There was a time when everything the San Antonio Spurs did was based on the nightly contributions of Tim Duncan, and a brief moment when those entire foundations nearly came crumbling down on a free agent trip to Orlando.
A decade has passed since Duncan rejected a compelling free agency pitch from Orlando, and though Duncan remains a significant fixture in the Spurs success, he's no longer the end all be all. On any given night, however, Duncan can summon a reasonable facsimile of his former self and show just enough for Orlando Magic fans to imagine what might have been.
Duncan hit his first shot of the night, a 17-foot straight away jumper from Cory Joseph, who started in place of an injured Tony Parker (sprained ankle). He followed that up with a spinning layup, and a short time later lofting a soft shot off the glass to score six of the Spurs first 10 points. It was a welcome sight for the Spurs, with Duncan off to the worst start of career, averaging 11.3 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting. Duncan scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half, confidently knocking down open jumpers, looking for vintage bank shots, and working a fluid and effective face-up game based off the threat of his jumper.
Duncan managed all this while playing his dependable brand of stellar defense, and showing enough life in his legs to beat the younger Magic big men down the floor for an alley-oop from Marco Belinelli, whose ambition apparently knows no bounds (he tried to throw a lob to Matt Bonner last home game).
Most of Duncan's early season struggles can be traced to an errant jumper, which has been the basis of his late career renaissance. Duncan's per 36 stats (until this season) might be consistent, but the ways in which he goes about scoring are different.
He's no longer a focal point to run the offense through, but from his perch at either elbow, he acts as an important hub–the threat of his jumper unlocks quick ball reversals for corner three-pointers and back cuts along the baseline. Through the earliest parts of this season, the Spurs starting lineup has been awful offensively, averaging 89.5 points per possession (per NBAwowy.com). Part of this has been due to Duncan's struggles connecting on those jumpers, as you can see from his stat chart to the right.
The shots have been flat, consistently meeting the front of the rim, and the lack of success had led to some hesitancy. The Spurs don't rely on Duncan in the post, but need him to be a stress point for defenses to rotate out to and open up the weak side of the floor. When Duncan has successfully reversed the ball, the offense hasn't always connected from deep with Kawhi Leonard struggling to connect from deep (shooting 26.3 percent from behind the three-point line).
It hasn't been a smooth transition integrating new aspects of Leonard's game into the Spurs motion offense, even if individually his numbers have held up fine.
Leonard isn't quite a dynamic ball-handler in pick and roll sets, and isolations for Leonard have generally led to long, pull-up two-point jumpers–not exactly beacons of efficiency, even if he currently is hitting them consistently enough. Part of Leonard's transition into a focal point of the offense has been to call a few post plays a night for him. Leonard has been successful in these endeavors when they occur organically–when he pushes the ball in transition and heads straight into a mismatch, off offensive rebounds, and via quick-hitters that occur through the flow of the offense. But in a specifically choreographed set, the offense stagnates simply because post plays begin from a stationary position, and the Spurs offense works best in constant motion. Ideally, plays dialed up for Leonard would all take advantage of his body control in motion, getting the ball on the move in position to attack immediately, such as this set from Friday night's game:
That the Spurs have been so overwhelmingly successful despite their starters early offensive struggles is a testament to their dominant defense, soft early schedule, and dynamic bench. If the Spurs starters are currently tinkering with different sets and spacing rules in their starting lineups, the second unit remains a symphony of perpetual motion and passing.
Without Tony Parker in the starting lineup, the Spurs bench provided the off-the-dribble creativity that serves as the catalyst for the best versions of their offense. Manu Ginobili (11 points, five assists) may no longer be the explosive scoring threat he once was, but he still retains significant value as an improvisational force off the bounce, even if his turnovers can still creep up (four tonight). The non-scripted plays Ginobili generates on both ends provide just enough unpredictably to keep defenses off balance despite the fact the Spurs have been running the same stuff for the better part of a decade.
The linchpins, along with Boris Diaw, to the Spurs foreign legion, Ginobili and Belinelli have destroyed opposing bench units, with Ginobili sporting a plus-11 and Belinelli a plus-29 against the Magic, to go with a successful lob pass each (Belinelli to Duncan, and Ginobili to Ayres).
They did this by tilting the Magic defense off the bounce, quickly swinging the ball to create further distortion, and then attacking quite possibly the worst closeout defense they've faced so far this season (save perhaps the New York Knicks). Magic defenders appeared to jump at even the slightest twitch of an eyebrow, compromising their rotations, which is how Belinelli (19 points) found himself open for four three-pointers, connecting on all of them.
Coming away with significant insight against a team like Orlando, which is nowhere near the team they will be by season's end, and whose peak as a team this season probably still falls short of average, is difficult. But heading into the game, Duncan's jumper had shown signs of emerging. The misses had arc, and the attempts came more confidently.
The starting lineup still bogged down offensively at times, specifically in the third quarter when the Spurs turned to a post-centric attack around Duncan and Leonard. Yes, Leonard is still flexing his skill set in new directions, and Duncan's own post game is diminished some, but more significantly is the fact that it's hard to build an elite offense around the post. That's not to say a team shouldn't incorporate these actions, as a few post possessions can settle an offense or provide a nice change of pace in the playoffs. But on the whole, it can make an offense too predictable. And when a sloppy start to the second half allowed the Magic to trim their deficit to 81-70, the solution was simple:
This game will blow open again once Manu joins lineup. Spurs post-centric offense is stale.
— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) November 30, 2013
The San Antonio Spurs don't need Tim Duncan to be a destructive force from the low block, and they don't need Kawhi Leonard to generate a high quantity of shots. Certainly they're better by incorporating elements of these things into the offense, but ultimately success hinges on their ability to step into the roles they played tonight. The competition will improve, but so long as Duncan's jumper retains this arc, and the Spurs continue to find the best ways to utilize Leonard, this is sustainable.
Duncan is no longer the driving force behind the system, but he still oversees it. After all, it was he who laid its roots down so many years ago when he chose San Antonio over Orlando.