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

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.