With the start of the playoffs but a week away, the notoriously cautious Spurs have seen their would-be playoff roster go through quite a shake-up over a 12 hour span.
First it was announced that Boris Diaw will miss 3-4 weeks after having surgery to (deep breath) remove a cyst from his lumbar spine. Later, it was announced that the Spurs have requested waivers on mercurial swingman/rapper/entertainer Stephen Jackson, citing concerns that his “strong personality” (putting it lightly) would cause locker room tensions with him struggling to adapt to his diminished role.
Diaw was no longer starting for the team, as Year 3 of The Tiago Splitter Experience has finally seen a full-blown bloom. Popovich hesitated to play Splitter next to Tim Duncan nearly of all last season, with the twin towers combo seeing only 129 minutes. Popovich was clearly more comfortable spacing-wise with the non-shooting Splitter next to a 3 point threat in Matt Bonner – the two shared the court for 702 of Splitter’s 1121 minutes. Duncan, meanwhile, played next to whatever 4th big was in the rotation at the time – initially DeJuan Blair, eventually Diaw.
This season, such qualms seem to have been thrown out the window, with Splitter and Duncan having shared the court for 819 minutes. The Spurs have scorched opponents in those minutes, to the tune of 106 points per possession (right around where they are for the season), but even more impressively, they’ve held opponents to 92.7 – a number that would easily lead the league, and is a full 6 points better than their 3rd best mark. The Duncan-Splitter combo was easily this year’s greatest addition to a squad that somehow keeps improving even though you think their roster is maxed out, an unlocked super-weapon among an arsenal that was nearly complete but still slightly lacking.
Alongside the two, Diaw has settled in as the utility third big. His 38.5% mark from three isn’t as big a boost as it seems, as he rarely shoots, but his vision and passing are helpful cogs in the steamrolling machine that is the Spur offensive system. His loss is huge not because he played a crucial role, but because his 23ish minutes a night were dependable quantity. In replacing them, the Spurs will likely have to choose between two defensively inferior players with glaring offensive flaws in Blair (spacing) and Bonner (a slow release, high accuracy sharpshooter who has struggled to get the same looks in the playoffs over the past few seasons).
The third option is a tricky one, and opponent dependent – and that is playing small, with Kawhi Leonard as a nominal power forward. Such lineups could work against similarly small lineups that the Nuggets (Wilson Chandler at the 4), Thunder (Durant) or Clippers (whenever one of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is sitting) like to run, although running them against the Grizzlies could be a dangerous endeavor.
The loss of Jackson, however, makes it hard to pull the blanket in that direction without leaving the back-part of the lineup in the cold. Without Jackson, the ideal players for such three-guard lineups would seem be Tony Parker, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili – with the premier two of those three dealing with lingering injury issues. Replacing any one of the three can go downhill in a hurry: Gary Neal was a regular feature in last year’s playoffs, but is a clear downgrade, and beyond him are unknown playoff quantities in Nando De Colo, Patty Mills or Cory Joseph.
All that said, cutting Jack strikes the mind harder than it strikes the hardwood. Much like last season in Milwaukee, or the year before that in Charlotte, Jackson’s play this year hardly matched his cult figure status. At 35, his athleticism has been gone for a few years, now, taking his shot creating abilities with it. He’s hitting 37% of his shots, and 27% of his threes. He has a single digit PER, a sub-48 true shooting percentage, and his assist rate just barely outperforms his turnover rate. Each and every one of these numbers has its flaws, but the full ensemble makes it hard to reach any other conclusion: Jackson is no longer a particularly useful basketball player.
Gregg Popovich (and, by extension, the entire Spurs organization) seems to agree. The drop in Jackson’s minutes hasn’t been dramatic, but it was there – Jack sat comfortably at 19.5 ticks per night, after 23.8 with the Spurs after last year’s trade deadline and 21.4 in last year’s playoffs, and was left out of San Antonio’s top 10 most used lineups. A stat like that should come with the appropriate asterisks – namely, that between injuries and Pop’s merry-go-round, the Spurs don’t exactly have “most used lineups” that go beyond their starters, and Jackson’s case is hurt by the games he sat out.
Nonetheless, much like any other playoff squad, the Spurs’ regular season rotation is much more lenient than its playoff equivalent. Certain players get counted on more, and others remain glued to the bench. Last season, Kawhi Leonard was a rookie, and it often showed defensively; this season, Pop’s trust in him is unwavering. Combine that with Jackson’s own decline, and it was easy to see how a playoff cut in minutes was in the cards. Jackson apparently disapproved of such changes, and was shown the door.
The issue here, as mentioned above, is that the Spurs don’t really have enough extra flesh to allow such voluntary cuts. The squad is deep on paper, but much of that depth is of the sort that the playoffs wash away. Blair, Bonner, Green in last year’s Thunder series – all are players who have seen huge declines in either minutes or production in past postseasons, and not even the most black-and-silver colored glasses could show a world that sees a late emergence from Aron Baynes. These Spurs’ playoffs will hinge on Parker and Ginobili’s health, but even assuming the best, San Antonio could conceivably find itself in a spot where they just don’t have enough bodies to work through the grind.
That’s why the Jackson cut was so surprising. It wasn’t his huge role, or the fallout between him and seemingly the only organization who accepted him. Rather, it was the willingness of an organization known for its emphasis on stability to voluntarily up its own degree of difficulty. With the team limping into the playoffs on questionable legs and records (6-6 in their past 12 games), and two of the West’s premier teams finding seemingly ironclad formulas to handle them in the past two postseasons, the alarm in the Alamo should be real.
Lineup data via NBA.com