With Manu Ginobili set to the return the lineup on Saturday against the Nets, it will be interesting to see how Pop decides to integrate him back into the rotation. Thankfully with Ginobili, he has proven he can thrive in just about any role imaginable. When he's on the court, no matter the 'how', 'when' or 'why', the Argentine produces.
While there are a number of rotations that make some sense, including Ginobili coming off the bench, what I think is best is to start Ginobili at shooting guard and Kawhi Leonard at small forward. In this scenario, Richard Jefferson would be sent to the bench.
(Note: Though I think Tiago Splitter should also start, this scenario will keep DeJuan Blair in the starting lineup since Pop has shown no indication that he's even considering that switch.)
Here are ten reasons I think the starting lineup should include Ginobili and Leonard at the wing positions:
1. The Current Starting Lineup is Broken
In practically every game as of late, there's been a similar pattern: the offense stalls with the starting lineup on the court, the Spurs fall behind, the bench comes into the game, the Spurs make a run. It's been like clockwork.
On the season, the lineup that started most of the games with Ginobili out (Parker, Leonard, Jefferson, Blair, Duncan) has played 184 minutes but has only outscored the opponents by a grand total of five points. While that lineup is good defensively, it's really weak offensively. On the season, the Spurs are averaging 106.02 points per 100 possessions. That lineup averages 97.73 points per 100 possessions.
Inserting Ginobili into the starting lineup will solve any offensive issues. This season, the Spurs are averaging 115.25 points per 100 possessions that Ginobili plays. Even if you want to discount his stats from this year due to the small sample size, Ginobili has a long history of putting up similar numbers (112.09 in 2009, 113.53 in 2010 and 114.37 last season).
2. The Bench is Rolling
While the starting lineup is dysfunctional right now, the bench has been on fire. With Tiago Splitter dominating the paint and a gaggle of outside shooters surrounding him, it's not uncommon for the Spurs to blitz their opponents with lineups mostly comprised of reserves.
On the season, the bench is averaging 36.5 points per game, which is the fifth highest mark in the NBA. The bench is also fourth in assists per game (7.9), sixth in field goal percentage (45.3%) and first in three-pointers made (108). The five-man unit with the highest plus/minus on the season features five bench players: Gary Neal, James Anderson, Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Splitter.
Jefferson's skillset will mesh perfectly with the reserves. His shooting can spread the floor for Splitter. And since the bench plays the game at a faster pace, Jefferson will get more chances to get out and run.
3. Leonard's Defense is Most Useful at the Beginning of Games
Leonard is already the team's best one-on-one perimeter defender. To set the tone defensively, he needs to start so he can keep the other team's top perimeter player from catching fire. We saw an example of this in the most recent game against the Grizzlies. Leonard began the game harassing Rudy Gay and Gay was never able to find his rhythm, which allowed the Spurs to later use lesser defenders against him when they needed an offensive punch.
If brought off the bench, Leonard's defense will be much less valuable. Most reserves in the league don't require a defender of Leonard's caliber. And even if he's used as a specialist to cool off hot perimeter scorers, that'd be asking a whole lot of Leonard; once stars are on fire, it's usually too late.
4. Jefferson is no Longer a Capable Defender
It's no secret that Jefferson has lost a step this season. On offense, it's evident by how he never drives to the rim any longer. Those dunks of yesteryear? All but extinct.
While it's more difficult to see his defensive decline, that too is undeniable. Since Leonard was moved into the starting lineup, Jefferson has mostly been asked to guard the other team's weakest perimeter player. But even though little is being asked of him, players are still blowing by RJ at an alarming rate.
If Pop starts Ginobili and Jefferson, that alignment would require Jefferson to attempt to defend opposing small forwards -- even if that player is a superstar. If that happens, there is absolutely no way this team will be elite on the defensive end.
5. Allowing Ginobili to Roam
While Ginobili isn't a very good one-on-one defender, he's fantastic when he's allowed to roam. But for him to be able to roam without hurting the team's defense, Ginobili has to be matched up against the opponent's worst perimeter scorer. If Leonard starts, that would be the case; it'd be a return of the Bruce Bowen days in that regard.
If Jefferson starts, Ginobili would face much more difficult matchups and his ability to roam will be limited. Additionally, Ginobili would be forced to spend a lot more energy on the defensive end, which would either limit how hard he can go on the offensive end or limit the maximum amount of minutes he can play at a high level.
6. Hiding Leonard's Offensive Shortcomings
For as well as Leonard plays on the defensive end, he's unquestionably the team's biggest offensive liability. Since his outside shot is iffy, he doesn't spread the floor much. And Leonard thus far hasn't developed the ability to create for himself going to the rim in halfcourt sets, which forces him to basically live off of backdoor cuts and offensive rebounds.
Those limitations obviously don't make Leonard the optimal player to start next to the Big 3, but the starting lineup would have the offensive talent to offset his weaknesses. Even with Leonard, I expect the starting lineup to be an elite scoring unit. And who knows, playing next to Ginobili could greatly improve Leonard's ability to score. We've seen that happen countless times in the past.
7. Increase Role Player Competition
Jefferson, at this point in his career, is a declining role player. Even if you still think he's playing at an acceptable level today, that may change next week or next month. By putting him on the bench, Pop will avoid giving him charity minutes each game that he may no longer warrant.
However, by bringing Jefferson off the bench, you make him compete for his spot in the rotation. It also gives other players, namely Green, Neal and Anderson, room to carve out consistent playing time. For example, if Ginobili and Leonard are starting and averaging 56 minutes combined, that still leaves 40 minutes on the table for others to fight over.
8. Rebounding Needed in the Starting Lineup
One reason why the starting lineup has struggled is an inability to control the defensive glass. Replacing Leonard in the starting lineup would be a step in the wrong direction and would force Duncan to shoulder even more of the rebounding load.
But by replacing Jefferson with Ginobili, defensive rebounding should no longer be an issue for the starting five. Ginobili is much better than Jefferson at grabbing long, contested boards.
9. Speeding Up Leonard's Growth
If the Spurs are going to be a championship contender this season, they need Leonard to be ready to defend the best of the best come the postseason. While the rookie might not be a vital cog when it comes to racking up regular season wins, he'll play a very important role in the playoffs.
It's asking a lot for a 20-year-old rookie to produce in the playoffs. That said, throwing Leonard into the fire and giving him consistent minutes and a consistent role each night will maximize the chances of it happening.
If Leonard becomes a bench player, it will be all but assured that he'll be a spectator in May.
10. Adjustable When Needed
Recently, Pop has taken Leonard out of the starting lineup against teams that don't feature a star perimeter scorer. While more than 80% of NBA teams feature such a player, starting Leonard gives Pop flexibility to adjust to certain teams.
Trying to do the other way wouldn't really work. If Pop starts Ginobili and Jefferson, he'd be committed to that lineup night in and night out.