TrueHoop: Tiago Splitter

Economists vs. tanking: David Berri

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
2:09
PM ET
By David Berri
ESPN.com
Archive
NBA Draft board
Mike Stobe/NBAE/Getty Images
The NBA Draft might be the single most influential reason we see teams tank. Should we get rid of it?

There are essentially three ways a team can acquire the productive talent it needs to contend for a title:

The Heat approach: Acquire productive veterans
This approach has also recently been used by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The problem is that the NBA has a maximum salary. This means that teams cannot use higher wages to attract better talent. Instead, productive veterans are now considering whether or not your team is likely to win. In other words, the Miami Heat approach seems to require that you already have stars to attract more stars.

In addition, teams have to know which veterans to acquire. The New York Knicks have tried to build with veterans for years. But in most recent seasons, the Knicks have failed because they tend to acquire relatively unproductive veterans (primarily because the Knicks focus too much attention on per game scoring).

The Spurs approach: Acquire productive players in the latter part of the NBA draft
When we think of the Spurs, we tend to think Tim Duncan. Although Duncan was the most productive regular season performer for the Spurs in 2012-13, about 48 of the team’s regular season wins came from other players -- the five most productive were Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, and Manu Ginobili. Each of them was either a non-lottery first round pick or a second-round pick. All teams have access to such players, but the team must be able to identify such talent. And since the Spurs are relatively unique in utilizing this approach, it’s reasonable to assume most teams cannot consistently identify productive players outside the lottery.

The Thunder approach: Acquire productive lottery picks
The third approach is to acquire productive talent in the NBA lottery. Most recently, the Thunder accomplished this when they built an NBA Finals team around the talents of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Lottery picks are granted to the NBA’s non-playoff teams, so you have to lose to implement this strategy. You also must have a fair amount of luck. Not only does it help to finish very high in the lottery, you also have to be able to select the productive players with those high picks. In some years, though, this is difficult. For example, none of the top seven talents selected in 2010 have become players who produce wins in large quantities. A similar story can be told about most of the players at the top of the 2006 NBA draft.

There is another problem that the Thunder discovered. Initially draft picks play under a rookie contract, so these players can produce wins at a very low cost. But this contract expires fairly quickly. Specifically, the Thunder were able to employ Harden for only three seasons. Once a player moves on to his second contract, the team essentially moves to option No. 1 (i.e. building through productive veterans). So not only does this approach requires luck, it’s also a short-lived strategy.

Nevertheless, teams seem to try and follow the third option. And for that to happen, teams have to lose -- or pursue the strategy of tanking. Such a strategy essentially contradicts a fundamental promise made by sporting competitors; that the competitors will do their very best to win the game.

To eliminate this strategy, we simply need to remove the incentive behind this approach. Again, teams only get high lottery picks by losing. And the more you lose, the better your chance of getting the top picks in the draft. If we want teams to stop doing this, we need to change the incentives of the people who implement this strategy.

This can be done in three ways:

Return to a non-weighted lottery
In a paper I co-authored with Joe Price, Brian Soebbing, and Brad Humphreys, we presented evidence that the NBA’s non-weighted lottery -- utilized in the 1980s -- seemed to reduce the tendency to tank. Back in 1985, only seven teams didn’t make the playoffs. Today it is 14 teams. If all lottery picks were selected via a non-weighted lottery -- as was the case in 1985 -- the worst team in the NBA could receive just the 14th pick in the draft. This would effectively eliminate a team’s incentive to be as bad as possible to get the best pick possible.

Eliminate the draft
A more radical approach (for North American sports fans) is to eliminate the draft. In European sports, there is no draft. But on this side of the Atlantic, it is taken for granted that the losers in professional sports leagues are rewarded with high draft picks. However, as we have noted, this gives teams an incentive to tank. So a simple solution is to abolish the draft and allow top amateurs to negotiate with more than one team.

One issue with this approach is that the top amateurs could simply choose to sign with the NBA’s best teams. This is especially likely if the NBA’s rookie salary cap is kept in place. After all, if the wages of the top players are going to be the same, then these players will simply choose to play for the best teams. To avoid this problem, the NBA could implement a system where playoff teams cannot sign a player until 14 amateurs have already received offers from non-playoff teams. And once a player received an offer from a non-playoff team, he could not sign with a playoff team (but could still sign with any of the other 13 non-playoff teams).

This system would force the non-playoff teams to be as competitive as possible, since the top amateurs would probably prefer to play for the best non-playoff team possible. And again, would eliminate the problem of the tanking.

Punish the losers
The tanking strategy is easy for decision-makers in the NBA to embrace. Teams that pursue this strategy are essentially trying to lose to enhance the team’s draft position. This is a simple strategy to follow. Trying to win is difficult, but losing is easy and the more incompetent the decision-maker, the better the strategy can be implemented. Imagine how easy it would be to do your job if you were rewarded for doing the job badly!

To stop this behavior, the NBA could simply implement a rule that says if a team misses the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, the team must fire its general manager. If this rule was put in place, constant losing would lead to consequences for executives.

David Berri is a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University. He is co-author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins (FT Press, March-2010). He has written extensively on the topic of sports economics for academic journals, and his work has appeared at The New York Times, the Huffington Post, Freakonomics.com and Time.com.

NBA Finals stat storylines: Game 3

June, 11, 2013
6/11/13
9:31
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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Each team has its shooting strengths and weaknesses through two games.
The winner of Game 3 figures to have a pretty significant edge in the NBA Finals, given the recent history.

Since the 2-3-2 format began in 1985, the Game 3 winner of a tied NBA Finals series goes on to win the series 12 out of 13 times.

Let's take a look at five of the statistical storylines to watch that could make a difference in which team has that advantage.

How do the Spurs respond to being blown out?
The Spurs are 3-0 this season following a loss by at least 19 points. They are 28-11 following such a loss since the 2002-03 season (when Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan first played together).

If the Spurs lose Game 3, it will be the first time that they have trailed in the NBA Finals in franchise history. The Elias Sports Bureau notes that among teams to appear in at least one NBA Finals, the Spurs and Sacramento Kings franchise are the only teams to have never trailed in a Finals series.

How do the Heat respond to their win?
The Heat put the Spurs right where they wanted them by losing Game 1.

In the LeBron James/Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh "Big 3" era (since 2011 postseason), the Heat have lost a Game 1 of a series four times.
Following a Game 1 loss, Miami is a perfect 13-0 in games within those series over that span.

The Heat scored 103 points in their Game 2 win. They are 21-1 when scoring 100 or more points in postseason games in the Big 3 Era.

Lebron and the 20-point mark
The Spurs have held LeBron James under 20 points in both games this series.

James has played 133 career games in the postseason and been held under 20 points in three straight games just once.

It happened in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Mavericks in Games 3-5.

That was the last postseason series the Heat have lost.

Heat have the edge from in-close
The Heat shot 15-of-21 from inside five feet in Game 2 and are shooting 30-for-47 (64 percent) on such shots in the series. LeBron James, Chris Andersen and Norris Cole have been the Heat’s Big 3 on those shots, making 16 of 21.

The Spurs were 11-of-24 (46 percent) from inside five feet in Game 2, their second-worst percentage on those shots in a game this postseason.

The Spurs are shooting 24-of-50 (48 percent) inside five feet during the series after shooting 63 percent on such shots in the postseason prior to the NBA Finals. The two players who have had the most trouble -- Ginobili (2-of-7) and Tiago Splitter (1-of-5, including one shot rejected by James).

Spurs matchup of note: Tony Parker in pick-and-roll vs Heat defense
The big men for the Heat did not hedge out to help on Tony Parker in the pick-and-roll in the first half, and the Spurs scored 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting off Parker’s pick and rolls. That followed Game 1, in which the Spurs scored 20 points on Parker pick-and-rolls.

In the second half, the Heat were more aggressive in helping on Parker (such as in the opening minute of the fourth quarter when Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers fought through two screens to contest Parker’s attempt), and the Spurs went 1-for-6 on the nine instances in which they ran a pick-and-roll through him.

Parker was 0-for-3 in his shots in the second half off the pick-and-roll. He’s averaging 10.4 points-per-game on pick-and-rolls this postseason, second-most to Chris Paul's 12.0.

Spurs-Heat Game 2 takeaways

June, 10, 2013
6/10/13
12:23
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
When things looked precarious for the Miami Heat in the second quarter and LeBron James’ stat line looked pedestrian by anyone’s standards, it became throwback night:

What was going on? Was he being too deferential? Not sufficiently assertive? And was this lack of assertiveness actually a lack of resolve and the symptom of a deep character flaw?

How we miss you, 2011 C.E.

A combination of factors were at work, but to the extent there was a problem, it was far more rhythm than resolve. Unsatisfying as it sounds, there were a lot of possessions that simply didn’t end up in LeBron’s hands.

The defense of Kawhi Leonard also has to be cited, as it clearly bothered LeBron more than occasionally. The best example came toward the end of the third quarter, when Leonard recovered from a Mario Chalmers screen and quickly caught a driving James and deflected his pass for a turnover. He played on LeBron’s right shoulder fearlessly all night. When James held the ball, Leonard gave him a little space but was hyper-alert to potential closeouts.

But there were plenty of good opportunities all around for Miami, and the Heat -- often James himself -- frequently chose the one that happened not to be LeBron.

Dwyane Wade and James orchestrated a pick-and-roll with just less than four minutes to go in the first half, right about the moment of the game when LeBron’s limited level of involvement in the offense went from a peripheral plot point to a major storyline. Together, they forced a defensive switch by San Antonio.

The immediate expectation would be to empower James, who was eight feet in front of the basket one-on-one against Danny Green. But just when it seemed like Wade blew it by not finding LeBron, Wade bounced into the lane against Leonard, rose and flicked the ball at the rim over Leonard.

It was an obvious opportunity for LeBron, but there’s no faulting Wade for not giving it up.

James drew Green again on a switch the very next possession, and James shot a 17-footer directly over Green. It was a shot he hits at a decent clip but didn’t fall.

A couple of possessions later, James ran directly at Gary Neal in transition off a Spurs miss. He bullied Neal into the lane just beneath the basket and established position. But Wade either didn’t feel like he could lob a pass inside that would have cleared Tim Duncan, who stood between Wade and James, or felt he had some real-estate opportunities of his own to exploit. Either way, Wade drove the lane, lured Tony Parker away from Chalmers on the strong side perimeter, then dished to a wide-open Chalmers for the 3-pointer.

Just as James made his approach to the paint while leading a break in the third quarter, he kicked the ball out to the arc and rang up the hockey assist on Ray Allen’s trailing 3-pointer.

A minute later, James jump-stopped in the paint on a drive, saw Mike Miller wide open and gave it up again for a teammate’s open 3. Then followed a James laser to a cutting Wade for an easy layup and a dish to Wade again on the break when Wade settled for an awkward runner. The Heat went to a successful Wade-Chris Bosh pick-and-roll off a subsequent inbound.

In the Heat’s final possession of the third quarter, James’ sturdy screen for Chalmers took Parker out of the play, allowing Chalmers to drive to within five feet of the basket for the floater and the foul. A pass of medium difficulty to James would have resulted in a high-percentage shot but probably not one better than Chalmers’.

And the Heat first mounted a 15-point lead after James took control of the left block against Manu Ginobili, got the pass, saw an immediate double-team and whipped a pass along the baseline that landed in Miller’s hands in the right corner for an open 3-pointer.

Time and again, James hunted mismatches and dragged the unsuspecting victim into the post, and there was a classic example of how quirky the game was for LeBron as he tried to get on track down low.

With a little less than five minutes left in the third, James dragged Green onto the low left block and got an entry pass from the left sideline. This is one of Miami’s corner-post sets run for James at the spot on the floor that best allows him to be a true triple threat. But just as he started to go to work, Duncan was whistled for defensive three-seconds.

So, yes, by both conventional and LeBron standards, he had an unremarkable first three quarters. There were definitely uncharacteristic moments. Having his shot blocked at the rim by Green wasn’t one for the reel, and he failed to convert on the break after Green performed the aerial version of pulling the chair out (opening the door to the plane?) on LeBron, throwing the shot attempt off.

But LeBron’s results over the first three quarters weren’t worrisome or a betrayal of his powers. And assertive can mean different things. His team was performing efficiently overall, and, by a combination of chance, the appetite of his teammates and some pretty strong defense by Leonard, the individual production wasn’t there until late. It happens, especially against disciplined defenses that plug the lane before James can find a seam.




Chalmers is one of those players we rarely look at with a long telescope. It’s easy to forget he was a second-rounder out of Kansas in 2008. As the draft drifted toward the end of the first round, he was one of those potential draft-night steals, a guy who might surprise and become an effective backup NBA point guard.

Chalmers' career has exceeded those projections. He isn’t a perfect solution, but he’s one that’s been far more than adequate holding down a very serious responsibility for an elite team and doing it during the nuttiest of environments in which the people he works with yell at him a lot. He’s essentially the long, spot-up threat, the stretchiest guy in the starting lineup for a team featuring James in his prime.

In Game 2, Chalmers led the Heat in scoring and drained a big 3-pointer that re-established the lead for Miami 90 seconds before halftime. We saw in Game 1 that he can be an effective weapon if he can clear the corner on the screens from James and Udonis Haslem. Leonard can’t do much to help since he’s on James, which means if Chalmers can pick up a little speed around that turn, life becomes more difficult for Duncan or whomever is waiting.

The defense has gotten inordinately smarter, even if there are occasional groaners. The staff gave him a directive to run under screens for Parker and work with his big men to make sure they nailed the timing of the recoveries. He shined in those capacities as well in Game 2.




In Game 1, the Spurs found quality looks inside for their big men against smaller Heat defenders, the guys who have to rotate from the wing when the Heat blitzed pick-and-rolls. The Heat still ran a few blitzes on Sunday night (early), and we saw Tiago Splitter as the beneficiary when he drew Miller as the rotator. Splitter scored an easy bucket at close range to settle the Heat’s first-half run.

Blitzing the pick-and-roll is a tough full-time strategy for the Heat because they’re already pretty small behind a trap on the ball handler. Combine that with Parker’s speed, which requires the big man to hang around longer, and the Heat’s defense can get destabilized pretty quickly when that happens (as it did in Game 1).

With that in mind, the Heat began to switch some pick-and-rolls. Ideally, this strategy is less likely to put a defense into rotations, which is death against the Spurs. Initially, Miami’s switches came almost exclusively in late shot clock situations. If Parker or another guard can make a play from 25 feet with five seconds left, then so be it.

Sometimes, the Spurs did, as when Parker in the first quarter zipped past a screen from Boris Diaw just in front of the left sideline and flipped up a teardrop over a backpedaling Bosh with the shot clock expiring. Green sank his third 3-pointer of the game when Splitter gave him a screen that bought Green enough space to step back and launch an uncontested look from beyond the arc.

But the Heat accomplished much of what they wanted defensively with the switch (credit them for getting into late shot clock situations by defending for 18 seconds). Duncan missed a 20-footer over Wade with the shot clock expiring. Bosh, Haslem and James handled Parker and the guards sufficiently. The Heat were still put into their share of rotations -- many of them the result of Spurs cutters and divers -- but distances were shorter because nobody was more than a few feet from their assignment to trap Parker or pick up Duncan on the roll.

Whether it was the switch or something else, the Heat desperately needed some variance in their pick-and-roll coverage coming into Game 2. And throughout the second half, we saw the Heat’s big men give Parker a long show with Chalmers taking the long way under the Duncan screen.

A team has to mix up its pitches against San Antonio. If the new plan is a disaster, you can always ditch it, but sometimes, a competitive series demands trial and error. You have to know when to abandon the experiment (and/or be willing to cut bait early), but even the remote possibility that you can win a few possessions makes it a worthwhile gamble.

Chris Bosh, NBA Finals X factor?

June, 5, 2013
6/05/13
8:38
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Chris Bosh just posted averages of 11 points, 4.3 rebounds and 37 percent shooting in his last series. Can I sell you on him as Finals X factor?

It is difficult to talk up Bosh's value right after an Eastern Conference finals in which he played like a mediocre guard. Fortunately for Bosh, he's about to start fresh and play against a San Antonio Spurs team he's thrived against ever since he arrived in Miami.

The sample size is small -- five games total -- but the results over that span were impressive, and it's easy to see how and why they could be replicated in these Finals. Bosh averaged 23.6 points on 60.5 percent shooting against San Antonio over the past three seasons. In his worst shooting performance, the lanky lefty went 5-for-9 to go along with nine free throw attempts, 17 points, and 14 rebounds. Chalk it up to luck, but Bosh's success against San Antonio makes sense given what the Spurs do and what Bosh does.

When I mull Bosh and the Spurs, I'm reminded of a certain internationally known martial art. The essence of the jiu-jitsu fighting technique is to turn a foe's use of force against himself. While Bosh is hardly a martial artist, he's adept at using San Antonio's tendencies, tendencies that have helped forge an elite defense, against the Spurs.

For instance: San Antonio is the kind of savvy defense that cedes the less-desirable long 2-point shot, and Bosh is the kind of peculiar player who regularly nets such shots. In a system designed to trick other teams into hoisting bad attempts, Bosh happily plays a trick on the trick.

Per the NBA's media stats site, Gregg Popovich's team gives up the second-most midrange shots in basketball. Unlike the Indiana Pacers, who force opponents into taking the most midrange tries leaguewide, the Spurs allow their foes to get more space, and it results in relatively better shooting percentages from long 2-point range. This season, Spurs opponents are netting a torrid 47 percent from the right elbow extended, a region from which Bosh converted 53.8 percent of his jumpers this season. Bosh actually shoots better from the right elbow on average than San Antonio's opponents shoot within five feet of the rim.

The second aspect of Bosh's "jiu-jitsu" looks a little bit like actual jiu-jitsu. When the ancient Tim Duncan closes out hard, Bosh is happy to deliver that shot-fake flinch and take off towards the bucket as though asked by a wind gust. Suddenly, the force of Duncan's sprint has carried him out of the picture, and force of Bosh's drive is felt at the rim.

Though still fantastic in the paint, Duncan struggles defensively as he moves away from the basket. We saw flashes of this in the Warriors-Spurs series, in which Stephen Curry -- never known for his drives -- was content to gallop past Duncan whenever he ventured out to the 3-point line on high pick-and-rolls. According to Couper Moorhead of HEAT.com, Bosh has averaged 21 points per 36 minutes with Duncan on the floor over these past three seasons. Small sample size, yes, but video of these games certainly showed Bosh driving around Duncan with ease.

A credible perimeter-shooting threat isn't exactly fun for a 37-year-old big man to handle, especially when that threat can streak rim-ward in an instant. Though Tiago Splitter is younger and quicker, he's not especially well-suited for this task, either.

The Spurs have used Matt Bonner on Bosh on occasion, but Bosh has the ability to float jumpers over Bonner like the "Red Mamba" has a snake's standing reach.

If Bosh is healthy, this is his series to shine. He hasn't looked explosive since spraining his ankle last series, but a few days of rest can do wonders for the healing process. If Bosh is indeed the same player he was a month ago, he's a problem for the Spurs. This is especially true when LeBron James plays the 4, further stretching the floor. There isn't a quick Bosh-stopper available when Kawhi Leonard is occupied on James.

The aforementioned San Antonio bigs aren't known for their ability to defend in space, even if San Antonio has expertly manipulated space in forming their stout defense. This is partially why these Spurs bigs looked so comfortable against the Memphis Grizzlies and so uncomfortable in the first couple games of the Warriors series. Golden State demanded that Duncan & Co. play above the arc, while the Grizzlies demanded that their opponents defend below the free throw line. The latter style is better for older legs. If Bosh's are still functional, he can take advantage.

3-pointers, pick-and-roll important in Finals

June, 5, 2013
6/05/13
12:20
PM ET
By ESPN Statistics & Information
ESPN.com
Archive

Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
The Spurs and Heat both ranked in the top five in 3-point shooting and scoring off the pick-and-roll this season. Tony Parker has the most points on pick-and-roll plays this postseason.

The San Antonio Spurs will have their hands full with slowing down the Miami Heat and their quest for a second consecutive championship. Despite the challenge of limiting LeBron James and guarding a bunch of long-range shooters, San Antonio has a few matchup advantages to exploit.

The Heat and Spurs ranked among the top five teams in the NBA in 3-point shooting during the regular season, with Miami coming in second behind the Warriors.

The strong shooting from both teams has continued in the playoffs, with the Spurs and Heat ranking second and third, respectively, in 3-point shooting during the postseason.

The corner 3

The corner 3-point shot has become a staple of the Heat and Spurs. Miami made 309 corner 3-pointers this season, 35 more than the next closest team, while the Spurs ranked third with 261 during the regular season. The Spurs are shooting a slightly better percentage on corner 3-pointers in the playoffs, but Miami has made 13 more field goals from that spot on the floor.

Ray Allen (15), Shane Battier (11) and Norris Cole (7) have 33 of the Heat’s 48 corner 3-point field goals this postseason. Allen’s 15 corner 3-pointers are tied with Quincy Pondexter for the most of any player in the playoffs.

Pick-and-roll

Pick-and-roll plays will be important for both teams in this series as well. The Spurs and Heat are first and second in the postseason in points per game on pick-and-roll plays, averaging 38.4 and 36.6 points per game, respectively. However, the Heat are second in postseason defensive efficiency against the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.80 points per play. The Heat cause turnovers on 16.9 percent of their opponents’ pick-and-roll possessions in the playoffs, leading all teams.

The Heat haven’t faced a guard similar to Tony Parker in the postseason. Parker is responsible for nearly 62 percent of the Spurs’ pick-and-roll offense. This postseason, Parker has the most total points on pick-and-roll plays with 152 and the second most points per game off the pick-and-roll. During the regular season, Parker’s 562 pick-and-roll points were second to Damian Lillard’s 629.

Can the Spurs stop LeBron?

The Spurs have done a great job of taking away their opponents' best options in the playoffs.

Tiago Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to 15-of-48 (31.3 percent) shooting in eight games.

Danny Green was asked to guard Stephen Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from the 3-point line.

But can the Spurs stop LeBron James? Kawhi Leonard has played against James just once in his career, as a rookie Jan. 17, 2012. James was 9-of-14 from the floor with 20 points with Leonard as the primary defender. This postseason, the Spurs have allowed 93.7 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court. That’s the second-lowest total, behind Tyson Chandler, for any player averaging at least 25 minutes a game this postseason.

Sunny Saini and Evan Kaplan contributed to this post

Young role players help Spurs reach Finals

June, 4, 2013
6/04/13
11:28
AM ET
By Ryan Grace, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Harry How/Getty Images
As the Spurs' big three gets older, the development of San Antonio’s young role players has helped the team stay successful.

The San Antonio Spurs' big three has been consistent for the past decade. But as the Spurs’ core gets older, how does the team continue to be successful?

The development and improvement of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green have provided a youthful punch to elevate the Spurs past their opponents.

In last season’s playoffs, Leonard, Splitter and Green combined to average 21.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. This season, those numbers have jumped to 29.4 points, 15.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game.

Leonard: Mr. Do-It-All

The Spurs average 0.93 points per play in the half court this postseason, second best in the NBA behind the Miami Heat. Leonard has been the team’s most efficient player in the half court, averaging 1.12 points per play (minimum 55 plays).



Leonard is scoring on 52.3 percent of his half-court plays this postseason, which ranks first among qualified players.

Leonard also has been the most efficient defender for the Spurs this postseason. When Leonard is off the court, Spurs’ opponents average 6.5 more points per 100 possessions than when he is on the court.

Splitter excels on both ends

Of the 87 players with at least 60 plays on defense this postseason, Splitter ranks fourth in the league, limiting opponents to 0.66 points per play.

This postseason, Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to a combined 31.3 percent shooting in eight games. Prior to facing Splitter, Randolph averaged a playoff-high 9.9 post-up points per game. In four games against the Spurs, he averaged 4.2 points per game in the post.

Splitter was the fourth-most efficient scorer as a pick-and-roll screener during the regular season, averaging 1.23 points per play (minimum 100 plays). Splitter has elevated his game in the playoffs, averaging 1.50 points per play on 83.3 percent shooting when he rolls to the basket.

Green emerging as two-way player


Green has taken the third-most catch-and-shoot shots (64) this postseason. Of the 39 players with at least 30 such plays, Green ranks seventh in the league in points per play. Green has the second-most catch-and-shoot makes this postseason behind Chris Bosh, and he has been more efficient on catch-and-shoots than Ray Allen, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

Overall, Green has been especially effective shooting 3-point field goals from the corners, making a team-high 52.9 percent of such shots this postseason (10-of-19).

In the second round of the playoffs, Green was asked to guard Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 pct.) from the 3-point line. Curry entered the series shooting 44.2 percent in the playoffs.

Gregg Popovich builds young players

May, 28, 2013
5/28/13
3:50
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Tiago Splitter and Zach Randolph
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Memphis lost to a team that has always been more aggressive about developing young talent.

Of all the things coaches hate, globally televised boneheaded mistakes surely top the list.

They happen.

Not even the most veteran are immune. Derek Fisher inbounded a crunch-time ball to the other team in these playoffs. Manu Ginobili shot an early-clock covered long 3-pointer that almost cost the San Antonio Spurs a game.

But, by and large, the spectacularly mindless moments, the ones that get Shaquille O'Neal mocking you in custom video from an Atlanta studio, are the province of the young.

Think JaVale McGee.

That's why so many teams keep young players stapled to the bench in big moments.

But there's an oddity: Those very same McGees tend to have valuable things like superactivity and bodies from basketball heaven.

In the final analysis, who's better for your team: an active and mistake-prone dude, or a fundamentally but athletically compromised guy?

The old guys keep everyone from looking stupid. But sophisticated numbers suggest that even with all their missed rotations and biting-on-fakes, the youngsters like McGee are very often better at, you know, winning.

Remember Zach Lowe's insight into the Toronto Raptors from Grantland earlier this season? The Raptors have their own young, mistake-prone guy, Jonas Valanciunas:
Valanciunas, like most rookies, misses rotations, overhelps, and commits other sins of positioning on defense. Coaches hate that stuff, and they've often nailed Valanciunas to the bench in crunch time in favor of Aaron Gray -- a fundamentally sound player who lacks NBA athleticism.

The numbers in large part disagree with that tactic, at least as it relates to Valanciunas's defense. The Raptors' defense has been better with Valanciunas on the floor. More importantly, the visualization data shows that Valanciunas is active and athletic enough to make up for all his defensive mistakes, Rucker and his team say.

"With Jonas -- yeah, he's making mistakes," Boyarsky says. "But who cares?"

Casey said he hasn't had deep discussions with the analytics team about Valanciunas, but Sterner has, and he agreed it's sometimes a thorny issue of valuing culture over results. "You want your defense to be sound," Sterner says. "Even though the production might be better, you still want [Valanciunas] doing the right thing.

This is a trend


Coaches are playing "correct" Grays over "still learning" Valanciunases all over the league. It satisfies a coach's sense of order and control. Every coach wants his team to play the right way -- which is not so different from following coach's orders. Without that, what's the point of having a coach?

Meanwhile, the guy who plays the "wrong" way often helps his team more, thanks to the many advantages of youth.

It's a dilemma that trips up many NBA head men. But not Gregg Popovich.

The story is that the Spurs' front office keeps feeding Popovich NBA-ready role players, and by the time his team's in the Western Conference finals, he can confidently trot out Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Cory Joseph and the like, who are all both young enough to be in their athletic primes and schooled and experienced enough to do things the right way.

Nice. Decisive, even. Lucky.

Young Spurs play, produce


Only it's not luck at all!

Popovich gets the same unproven players every team gets -- in fact, he gets worse ones. The Spurs haven't had a lottery pick since Tim Duncan in 1997. Nevertheless, he plays young players relentlessly and aggressively all season long. He plays young unproven players when his team is ahead. He plays them when his team is behind. He plays them when his team is in first place and when they're in last. He plays them in all four quarters and in overtime. And, most importantly, he does it season after season.

Splitter was once the Spurs' Valanciunas, if you will -- only the kind you draft 28th overall instead of fifth. Splitter has started 66 games for an elite team and has played close to 4,000 NBA minutes. Popovich has had plenty of time to make clear what he wants from his big man. By crunch time of a conference finals elimination game, coach and player had built so much trust that Splitter was not just on the court, but was the linchpin of the Spurs' successful campaign to thwart the pound-it-into-Zach Randolph Memphis Grizzlies.

Splitter was much bigger and gave Randolph fits.

"The irony of Zach," David Thorpe, ESPN.com NBA analyst and executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., said, "is that while he's not athletic, he is better against very athletic defenders. He's all fakes, feel, pins. Get him against an athlete like Blake Griffin, and he'll murder him. Really long guys like Splitter, though, who don't have to jump … Randolph can't counter that. And his impulse was to take Splitter closer to the hoop, but that close Splitter's length becomes even more useful, and there was help almost every time. Zach just had a little tiny bit of space to operate. It was a huge factor in deciding the series."

That's the kind of advantage Popovich develops for himself, and this is hardly a one-off.

In 2001-02, the Spurs were a 58-win contender with an unconventional 19-year-old rookie French point guard who couldn't really shoot, didn't rack up a lot of assists, was undersized and didn't play great defense. Any coach would have benched Tony Parker while he was learning, and it's no secret why. I'm not sure I can recall a coach more openly exasperated with Parker than Popovich was that season.

But you know what Popovich did? He played Parker more minutes that season than Parker played this season -- when he was an MVP candidate -- saying all along that he wanted to see if Parker could develop into the kind of player he knew he could become.

If you believe Thorpe's talk of "royal jelly," Popovich's minutes and belief played starring roles in the development of all the Spurs' talented young players. In other words, it's likely Parker would not have turned out as fantastic now without all that learning on the job back then.

This season, Green led the Spurs in minutes played. Splitter, Leonard and Neal all logged more minutes than Ginobili. It's about keeping the stars fresh, which is crucial. And it's about developing the young corps. The right way to distribute minutes is up and down the roster. When you get it right, you can end up with fresh veterans and trusted young players, both of whom can work wonders.

Grizzlies timid with young role players


Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, meanwhile, does things like most NBA coaches and has come to trust few of the Grizzlies youngsters. Darrell Arthur and Quincy Pondexter have developed into rotation players on the job. Ed Davis, Donte Greene, Austin Daye, Tony Wroten, Jon Leuer and Company, however, well, we'll never know if they could have helped against the Spurs.

When they got to play together, the Grizzlies starters with Davis in place of Randolph comprised one of the most effective units in the NBA, by plus/minus. Davis is long and athletic and offers help defense and rim protection that Randolph does not. Although the Grizzlies weren't good in Davis' almost 11 minutes in the conference finals, to the naked eye, Davis is far better than Randolph at containing Parker in the pick-and-roll, which turned out to be a key Randolph shortcoming in the series. Davis also has a track record, born in Toronto, where he played regularly, of finishing around the rim at an even more efficient rate than Randolph.

That doesn't make him a better player, but it does make it a shame Hollins couldn't deploy him confidently to mix things up as the series fell apart. Different looks were precisely what the Grizzlies needed. Hollins only had Davis for 36 games after he arrived via the Rudy Gay trade, however, and he only played him an average of about 15 minutes per game. When push came to shove, Hollins didn't know what to expect.

And the conference finals is no time to experiment. Although … Did you happen to catch Leuer in Game 3? It was like seeing an antelope wander onto a Hollywood movie set. Where did he come from? He plays for the Grizzlies, by the way. Or, more accurately, he has been on the Grizzlies roster since January. Does 96 minutes over 41 regular-season games -- or 11 minutes over 15 playoff games -- count as "playing?" That's a tad south of two minutes per contest, all told. The Grizzlies got him to shoot 3s -- something he didn't play long enough to do in these playoffs.

Hollins just coached the Grizzlies to the best season in team history. His team was well prepared for every game and, in an important measure of any coaching staff, has played gritty defense every minute of every game for years. Nothing is broken in Memphis.

But when it comes to the fine art of turning prospects into producers, Popovich's aggressive youth-friendly approach is the standard. Popovich has missed with some young players, but he has also hit the bull's-eye more than once, and it's made all the difference.

Gasol, Splitter key to what teams do best

May, 18, 2013
5/18/13
11:43
PM ET
By Ernest Tolden
ESPN.com
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Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMarc Gasol's post-up success could be vital to the Grizzlies' chances.

The San Antonio Spurs will host the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

When considering all the different matchups that this series has to offer, one of the interesting ones features a pair of Olympian centers in Marc Gasol and Tiago Splitter.

Let’s shine the statistical spotlight on them and how they impact that which their team does best.

Gasol in the post
The Grizzlies have dominated inside, where they’ve scored an NBA-high 221 points in post-up plays this postseason.

Gasol, who won the 2012-13 Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, has also made his mark on the offensive end. The fifth-year center is averaging a career postseason-high 18.3 points, up from 14.1 points per game during the regular season.

Gasol’s emergence on offense has been primarily due to his success in the post. He’s recorded an NBA-high 1.16 points per play on post-ups and his 103 points total on post-ups trails only teammate Zach Randolph this postseason.

For the Spurs, one way to contain Gasol in the post is to force the ball out of his hands. Despite Gasol’s dominance in creating his own offense in that play, the Grizzlies have struggled on his passes out of the post.

The Grizzlies offense averages just 0.59 points per play off Gasol’s passes out of the post, the third-lowest scoring rate by a team off a single player’s passes from the post this postseason.

Splitter a hidden key in the pick-and-roll
The Spurs have run a pick-and-roll dominated offense this possteason. Between their ball handlers and finishers off the pass, the Spurs have scored an NBA-high 256 points in that offense this postseason.

Along with having one of the best scoring guards off the pick-and-roll in Tony Parker, the Spurs have a secret weapon -- a player who has been extremely effective and efficient in the pick-and-roll these playoffs.

It’s actually not Tim Duncan. It’s Tiago Splitter.

The Spurs’ third-year center has played a key role in giving the Spurs another threat in that offense between the ball-handler and the roll man.

Splitter has been the most efficient finisher in that offense this postseason, scoring at a rate at 1.56 points per play and making 10-of-11 shots from the field,

His points per play and field goal percentage are both NBA highs this postseason, albeit with that small sample.

Gregg Popovich has used Splitter in that play type. Splitter has been the pick-and-roll man a team-high 31 percent of his total plays this postseason, his highest rate of any play type. That total is up a little bit from 24 percent in the regular season.

The Grizzlies can make Splitter a non-factor in this series by forcing him in other areas on the court. Of Splitter’s 47 total points scored this postseason, 25 of them have come finishing the pick-and-roll.

In other play types, Splitter has averaged only 0.61 points per play on just 7-for-22 shooting.

Spurs pick-and-roll to Conference Finals

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
2:30
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezTony Parker led the Spurs past the Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals
The San Antonio Spurs knocked off the Golden State Warriors to reach the Western Conference Finals for the second straight season and the eighth time in the last 15 seasons. Here are five things you need to know about the Spurs.

Tiago Splitter
Splitter
Spurs big men on a roll
Duncan and Tiago Splitter outscored the Warriors big men 16-3 on pick-and-rolls in Game 6, including eight points on 4-of-5 shooting from Tiago Splitter. The Warriors big men missed all seven shots on pick-and-rolls, and turned the ball over twice.

Shutting down Curry
Stephen Curry made 33 percent of his shots coming off screens or pick-and-rolls in the final five games of the series, including 5-of-13 in Game 6. In Game 1, Curry made 8-of-15 shots (53%) on such plays, including 4-of-7 on 3-pointers.

Coming up big in the fourth
The Warriors got within two points at 77-75, but it was all Spurs in the last four minutes of the game as they outscored Golden State 17-7 the rest of the way. Parker struggled with his shot most of the game, but scored 10 points in those last four minutes including two three-pointers.

Road to success
Clinching on the road is nothing new for the Spurs since Gregg Popovich took over. This is the 18th time they’ve celebrated a series win on their opponents court since 1996-97 – tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for most in that span. Their 50 road playoff wins under Popovich are the most in the NBA since 1996-97.

Milestone win for Big Three
The trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have now won 94 playoff games together. That passes the trio of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Byron Scott for most playoff wins for a trio. The Spurs Big Three trails only another Lakers trio: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper.

Notes from the Spurs-Clippers whoopin'

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
2:44
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Tony Parker had 31 points in 28 minutes of a blowout of Chris Paul and the Clippers.

LOS ANGELES -- Prior to Thursday night’s game, both Gregg Popovich and Vinny Del Negro conceded that a matchup against an elite intra-conference opponent is viewed through a different lens at this point in the season.

“Consciously and subconsciously, when you’re playing a team you think you’re going to run into in the playoffs, you probably focus a little bit more closely than if you’re playing a team you know you’re not going to see again until the following year,” Popovich said.

Suffice it to say, the Spurs focused closely and acutely. The victims found on the Staples Center floor were later identified as the Clippers after the 116-90 “ass-kicking,” in the words of Del Negro.

A few takeaways from the blowout:

The Black & Silver Machine
The Spurs set up shop at Staples Center in the game’s opening minutes, then the butchery began. San Antonio drained field goals on its first six possessions and never trailed for a second. The Spurs set themselves up for infinite options on each possession -- and they almost always chose the most advantageous one.

“It’s our system,” Tim Duncan said. “We find ways to score the ball. We use our motion and our pace.”

If the Clippers trapped high, the release came to the arc in the form of an open 3-point shooter. If help arrived from the baseline as Parker penetrated, a teammate zipped to the rim on a corner cut. If the Clippers stayed low to cut off that route, then Duncan floated out to 18-20 feet for a wide-open shot. That’s the key to the San Antonio offense -- availability. If that opportunity comes early, take it. If it doesn’t materialize right away, then exercise patience. Sounds axiomatic, but does any team grasp it so easily?

“They’ve seen all the coverages because they’ve been together for 10 years or whatever,” Del Negro said. “If you trap the pick-and-roll, if you force it down, if you jump out and show, they’ll have counters. They’re waiting to see how the defense reacts and they read off that.”

Tony Parker, wreaking havoc
Tony Parker, as we like to say, “should be part of the conversation” -- for best floor general, most indispensable to his team, best point guard off the ball. Except that Parker genuinely doesn’t care about the conversation. Teammates will tout him, as will Popovich, but it’s in deference and the spirit of brotherhood, not because Parker pays any mind to parlor games.

Here were Parker's numbers on Thursday: 31 points (12-for-16 from the floor; 7-for-7 from the line), seven assists, zero turnovers.

Here was the essence of the performance: Parker serves as the bookends of the Spurs’ system -- possessions start and, if necessary, finish with him at the controls. If he can beat the defense down the floor, he’ll look for a quick drag screen. But if the Spurs settle into their motion sets, Parker will generally dish the ball off to the wing, then buzz around the court like a lightning bug.

On Thursday night, it was the usual bag of tricks. Parker would swing clockwise around a single-single and emerge on the right side, with Chris Paul trailing the whole way. Parker collected the pass from the weak side, then immediately exploded off a pick from Tiago Splitter. Parker was simply too fast for a disoriented Clippers defense, dizzy from the motion and winded by multiple rotations.

And besides, where’s the help going to come from? The corners? The baseline? If the Clippers moved to help from these spots, the ball went to the cutters and shooters. If they didn’t move, Parker was at the rim in a blur.

Parker off the ball
As if his speed with the ball wasn’t enough of a headache for the Clippers, Parker caused trouble when he gave it up, too.

On consecutive possessions in the third quarter, Parker allowed teammates to make the play. Trapped in the left corner by Paul, Parker gave up the ball against pressure to Splitter, then didn’t wait an instant before cutting behind DeAndre Jordan to the basket where Splitter found him. Thirteen seconds later -- he left the ball for Manu Ginobili at the top of the floor, then made a UCLA cut (with a curly-Q tail) rubbing Paul off Boris Diaw, then catching a pass from Ginobili underneath.

“He’s really matured as a player,” Popovich said. “He used to be just a scoring point guard, and didn’t realize there was another whole world out there. Now he plays a complete game.”

The Clippers defensive regression
This was the fear headed into the season for Los Angeles -- that a surgical unit like the Spurs could render any progress the Clippers made defensively irrelevant once a graduate-level education was necessary on that end.

The Clippers’ big men spent the night in a spatial fog, not knowing when to jam ball screens, when to hedge and buy time for Paul and when to drop. Whatever the coverage, Parker moved into the lane effortlessly. When Griffin dropped back into the paint to deter penetration, that left Duncan unaccounted for at the top of the key where he drained face-up jumpers. When there was motion and the Clippers moved off the baseline to plug the middle, the Spurs sneaked beneath the defense.

“They back-cut us, got layups,” Del Negro said, enumerating the assortment of defensive transgressions committed by his team. “Staring at the ball on the weak side, staring at the ball on rebounds, no body contact on guys. On defense you have to play as a unit, talking, everybody is on a string, moving. Everyone has to know where they’re going. We had guys all the time not in the right spots not moving.”

It didn’t help that Paul was routinely behind Parker, which put those big guys in an impossible position. The Spurs simply force too many rotations for a team that’s too often slow to react. In the first two meetings -- both Clipper victories -- Los Angeles’ bigs were uber-aggressive, quick to the ball and, by and large, limited those rotations.

Not on Thursday.

“Speed, athleticism, big guys who can move,” Griffin said, listing his team’s strengths. “[Tonight] we tried to play a containment game, and that’s not going to work against Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and all them.”

Killer Lineup: The old-is-new-again Spurs

January, 25, 2013
1/25/13
10:32
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Miami Heat
Tony Parker | Danny Green | Kawhi Leonard | Tim Duncan | Tiago Splitter
Minutes Played: 179
Offensive Rating: 105.3 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 89.1 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
The Spurs get to their spots on the offensive end of the floor immediately and entirely without confusion. The offense is like a well-produced stage play -- every actor knows his marks, the rhythm between those actors is seamless and the audience almost forgets it’s watching a performance.

It might be ballet, but the offense isn’t a juggernaut like some of the other elite starting units in the league such as the Thunder, Heat and Clippers. As has been the case for years, the Spurs all but concede the offensive glass. In fact, of the 50 most frequent lineups in the NBA, this unit ranks 49th in offensive rebounding rate. Who’s 50th? The same lineup, except with Boris Diaw in Tiago Splitter’s place. In addition, the Spurs' starters don’t get to the line all that frequently.

But even with those deficiencies, this five-man unit shoots the ball extremely well and it’s fairly simple to understand why -- the Spurs rarely take a bad shot.

If Tony Parker isn’t slicing his way to the rim, he’s firing a pocket pass to Tim Duncan or Splitter, who is rolling to the basket. Nearly two-thirds of Danny Green’s shot attempts come from beyond the 3-point line, and the vast majority of Kawhi Leonard’s shots materialize one of two ways -- an uncontested 3 (usually from the corner), or in the immediate basket area off a baseline cut or drive. In fact, Leonard hasn’t had an unassisted 3-point field goal all season.

There’s a great deal of discipline and design that goes along with the Spurs' shot selection. For one, the very idea of playing in isolation violates one of the central tenets of the offense, which is to explore every possibility until one appears.

That doesn’t mean the Spurs reject early offense altogether. Splitter has the ability to run the floor, and when the Spurs rebound off a miss, his first responsibility is to find Parker in transition and offer him a drag screen. It might not give Parker a clear avenue to the basket, but it often throws the defense off balance, or gives Duncan a mismatch on the left block, or allows Parker to hit a trailing Green behind the line.

The Spurs’ signature sequence relies on a few basic actions, then demands that the guys on the floor make intelligent reads when a high-percentage look surfaces. A set will begin with Parker dishing the ball to the wing. Parker will then swing clockwise down to the baseline, across, then back up top to receive the pass on the far side. If he’s open on the catch, he’ll shoot. If he’s not, he’ll instantly get a pick from Duncan or Splitter, and work from there. Parker also might find Green, who has popped out to the perimeter courtesy of a pin-down from the other big man. If the defense has collapsed, Leonard will often be open in the corner where he can shoot or create. As a general course of action, the Spurs are always on the lookout for the skip pass to a 3-point shooter.

The Spurs still have one of the best second options in the NBA -- an angle pick-and-roll for Parker and Duncan. That’s often what the Spurs move into if their initial off-ball stuff doesn’t come together, or Parker can’t get separation from his man off those screens.

Duncan is still a brilliant offensive player. He’ll often set up down low while Splitter sets a high screen for Parker. Once Parker successfully splits or eludes the defenders and gets into the paint, Duncan will lift to the space vacated by Parker and Splitter. Parker will pitch the ball back to Duncan for an open jumper from about 18 feet. If he’s not feeling the shot, or there’s a better one elsewhere -- say Green on a basket dive or Leonard cutting from the corner -- Duncan will happily make that pass.

Reading these options and acting on them is the defining quality of this lineup. It picks away at defenses little by little. With Parker and Duncan as the primary catalysts, the Spurs force their opponents to defend for a good 18 seconds. They’re all discipline and patience and slow-playing their hand in a half-court possession. They know that, more times than not, even a capable NBA defense will make a bad decision at some point, especially if the Spurs keep moving, picking and cutting. At the moment of defensive indecision, desperation or breakdown, that’s the instant the Spurs will pounce -- and not before or after, but right on time.

How it works defensively
“Last year we were a very good offensive team, but we were a middle-of-the-road defensive team,” Gregg Popovich said in early November after the Spurs came out of the gate 4-0. “So that’s been our emphasis this year, to try to become a significantly better defensive team as we always have been.”

Popovich’s imperative has become a reality. Seventy-eight lineups in the NBA have played 100 minutes or greater, and none is more defensively efficient than this group. Ever since Leonard returned and Splitter became more comfortable with the starters, this unit has surrendered only 88.3 points per 100 possessions -- even better than its overall rating of 89.1.

Popovich and Duncan are men who appreciate order, and the Spurs' defense is designed with this proclivity in mind. Individual defenders are responsible for one-on-one duty, because early rotations create confusion, and confusion produces breakdowns, and breakdowns yield open shooters in places you don’t want to be giving up shots.

It’s not that defenders aren’t accountable to their teammates, and you’ll increasingly see two defenders pressure the ball late in the shot clock, especially if the player with the rock finds himself along the baseline. But if everyone digs, stays at home and does his job, the offense probably will settle for a long contested jumper.

In many respects, the Spurs' defensive strategy is a mirror image of their tactical plan on offense. Whereas they want to generate clean looks in the corners and at close range for themselves, they’re looking to deny opposing offenses the same. For instance, if Parker or Green gets caught down low defending a skilled big man, help will come from the baseline while the mismatched guard retreats to the high side. This boxes in that big man but, more important, makes a pass to the weak side extremely difficult. To that end, this unit gives up only 15.6 3-pointers per 48 minutes (far below league average), and opponents are hitting at only a 31 percent clip from beyond the arc. Credit not only the half-court schemes, but a transition defense that’s militant in its commitment to pick up shooters on the break.

In a league where showing high and hard has become commonplace and versatile lineups allow for switching on demand, Duncan and Splitter rarely leave the paint when defending a pick-and-roll. When they find themselves up against an attacking point guard such as Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, it’s Parker’s job to stay up on the ball handler’s right shoulder, while Duncan and Splitter hang back, but also influence the guard to his left. Duncan won’t panic if the guard gets around both Parker and him. So long as Paul or Westbrook is moving left, cornered against the sideline, the plan is working (for reference, see 2012 Western Conference semifinals).

Splitter and Leonard have breathed new life into the Spurs' defense. Splitter adheres to Popovich’s general precepts, of course, but he’s a bit more mobile than Duncan and will get up on a side screen-and-roll a little more readily. The Spurs rarely, if ever, look to actively prevent a screen, but both Splitter and Duncan read the ball handler, looking to deny his best passing option.

From the moment Leonard arrived at training camp as a rookie following the lockout in 2011, he has been groomed as the Spurs’ designated lockdown wing, an essential ingredient in Popovich’s balanced, shipshape defense. Leonard is making good progress. First off, his ball denial to the wing is persistent, and that makes life difficult for the Rudy Gays and can stall the flow of an opposing offense. Second, Leonard is mindful of space and the Popovichian aversion to allowing incursions into the paint. This isn’t to say he isn’t a physical defender, but Leonard is far more interested in cutting off the most sensible route to the basket than he is bodying up on a guy just for the sake of it.

Take away the paint, reroute ball handlers, prevent skip passes and reversals that can hurt you, don’t gamble and get back in transition. After a couple of solid but unexceptional defensive campaigns by the Spurs of late, this new starting unit is restoring the old spirit.

Hack-A-Splitter not best approach for OKC

May, 31, 2012
5/31/12
3:40
PM ET
By Alok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Late in the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder engaged in a controversial strategy of "Hack-A-Splitter," intentionally fouling San Antonio Spurs forward Tiago Splitter on five straight possessions.

The Thunder began using the strategy when they were trailing 82-66 with a little more than 2:30 left in the quarter, at a time when the Spurs offense was really clicking (27 points in the quarter to that point).

Using this strategy brings up the question of whether it’s actually a good strategic decision for the Thunder to employ in this series. Let's look at it two ways:

How Did It Work in Game 2?
Through the 2:32 mark of the third quarter, the Spurs had scored 82 points on 61 possessions, or an incredibly efficient 1.34 points per possession.

From the 2:31 mark of the third quarter to the 1:34 mark (when Splitter left the game), the Thunder intentionally fouled Splitter on five straight Spurs possessions. Splitter went 5-for-10 from the line and Ginobili hit one technical free throw for a total of six points on those five possessions (1.20 points per possession).

If you look at it this way, "Hack-A-Splitter" was marginally successful in slowing down the Spurs offense, dropping their productivity in terms of points per possession. But most of this was because the Spurs offense was playing at an incredibly high level earlier in the game. And, Oklahoma City wasn't really able to make too much out of it. When the intentional fouling finished, the Thunder still trailed by 16 points -- the same deficit they had beforehand..

How Would It Work Going Forward?
In five regular and postseason meetings against the Thunder this year, the Spurs have averaged 1.09 points per possession. They led the NBA during the regular season with an average of 1.08 points per possession, and lead the league in the playoffs with an average of 1.10. So, we can expect the Spurs to average about 1.09 points per possession against the Thunder.

Splitter was a 69 percent free-throw shooter (125-181) during regular season, which is not low enough to justify intentionally fouling. But, before the Thunder began fouling Splitter, he was 9-for-27 on free throws in the playoffs. Averaging his regular season and playoff free throw numbers together, assume Splitter is likely to make 51.2 percent of his free throws going forward.

The expected value of "Hack-A-Splitter" is not just based on Splitter making or missing free throws, though, because there is the possibility of an offensive rebound on a missed second free throw.

Assuming the average offensive rebound percent of 14 off a missed free throw, and the Spurs’ average offensive efficiency if they do get an offensive rebound, here's how Hack-A-Splitter would break down:

Combining all this together, you get 1.10 points per possession for the Hack-A-Splitter strategy, slightly more than the Spurs' expected average offensive efficiency against the Thunder.

Looking at it this way, "Hack-A-Splitter" would not work, as it does not reduce the Spurs' offensive efficiency if you assume Splitter makes a little more than half of his free throws. This is before taking into account other consequences of intentionally fouling that might hurt the Thunder in other ways, including:

• Getting their own players in foul trouble
• Getting the Spurs into the bonus earlier
• Preventing their own transition opportunities

"Hack-A-Splitter" may have appeared to work in Game 2, but it shouldn't be seen as a viable strategy for the Thunder going forward.

Spurs win by keeping it clean

May, 28, 2012
5/28/12
3:35
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Tim Duncan, Russell Westbrook
Tom Pennington/NBAE/Getty ImagesTim Duncan is an expert at contesting drives to the rim without fouling.

We hear a lot about the toughness it takes to win in the playoffs. And not just any kind of toughness; we're talking the kind that takes the form of high elbows and hard fouls at the rim.

The second-round series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers provided plenty of that: bloody faces from dangerous elbows, multiple flagrant fouls and two suspensions.

But you won't see the San Antonio Spurs, who have now won nine straight playoffs games, picking up a flagrant foul any time soon. In fact, if they can help it, the Spurs would prefer not to foul at all. Against Oklahoma City in Game 1, this strategy limited Russell Westbrook and James Harden, who combined to average more than 12 free throws per game during the regular season, to just two attempts.

Westbrook and Harden are fantastic at finding contact on their drives through the lane -- Harden with his herky-jerky, foul-seeking style and Westbrook with phenomenal quickness that catches defenders out of position. When they drive, they invite confrontation from help defenders and are expert at turning those plays into trips to the free throw line.

On HoopSpeak, Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted that managing that confrontation was a major point of emphasis in the Spurs' game plan:
To over-simplify, San Antonio forced Harden to make the drive of least resistance. On the right side of the floor, they enticed him right. On the left side of the floor, Harden’s man guided him left. This latter strategy may have been a bit counterintuitive, because, as previously mentioned, he loves to go left. But this at least meant JH couldn’t draw a foul in the way he loves to: By bumping into a drive-blocking defender.

Suddenly, Harden was unhindered, but he didn’t entirely know how to capitalize. The Spurs knew exactly what to do, sending help over and jumping straight up, palms to the heavens. This is a beautiful, underrated element of Spurs basketball. They make a big show of just how disinterested they are in fouling. Defenders somehow contest shots while making the universal “I surrender!” battlefield gesticulation.

Of course there's also an element of tough, physical play in what the Spurs do -- just try to move Tim Duncan from his spot on a rebound. But the Spurs defenders also know how to avoid unnecessary contact at all costs. It starts with being in the right place to begin with, which cuts down available driving angles and makes creative players predictable. And when they do contest a shot at the rim, Spurs big men tend to almost always be moving backward or to the side, away from the attacking player.

Duncan, in particular, is great at turning his body sideways to avoid an airborne player while still making the attacking player uncomfortable with his long arms and active hands -- one of which is almost always pushing on the offensive player's hip to maintain space between them.

Do the Spurs make opponents uncomfortable and frustrated? Yes.

But afraid? Hardly.

This philosophy may not square with our conventional notions of tough paint defense; the Spurs aren't layin' the lumber on the opposition and don't have a high-flying shot blocker to clean up mistakes. In fact, San Antonio has adjusted its playoff rotations to become arguably less physical. The only Spur who picked up a flagrant foul this season, DeJuan Blair, hasn't played since Game 2 of the second round after starting for almost the entire season. Popovich has ditched Blair the bruiser in favor of Boris Diaw's finesse and versatility.

The Spurs may not be stocked with intimidating interior defenders, but what they are is incredibly disciplined and committed to a gameplan that requires as much mental focus as physical force.

The Spurs are proving once again that toughness is a state of mind, and that it's possible to dominate the playoffs without ever committing a "playoff foul."

Spurs Bullets

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
6:49
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
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  • A 12-year-old kid was suspended from school for having Matt Bonner's likeness shaved into his head. Bonner responded by giving him and his folks free tickets to Game 2 of the Spurs-Clippers series at the AT&T Center on Thursday night.
  • There's a ton of insight to glean from Chris Ballard's tremendous profile on Tim Duncan in Sports Illustrated titled, "21 Shades of Gray." You can read about how Duncan isn't much of a Kevin Garnett fan, how Duncan first bonded with Gregg Popovich on the beach at St. Croix and how Stephen Jackson is "humbled" to count Duncan as a friend. Ballard also offers this very telling portrait of what happens when the Spurs call timeout: "When the Spurs call a timeout and you see the San Antonio coaches huddle a few feet from the bench, it's not to hash out strategy. Rather, Pop is giving Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker time with the team. 'You'll see Timmy over there with a young kid, talking about how he should do this or that or what we meant by such and such,' says Popovich. 'I'll come back to the timeouts sometimes and say, "Are we square?" and Timmy will say, "Yeah, we got 'em."' Popovich pauses. 'He commands that type of respect because he doesn't demand it, if that makes sense.'"
  • Should Tim Duncan have been a more public celebrity over the course of his legendary career? Would the NBA and the Spurs been enriched had Duncan given us a deeper glimpse of both his interior and external life? Alex Dewey of Gothic Ginobili grapples with these questions and more.
  • For years, Popovich has rationed the minutes of his most important players, readily sitting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker during tough stretches of the schedule. In doing so, Popovich has raised eyebrows around the league and the ire of basketball populists who feel that the Spurs owe it to the ticket-paying public to put the best players on the floor. History sides with Popovich and you don't have to look much farther than the Spurs' current series with the Clippers -- a younger, sprightlier team -- to appreciate Popovich's strategy. But there's also an ancillary benefit to sitting Duncan, Parker and Ginobili periodically: It means that secondary guys get the ball in meaningful spots during games that matter.
  • As Zach Lowe of The Point Forward documents in pictures, the Spurs' ability to stretch the floor, mastery of the misdirection, and constant movement have the Clippers' young big men twisted in knots.
  • Bill Simmons at Grantland, on the Spurs: "Thank God for the Spurs, an offensive powerhouse that has single-handedly saved the playoffs from turning into a rockfight. They're headed for a second sweep while pacing the league in points per game (103.7), shooting (49.1 percent) and 3-point shooting (42.7 percent). It's the best version of international basketball we've ever seen -- the Spurs might as well be Argentina or Spain, only with superior players. Everything revolves around their slash-and-kick guys (Parker and Ginobili), their 3-point shooters (too many to count) and their versatile big men (Duncan, Diaw and Splitter, all of whom know where to go and what to do). And unlike Nash's high-scoring Suns teams from back in the day, San Antonio can also rebound and protect the rim, which makes them our single most dangerous playoff favorite since the 2001 Lakers. They aren't just beating teams, they're eviscerating them."
  • Boris Diaw might best illustrate the strength of the Spurs' system and culture. Here's a guy who, as recently as 12 weeks ago, was a punch line for his conditioning and an irritant to Bobcats coach Paul Silas. Now he's the starting center for the title favorites. When you watch Diaw dig in defensively for the Spurs, it’s a reminder of what a dominant role effort plays in defensive makeup. Prior to landing on the Spurs' doorstep, Diaw hadn't played much defense in years, but here he is grinding away for Popovich in May. On the offensive end, Diaw passes with so much confidence, and his high-low deliveries to Duncan are a reminder of his refined skill set as a big man. Yet another instance of the R.C. Buford telling the league, “If you’re not going to use that guy, we’ll take him.” At 48 Minutes of Hell, Jesse Blanchard has more on Diaw.
  • Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell: "You’ve heard me say it before, but the Spurs’ ability to attract a championship supporting cast was fueled by veterans who signed on for an opportunity to chase a championship alongside Tim Duncan. Duncan was the draw. Not the city of San Antonio. And never the promise of more money. It was always Tim Duncan. Not anymore. The draw is the opportunity to play in Gregg Popovich’s system. It’s Tony Parker. It’s Spurs culture. It’s Pop himself. It’s the confidence that the front office can always shore things up by adding a Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter or Kawhi Leonard. It’s the confidence that the front office will manage its books and never the saddle the team with a cancerous contract. It’s the confidence in the ability to improve through the internal development of guys like Danny Green. The Spurs have it figured out. Players understand this."
  • Paul Garcia of Project Spurs on the quiet professionalism of rookie Kawhi Leonard, about whom Popovich once said, "He just does his work and goes home."
  • Steve Perrin of SB Nation on Gregg Popovich, the Alchemist.
  • Jordan Heimer and I shower the Spurs with much love on the most recent episode of The Clippers Podcast, presented by ESPN LA.

The San Antonio Spurs aren't boring

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
5:10
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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How the San Antonio Spurs got tagged as boring never made much sense to me.

Yes, the Spurs were the proctors who broke up the spring flings thrown by the Seven Seconds of Less Phoenix Suns. For those who like their superstars to dazzle, Tim Duncan's charisma deficit and his mechanical game can be affronts. The Spurs have historically been defensive stalwarts, likelier to grind an opponent into submission, not run it off the court. Those qualities, along with a lack of interpersonal drama, might lull certain fans to sleep.

But boredom, at its very root, can be defined as the absence of choice. Get stuck with a program that uses the same formula to produce the same outcome over and over and over again, and you get bored. If you eat the same stuff every day for lunch, you grow tired of it. The same outings with the same people where you talk about the same stuff -- those experiences can become rote.

We're rarely bored when our expectations are challenged, and the most interesting way to do that is by introducing choice into the equation. Anything can happen means that the range of possibilities is endless.

When the Spurs bring the ball upcourt, that's usually the case. They relied on isolation plays only 7.1 percent of the time in the regular season. (Only the Magic used a smaller percentage of their possessions in iso.) In their first-round sweep of Utah, the Spurs ran isos only 24 times in four games. (The Knicks, in contrast, had 124 such possessions over five games.) Instead, the Spurs did what they usually do to get what they want in the half court -- rely on motion, timing, ball movement and, most of all, choice.

Choice is the overriding principle at work in an efficient offense. Take away that offense's primary objective in a half-court possession, and it will gladly move on to option No. 2. Sniff out No. 2, and a third choice will materialize. And so on.

The Spurs under Gregg Popovich have always understood that NBA defenses are too big and quick to confine your offense to one option. There have to be multiple contingency plans in a given possession; otherwise, you leave yourself vulnerable to chance. A lot of fans like the element of chance in sports -- and perhaps that's one explanation for the Spurs' "boring" rap.

But the Spurs' trademark set -- called "motion weak" -- is anything but boring. It's a magical merry-go-round of basketball possibility, a play that has an endless number of outcomes. When it begins, the players aren't even sure where the ball will land, but they know that if they read the defense and move with precision, a quality look at the basket will surface from somewhere.

Let's take a look:
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The play starts simply enough: Tony Parker passes the ball off to a wing player on his right. It might be Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson or Gary Neal. Once the ball leaves Parker's hands, he cuts through to the basket.

If the defense is napping or Duncan has prime position against his defender down on the low right block, the ball can go immediately from the wing to Parker on the move (it'll look like a simple give-and-go) or Duncan for a quick shot. Against bad defenses in January, the Spurs will pick up a couple of easy buckets this way, but deep into the postseason, the Spurs usually will have to put in a little more work.

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Whoa! There's a lot going on here!

Very true, so let's break down what each of our chess pieces is doing on the board:
  • Tony Parker: Rarely do the Spurs get that easy give-and-go mentioned above, so when Parker dishes the ball off in Picture 1, he dives to the basket, but ultimately clears through, then loops around to the wing on the weak side.
  • Tim Duncan: If Duncan isn't fed the ball down low on the right block, he'll use a cross screen along the baseline provided by the Spurs' other wing player (2/3), then set up on the opposite block.
  • 4/5 (Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair): The big man who isn't Duncan sets up at the top of the floor, where he'll receive a pass from the wing, then keep the ball moving by dishing it off to Parker once Parker has cleared through. When he dishes the ball off, our 4/5 man will then set a down screen for 2/3, once 2/3 has finished setting that aforementioned cross screen for Duncan. After setting that down screen, 4/5 will head over to the right block vacated by Duncan. On the rare occasion Bonner is the guy at the top of the floor and his defender is elsewhere, he can fire away. But generally, this is merely a transit point for the ball between the strong and weak sides fo the floor.
  • 2/3 (Ginobili, Leonard, Green, Jackson, Neal): As mentioned above, 2/3 has two jobs: setting that cross-screen for Duncan, then looping back to the perimeter courtesy of a down screen from the big man.

When this cycle of events is over, the ball is back in Parker's hands on the other side of the floor. Duncan may or may not have a mismatch on the left block, depending on how the defense dealt with that cross screen.
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The carousel has slowed down a bit, and Parker has a few options:
  • Feed Duncan on the left block, six words that have yielded four championships. Duncan might have a mismatch or have his man sealed off. Whatever the case, Duncan one-on-one in the low post is never a lousy consolation prize.
  • Kick it over to 2/3. It's difficult to capture the choreography with still diagrams, but 2/3 will often be buzzing at warp speed with his defender trailing in hot pursuit. If there's ample separation and Parker can hit 2/3 on the move, this can either serve as a catch-stop-and-pop midrange jumper, or 2/3 can keep moving and attack.
  • Move into a pick-and-roll with Duncan on the left side. If you're the San Antonio Spurs, there are worse things than a Parker-Duncan two-man game on the left side of the floor with the defense still catching up to all the movement.

The responsibility now lies with Parker and Duncan to make the call. If Duncan moves off the block to set a ball screen for Parker, we move on ...
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The final resort of the Spurs' signature set looks like the first strike from most teams -- a simple angle pick-and-roll on the left side with a variety of drive-and-dish options for Parker. He can deliver a bounce pass to Duncan on the move (or a quick dish if Duncan pops, which is increasingly the case these days). Otherwise, Parker can hit the other big man on a duck-in beneath the weakside glass or kick the ball out to either of his wings on the perimeter.

Parker recorded a career-high 28.4 assist rate this season, far and away the best mark of his career. How did he do that at age 29? By become fluent in situations like these. It takes years to master an intricate offense, even for the most instinctive players. There's a reason we see veteran teams executing best in the playoffs. It's because this stuff is tricky! Running a sophisticated offense requires tens of thousands of possessions in repetition over several seasons with the same guys.

There was a time when Parker couldn't see or wouldn't respond to all the options in the Spurs' offense. He didn't arrive in the league with the vision of Chris Paul or Steve Nash. It took several seasons and some tough love from Popovich, but Parker has arrived in full.

And that's how you build the league's No. 1 offense.


Information in this post was provided by mySynergy Sports.com.

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