In psychology, the Kubler-Ross Model is a well-known concept that outlines the stages of grief. When a person goes through some sort of traumatic experience, he or she often experiences five different emotions, sometimes in order.
At this point, I’ll defer to The Office‘s Michael Scott to briefly explain what those emotions are:
So there you have it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
For San Antonio Spurs fans like me, 33-year-old Tony Parker’s two-year decline from one of the top three point guards in the NBA to an on-court liability has me Kubler-Ross-ing to the extreme.
The Five Stages of Grief, Tony Parker Style
First, there was the denial, which lasted for the entire 2013-14 regular season and playoffs.
Parker’s performance during that campaign was decent. Not great, mind you, but he was still good enough to get voted to the Western Conference All-Star team as a reserve. His points per game did drop from 20.3 in the previous season to 16.7, his assists slipped from 7.6 to 5.7 and his true shooting percentage fell from 58.8 to 55.5.
At the beginning of the the 2014 playoffs, I thought, “This is what Parker’s been waiting for. Now that the real season is starting, he’ll turn it on.”
Except he didn’t.
Through the first three rounds, TP’s scoring average was a “meh” (for him) 17.2 and his assists were only at 4.9, despite playing more minutes per game than in the regular season.
Parker exited Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals at halftime with an ankle injury, but the Spurs came back to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder without him to clinch a series victory.
This was the lede from ESPN’s recap of that game:
Notice, the possibility that Parker was anything but the Spurs’ best player wasn’t even considered. Apparently, ESPN shared my denial — we thought his dip in play was just a temporary thing that would be fixed.
In the Finals, Tony played alright, but took a backseat as Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan were the biggest driving forces behind San Antonio’s dominant 4-1 Finals victory over the Miami Heat.
Anger started to take hold at the beginning of the 2014-15 season. Parker’s numbers weren’t bad initially, but he was dominating the ball a bit too much for my liking and often failed to look for Leonard, the future face of the franchise, on offense to help the youngster get back in rhythm after an eye injury.
Anger gave in to full-on rage in January and February, when the French point-guard’s play had fallen to a level it hadn’t sunk to in at least a decade. Parker had more field goal attempts than points in those two months, forcing drives that weren’t there and jacking up contested mid-range jumpers galore, seemingly just to spite me. Defense was never a specialty of Parker’s, but now his declining quickness and small size was making him a target for opposing offenses.
Then, I began to bargain. The Aroostook Mental Health Center describes this stage as “usually (involving) promises of better behavior or significant life change which will be made in exchange for the reversal of the loss.”
I vowed that I wouldn’t say such unkind things to Tony while watching him on the court, hoping that I might be blessed with some better play from him. I got it for about a month — Parker had some encouraging moments in March, like this 32-point gem against the Chicago Bulls:
Down the stretch of the regular season and the playoffs, however, I just got depressed. Parker’s brief return to his old self was short-lived, and he went back to shooting ill-advised mid-range jumpers and not being able to get to the rim.
Parker had suffered a hamstring injury earlier in the season, but Achilles tightness in the first-round series further sapped him of his burst and made me pine for more playing time from Patty Mills and Cory Joseph against the Los Angeles Clippers.
With Clippers point guard Chris Paul outplaying Parker about as severely as you could imagine, Los Angeles won the seven-game series.
But now, five months later, I’ve come to accept Parker’s age- and injury-related decline.
LaMarcus Aldridge arrived in July, so the Spurs now have Danny Green, Leonard, Aldridge and Duncan as four of their starters. The star power packed into that quartet makes Parker being a below-average starting point guard not totally ominous.
It’s crazy to think about, but Parker has gone from being considered arguably the Spurs’ best player to the weak link in their starting five in about a year. Statistically, his decline has been steep.
So how can Gregg Popovich and the rest of the San Antonio squad help alter Parker’s role to maximize his remaining abilities? Let’s take a look.
What the Spurs Can Do With Tony
For starters, the Aldridge signing should be huge for the Spurs’ offense in easing the blow of Parker’s decline.
He’s a guy you can dump the ball to on the low block when the offense is stalling, and the attention he draws can at least facilitate some movement even if he doesn’t score himself:
Aldridge, having been Portland’s undisputed No. 1 offensive option for the past five years, will take touches away from Parker. That’ll keep the aging point guard fresh and, in turn, help the Spurs.
Now, San Antonio isn’t going to change its motion offense just to accommodate Aldridge’s post-up skills, but general manager R.C. Buford has suggested that the team will be making some concessions for the big man, as Aldridge will do for the Spurs.
For the past several years, it’s been mostly Parker who’s been in command in Pop’s offense. As the focal point, he’s run side pick-and-rolls with Duncan or sprinted loops around the half court, passing by several screens on his way, not to mention several other movements that get the Frenchman the ball in scoring or assist situations.
Regarding that loop, here’s an excellent explanation on one of the Spurs’ favorite offensive concepts from BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Coach Nick. You’ll be able to tell the footage is a couple years old from how spry and dominant Parker looks:
Do the Spurs want Parker to be the guy doing all that running, both with and without the ball, throughout games in 2015-16? I’m guessing not.
Kawhi started to bring the ball up the floor at various points last season, making Parker’s cuts and handling the ball in Parker’s pick-and-rolls. He’ll continue to do that more and more as his offensive abilities blossom, and for the sake of his older teammate’s legs.
As for Tony, his potential as a spot-up shooter off the ball in those situations is intriguing.
Last season, he drained 38 three-pointers on 42.7 percent shooting from behind the arc. That may not seem like much, but the makes were his highest in 10 seasons and the success rate was a career high. In catch-and-shoot scenarios, he was 43.1 percent on threes, per SportVU.
However, he’ll have to be much more consistent from outside next season if he indeed takes more long-distance shots:
Tony Parker three-point shooting in 2014-15:
TP before All-Star break: 29-of-57 (51.1 percent)
TP after ASG + playoffs: 9-of-41 (22.0)
— David Kenyon (@Kenyon19_BR) October 1, 2015
Essentially, what I’m campaigning for here is a reversal of the roles Leonard and Parker had during Parker’s prime. In 2013, Leonard was scoring mostly on spot-ups, by attacking closeouts, in transition and on hand-offs where he could get a full head of steam moving toward the hoop.
For Leonard, the big reason he couldn’t be an initiator of the Spurs’ offense at that point was his mediocre ball-handling abilities. He was a straight-line slasher who didn’t have the dribble moves to shake his man. But he’s more crafty now.
2015 Parker, like Kawhi in 2013, can’t shake his man off the dribble easily. For Tony, it’s not a ball-handling problem, but a quickness and strength problem. He’s 6’2″, 180 pounds with only average burst for a point guard these days.
What Parker has going for him right now is excellent touch around the rim, solid passing ability and respectable spot-up shooting ability. He can still be a valuable player to the Spurs on offense, but they must feature him in a way that doesn’t require him to exert so much effort. He can still do some of his old pick-and-rolls and cuts, just not as many.
If the 33-year-old can receive the ball on hand-offs as he’s moving toward the rim or when he’s open for a jumper, that allows him to attack a scrambling defense more frequently rather than a (relatively) set one, which should be a huge key for Parker and San Antonio.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: Parker has become bad on defense. The Spurs were nearly five points per 100 possessions worse at stopping the opposition with him on the court compared to when he was on the bench, per Basketball-Reference.com.
But wait, didn’t he play most of his minutes with Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, two Defensive Player of the Year candidates? Both of those guys made the Spurs’ defense stingier when they were on the floor, both statistically and empirically speaking.
Yes, he did. I’m just as confused as you are.
TP ended up 82nd out of the 83 qualified point guards in defensive real plus-minus, ahead of only rookie Zach LaVine, who was 19 years old most of the season and playing out of position.
So how do the Spurs cover up for Parker?
Thankfully, Leonard and Green just happen to be the best wing defensive combo in the NBA. Both are also versatile enough to guard positions 1-3.
San Antonio’s rule of thumb should be to have Leonard on the best offensive player of the other team’s perimeter guys, Green on the second-best and Parker on the worst.
Too many times last season, I watched Parker get torched individually by the likes of Stephen Curry, Chris Paul or even lesser point guards. The Spurs would switch him onto a more harmless player, and Leonard or Green would then stop the bleeding by covering Parker’s original man.
However, if the Spurs go to a position-less approach right from the get-go, Parker can stay fresh for the offensive end while San Antonio can cut its losses on defense.
Ideally, Parker would be best-served to play around 25 minutes per game this season, a decent-sized dip from his 28.7 last season. Mills and Ray McCallum are two of the better backup floor generals in the game who also have skills to offer the team, so they each deserve double-digit minutes.
When TP is in the game, putting him in situations that accommodate his skills should be a key for San Antonio. His quickness is no longer top-tier, and his deadly mid-range jumper seems to be a thing of the past, an assertion confirmed by Parker’s poor showing at EuroBasket. He needs to spend fewer possessions as an offensive initiator and more as a spot-up weapon and hand-off slasher.
On defense, he needs to be willing to guard different players, even if they’re bigger shooting guards or small forwards.
Parker’s decline may not be fun to watch, but Coach Pop has the smarts and the pieces around his point guard to work through it. They’re definitely going to need to find a plan if they want to make a championship run in the wild West.