The San Antonio Spurs’ 4-1 start to the 2016-17 season has been impressive. They have the fourth-best net rating in the league, which is also impressive.
However, the brilliance of legit MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and the team’s bench is covering up some major problems that will hurt the team significantly in the long term. One of those problems is the unnatural fit with Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor together.
Another issue is arguably an even bigger deal — 34-year-old Tony Parker has been really, really bad. Like, worst-starting-point-guard-in-the-league bad.
Through four games (TP has already gotten Gregg Popovich’s trademark rest treatment in one contest), Parker has put up career lows in points per game, true shooting percentage, assist percentage and PER, along with a career-worst turnover percentage. San Antonio is getting outscored by 11.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, which is a worse net rating than any of the other regulars on the squad by more than 10 points per 100 possessions.
He’s simply getting dominated on both ends by his matchups, which have been a pretty standard cross section of the league’s point guards (Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Goran Dragic and George Hill):
Parker’s offensive game is predicated on him being the initiator of the offense by handling the ball, primarily in pick-and-roll situations, in transition and in hand-off situations. His touch and footwork near the rim has always been superb, whether it results in a feathery teardrop or a spin layup.
This year, though, he’s hardly gotten to the rim at all, continuing a disturbing but unsurprising long-term trend. There are two main reasons for that: Leonard has taken a lot of Parker’s reps with the ball, and Parker no longer has the burst to turn the corner on pick-and-rolls or the legs to get his mid-range jumper to fall. When a big man is forced to switch onto him, the team usually chooses to exploit a different matchup.
In all, Parker has used only 15 pick-and-roll possessions in four games this season, which is about 3.8 per game. Last season, he used 469 of the same kind of possession in 72 contests, or 6.5 per game. His efficiency on pick-and-rolls has also dipped from 0.93 points per possession to 0.80 points per possession. Only 12.5 percent of his field goal attempts have come at the rim, way down from 31.1 percent last season and his career mark of 35.2 percent.
So if Tony is not getting to the rim and hardly creating any offense on his bread-and-butter play, why is he still starting and playing 26.5 minutes per game? It’s a valid question.
If you’re a low-usage offensive player, which Parker has become in the wake of Kawhi’s emergence, you’d better be providing either solid defense (like Andre Roberson or Tony Allen), dangerous three-point shooting (Channing Frye or Kyle Korver) or some of both (Patrick Beverley). Parker is doing neither, which makes it difficult to justify his position in the Spurs’ starting lineup.
Meanwhile, Patty Mills just happens to be playing excellent basketball as the backup point guard. He’s boasting a shooting slash of 51.2/50.0/100, nearly quintupling Parker’s PER and being more of a pest on the defensive end.
Mills is now officially a significantly better basketball player than Parker. And he’s a better fit with the starting lineup, too. He uses the ball less, forces his man to stay on him when he’s on the perimeter because of his shooting prowess and will pressure opposing ball handlers as they dribble up the court. That makes life easier for the rest of the starting lineup.
Mills does have great chemistry with Manu Ginobili in the second unit, and he’s probably best used as a bench spark when he’s only playing around 20 minutes per game. But San Antonio is much better off right now even with a slightly less hyperactive Mills in the starting lineup than an old Parker who doesn’t make plays for the offense, space the floor or make life difficult for opponents on the other end of the floor.
Parker, meanwhile, might benefit from a smaller minutes load and would probably get to the rim more against bench-level defenders. He would have to look to teammate Manu Ginobili for a lesson in humility and flexibility, since Parker has been a starter entire his career and transitioning away from that wouldn’t be easy.
I campaigned for Mills to start for the Spurs before the season, but it’s never been more obvious that he’s the team’s best option to begin games at the 1. There’s a reason that a Mills-Kyle Anderson-Kawhi Leonard-LaMarcus Aldridge-Pau Gasol lineup is 80.9 (!) points per 100 possessions better than a Parker-Anderson-Leonard-Aldridge-Gasol group.
Take the leap and start Patty, Pop.