him up. With the Spurs, Splitter oftentimes plays the same way he did in Europe. However, now that he's no longer the number one option, that simply won't work.
Instead of calling for the ball in the post or going out to set a screen virtually every time up the court, Splitter has to learn how to better blend into the action. Like Fabricio Oberto before him, Splitter's best role in the NBA on offense is a complementary one in which he spends most of the time on the weakside of the court. Additionally, Splitter could be an efficient weapon if he learned how to pick and choose his spots to take advantage of mismatches in the low block.
The stats backup the theory that Splitter dominates the action too much when he's on the court. In his rookie season, the Spurs got assists on their made field goals 5% less often when Splitter was on the court. This season, that number is again 5% less when Splitter plays.
An area in which Splitter has actually regressed is turnovers. Last season, he averaged 1.7 turnovers per 40 minutes. This year, he's averaging 3.6 turnovers per 40 minutes. To put that in perspective, Duncan has never averaged that many turnovers per 40 minutes. David Robinson never averaged that many turnovers per 40 minutes. Neither Parker nor Ginobili has ever averaged that many turnovers per 40 minutes. Needless to say, Splitter being a turnover machine is a big reason the Spurs struggle to score when he's on the court.
If Splitter really wants to get in Pop's good graces, adding a jumper would go a long way. This season, he's 2-for-3 on jumpers between 10 and 15 feet. If he can take and make that shot with consistency, that would make it much easier for Splitter and Duncan to co-exist. It was that exact shot that Oberto added to his repertoire that allowed him to adequately space the court next to Duncan.
Going forward, there's plenty of time for Splitter to earn Pop's trust. Remember, Pop leaned on Blair less and less last year as the season progressed. If that happens again this year, one would imagine that Splitter would be a beneficiary. Also, injuries will continue to be a main theme of this lockout condensed season. With such a shallow stable of bigmen on this team, all it will take is one twisted ankle for Splitter to suddenly be penciled in for major minutes each night.
What Would You Do?
Prior to the beginning of the season, I thought that the Spurs would need to rely heavily on Splitter to truly become a championship contender. Fifteen games into the season and my opinion remains the same. I want Pop to play Splitter as much as possible. Yes, he hurts the offense right now, but he needs to play to learn how to better mesh with his teammates. If it means a few more regular season losses, so be it.
Even with the improvements of the offense, I believe that the Spurs still need to be a top seven or eight defensive team if they want to make a strong playoff push. The only way that will happen, in my view, is if Splitter is playing approximately 30 minutes per game. Outside of that, the Spurs will remain on the fringe of the title talk.
I commend Pop for being able to drastically change the equation and still win games at a torrid pace. That said, Pop needs to be reminded of the numbers 1,335 and 0: the former is the number of wins Don Nelson had in the regular season, the latter is the number of times a Don Nelson coached team reached the Finals.