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How the Spurs Can Ignite an Underachieving First-Unit Offense

Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports

As it turns out, Tiago Splitter may have been the MVP of the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs.

I’m obviously joking here, but the Spurs’ early performance with LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting lineup instead of Splitter has been extremely unproductive.

Take a look at San Antonio’s top unit from last season compared to the lineup the Spurs have trotted out at this beginning of this campaign:

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.23.38 AM

I would argue the defense in this year’s starting group isn’t terrible, but that 99.4 offensive rating is. That number would tie them for 22nd in the NBA, when San Antonio’s overall offensive rating (104.6) slots them fifth.

Keep in mind, this lineup is one the Spurs have used nearly five times more than any other lineup so far this season. It also ranks No. 3 in the NBA for the amount of minutes it logs.

The fact that San Antonio is still 9-2 (the second-best record in the league) and outscoring teams by 10.8 points per game (also second-best) with a very frequently used and ineffective starting lineup is a testament to the team’s depth.

So what’s going wrong with the Spurs’ top group?

It’s easy to blame Aldridge, who hasn’t found his outside touch yet. He’s getting plenty of good looks, but sports a pathetic 34.3 effective field goal percentage on open or wide-open jumpers outside of 10 feet. He takes more than six of those a game, by the way.

Danny Green is also a logical scapegoat. “Icy Hot” has been a whole lot more icy than hot in the early part of the season, shooting 32.9 percent from the field and 30 percent from downtown.

But there are some inherent flaws with the five-man combination Gregg Popovich has trotted out so frequently. You have four players who like the mid-range area for a lot of their shots (Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker). Since those players tend to go to areas inside the arc to wait for the ball, the offense can cave in on itself and mess with the spacing. Danny Green being off from downtown doesn’t help this.

Also, you have three guys (Aldridge, Leonard and Parker) who often try to get in a groove by creating their own shots. None of them are natural distributors, although Parker is solid. When the Spurs go into force-feed-LaMarcus-or-Kawhi-in-the-post mode, Parker is virtually worthless because he isn’t a good screener, he’s not a confident spot-up shooter and he’s a defensive liability.

All of this results in poor ball movement, as shown by the yucky assist and turnover numbers you saw in the above table.

Luckily for the Spurs, their second unit is almost the polar opposite. Sometimes I convince myself Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, Rasual Butler, Boris Diaw and David West are playing their own pretend game of hot potato just for fun.

Even though we see the occasional unassisted basket, like a Boris Diaw rumble to the rim or a long-strided Manu Ginobili gallop to the goal, these moves are decisive. There’s very little of players just standing around with or without the ball, unlike the starting lineup.

It’s almost as if we have two past title-winning San Antonio teams playing on one roster.

The starting unit is the 1998-99 Spurs, a squad that preferred to win with lockdown, physical defense, a slow pace and scoring mainly from the post and the mid-range area.

Meanwhile, The bench embodies the 2013-14 Spurs, an uptempo team that moved the ball around the court at a dizzying pace and made a killing from three, all while playing almost no isolation ball.

Ideally, Popovich can find a way to make all of his main lineups into a hybrid of these groups.

How can he maximize Leonard and Aldridge’s exceptional offensive talents from the mid-range and in the post while facilitating ball movement at the same time? When a lot of bench players are on the floor, how can the Spurs have enough size on defense to hold their own when the game’s tempo slows down?

I have an idea.

A mere flip of the starting and reserve backcourts on occasion could be extremely helpful. I’m not necessarily advocating for a new starting lineup, but I do think the makeup of the current starting group needs to be tweaked more often than it has been to help spread the second unit’s contagious emphasis on ball movement to the starting lineup.

What my proposed plan entails is more minutes together for the following groups:

Group A – Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan

Group B – Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson/Rasual Butler, Boris Diaw, David West

If you’ve watched the Spurs a significant amount of the past few years, you’ll understand why I believe Mills and Ginobili are pretty much a package deal here. Their games complement each other perfectly.

Mills, with his mediocre ball-handling, appreciates Ginobili often bringing up the ball and initiating the offense. Ginobili, an instinctive passer, likes how Mills goes to the correct spot on the floor and sets his feet quickly in spot-up situations. The Aussie point guard is also a deadly three-point shooter once he catches the ball.

The second-unit activity, ball movement and shooting of that backcourt would be huge for Group A. A physically dominant frontcourt of Leonard, Aldridge and Duncan is currently being hampered by Parker, who doesn’t spread the floor, and a struggling Green. There would be more flow for Aldridge to get even better looks off the catch, and Leonard could also take more open threes (he’s shooting 42.1 percent but only taking 3.8 per game).

In Group B, Green’s dogged effort and great length on defense would alleviate the pressure on a post duo that struggles to protect the rim. This unit also benefits Green, as it only has one player who could be considered a ball-stopper (Parker) instead of three. This gives the two-way shooting guard an opportunity to come out of his slump playing next to unselfish guys like Butler or Anderson, Diaw and West, who are all constantly in pursuit of the very best shot.

Maybe this lineup tweak is the solution, maybe it isn’t. But one thing seems clear: San Antonio needs its first unit to move the ball better, and it could definitely use an infusion of that trademark second-unit urgency.

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