Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Manu and TP Show & Some Random Musings

Over the past week-plus, the San Antonio Spurs have been involved in two of the most eye-pleasing games of professional basketball I've seen all season, a 106-97 win over Orlando last Monday and a 109-95 comeback victory over New Orleans on Sunday to establish themselves as the NBA's league leaders at 14-2.

During a run of 50-win seasons which extends back through all 12 seasons of the Tim Duncan era, the Spurs have never ranked better than 5th in offensive efficiency, and have never ranked higher in offensive efficiency than defensive efficiency. But S.A. is doing it with an improved offense so far this season, ranking 3rd in offense and 9th in defense currently (they were 9th and 8th, respectively, last year).

And the Spurs offense has been a anti-Heat thing of beauty to watch, a well-orchestrated blend of motion and spacing and ball movement and lights-out outside shooting and the simple concept of the right players getting the ball in the right places at the right times.


So far, 2010-11 has been a season in which the backcourt combo of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker has taken on more of a primary role than ever. The TP-Manu pairing has obviously been a key factor in three championship seasons, but it's always been Tim Duncan who's had the team's best PER and who's driven the team from his role as defensive anchor.

Duncan's still a vital part of the Spurs' success, of course, but Ginobili (25.0) and Parker (21.0) have both surpassed Timmy (20.4) in PER for the first time, and Duncan's minutes are being rationed more than ever, down to 29.4 per game (he has averaged 36.3 for his career, and last season's 31.3 is his previous career-low).

In a few Spurs games I've watched this season, I've noticed that Gregg Popovich now seems to wait absolutely as long as possible before reinserting Duncan into the game in the fourth quarter. In Sunday's comeback over the Hornets, Timmy didn't come back until the 4:15 mark, and probably didn't need to come back, period, because Manu won the game single-handedly with a stunning burst of production in the first 3:30 of the fourth quarter.

San Antonio trailed by as much as 17 (68-51) in the third, before outscoring New Orleans 58-27 over the final 21 minutes, including a 37-18 thumping in the fourth quarter.

As mentioned, the key sequence was the opening minutes of the fourth, in which San Antonio turned a 77-72 deficit into an 89-81 lead with a series of 7 possessions which produced 17 (!) points, and Manu Ginobili had a hand in all 17 points. Yes, I went double italics. It was that good. Check out the play-by-play:

In that stretch, Manu had:
    • 5 points on 2-2 FG (a pullup three and a strong drive)
    • 4 assists which led to 10 points (two of the assists led to threes)
    • The only 2 rebounds available in that stretch (both defensive)
    • 1 steal, which turned into a George Hill basket five seconds later, the only points for which Manu did not score or make the assist.
It was a virtuoso combination of smart ball distribution and superior individual performance - one of the most impressive shows of individual dominance in a season which has already had several.


The early-season performance of Tony Parker has already been well-documented by Tom Haberstroh of ESPN Insider, who called TP a sleeper MVP candidate so far. Also, Zach Lowe of the outstanding new blog The Point Forward, on SI.com, analyzed how the Spurs offense is being driven by playing at a much faster pace than they've ever played at during the Duncan era.

One note stood out to me in Lowe's piece:
    Overall, only six teams are playing at a faster pace than the Spurs. Of note: It’s a trend that excludes Duncan, or at least marginalizes him to a role as a rebounder and outlet passer. He has been involved in just five transition finishes all season, according to Synergy, compared to nearly three-dozen each for Jefferson and Ginobili, and a whopping 64 for Parker.
Yes, I went bold and italics there, because it's consistent with my observations that these Spurs are one the more bizarre fast-paced teams that I've seen.

In watching San Antonio, it doesn't even feel like they're looking to run fast breaks as a team, it really just feels like Parker increasingly looks to take off on one-man forays. Usually, TP breaks one of the cardinal rules of transition basketball: he never has the numbers. Really, almost never. He converts at an amazing rate, considering that he always seems to be going 1-on-3 or 2-on-3.

This phenomenon really stood out to me in San Antonio's 103-94 win over Chicago on Nov. 17. I went back at looked at Parker's clips on Synergy Sports for that game. For the season, Parker has been producing about 1.3 points per possessions (PPP) on transition plays, a strong rate. In the game vs. the Bulls, he was credited with 11 points on 5 transition plays (2.2 PPP). I mean, the Bulls are a good defensive team that plays hard - this is a crazy number. Indeed, a play-by-play analysis of the video showed that the Bulls were getting back on defense... but they still couldn't stop Parker. Here's a play-by-play breakdown:
    1) 2-on-3 break: TP Bucket
    2) 1-on-3 break (4th defender collapses at end): TP Bucket
    3) 3-on-3 break (4th defender chases in at end): TP Bucket And 1
    4) 2-on-3 break: TP Bucket
    5) 2-on-3 break: TP Bucket
Not once did Parker have the numbers, yet he converted every single time. Another thing I noticed is that, on any break above where it was 2-on-3 or 3-on-3, the non-Parker Spurs always looked to spot up behind the three-point line, rather than run to the basket, and were really trailers more than what we commonly think of as active participants in fast breaks.

It really might be the most bizarre fast-break approach I've seen: they have one little guy who gets the ball and dribbles like crazy, as he runs a one-man break which he can finish uncommonly well, even against the numbers, and even though he's not a physically dominating guy - he essentially can't even dunk in a game! And his teammates don't even look to run to the basket, they're just running to the line.

I think the conventional wisdom is that the Spurs take a fairly conservative approach, but I'm impressed at how Popovich has been open to embrace the unorthodox.


Random musings:
Miami: The Heat set a new low for me in the game vs. Dallas on Saturday, when LeBron James chose of his own free will to throw an entry pass in to Joel Anthony, matched up in the low post vs. Tyson Chandler, even though Dwyane Wade was... wait for it... standing in the corner watching.

For me, it established a new standard for worst post-entry decision, topping the several times that Baron Davis threw the ball in to Ben Wallace with his back to the basket during the 2002 World Championships. Maybe Wallace wasn't the absolute worst post player, I grant you, but consider that it was a Team USA roster, so there were always multiple 20 ppg scorers also on the floor and that there was a trapezoid lane which pushed Big Ben further away.

But this - Joel Anthony vs. Tyson Chandler - was worse. Couple that with a Mario Chalmers-Joel Anthony pick-and-roll run with both Bosh and Wade on the floor, and I just can't take this team any more. While I do find plenty wrong with the offensive philosophy of the coaching staff, at a certain point, these are veteran players, and they have to make better decisions then dumping the ball in to Joel Anthony. The bigger problem is that it's an emblematic play: Miami doesn't play offense with any kind of systematic awareness or purpose of what the hell they're trying to accomplish. Contrast that to... oh, I don't know... say, the Spurs.

Sacramento: One story developing quietly in the West is the regression of Tyreke Evans in his second season in Sacramento. He's down in PER from 18.1 to 14.1, down in FG% from .458 to .408, down in FTA from 6.5 to 4.7. Moreover, in a couple games I've caught, Evans has made stunningly bad decisions repeatedly in crunch-time situations, whether taking horrendous fadeaway shots despite his imposing physical frame or making careless turnovers on stuff like jumping in the air aimlessly with no idea where he wanted to go with the ball. Just high-school stuff, really. Plays that a second-year pro shouldn't be making.

NBA vs. NFL Discipline: The past couple weeks of the NFL season have seen punches thrown on the field of play by Richard Seymour as well as Andre Johnson, in his vicious altercation with Cortland Finnegan on Sunday. While Seymour and Johnson were both ejected, it's surprising to me that neither player was suspended further, only fined. It highlights how the discipline for fighting is much tougher in the NBA.

Carmelo Anthony was suspended for 15 games for throwing one punch in Denver's 2006-07 fight vs. the Knicks. I'd imagine that Johnson, with his three roundhouse blows, would have merited about 25-30 games (the rough equivalent of 5-6 NFL games) by NBA standards.

Certainly, there's an extra level of vigilance necessary in the NBA because fights are much more likely to spill into the stands (as the Nuggets-Knicks brawl did), and probably an extra level of tolerance for NFL fighting because the game is so violent that it makes it more inevitable. Still, there's no doubt that the NBA has staked out a much stronger line against on-field fighting, as well as dissent towards referees, for which there is essentially no penalty in the NFL, as opposed to the increasingly strict standards for technical fouls, and their accompanying point penalties, in the NBA.


At 8:01 PM, Blogger john marzan said...

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At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Filipe said...

Speaking of Manu look at this: http://bit.ly/gf2mN7

5th best True Shooting for a player with 25%+ usage ever so far. When we take in account his great AST%, he is having one of the most efficient/productive offensive seasons ever. I don't think most people have understand yet how well the TP-Manu backcourt is playing.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Dentist San Antonio said...

Great break down, I'll have to come back to your blog more often.

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous dentists Round Rock said...

Here's hoping they have a great season. Too bad about Manu breaking his hand. Makes me so happy when the season starts up.

At 7:11 PM, Anonymous security guard Harlingen said...

I agree about the vigilance on fighting in the NBA. It's too bad the NHL doesn't at least follow football. It's exciting but really bad for the players.

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I don't think most people have understand yet how well the TP-Manu backcourt is playing.
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The bigger problem is that it's an emblematic play.
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