Categorizing the Spurs’ Frontcourt

When looking back at the frontcourt of the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs offensively, the Spurs’ big men had different roles in how they scored the basketball for the team. Whether it was Tim Duncan posting an opponent, Matt Bonner nailing a 3-pointer, or Tiago Splitter finishing a layup on a pick-and-roll, the Spurs’ big men each brought specific roles to the team offensively.

Using the Synergy Sports and SportVU databases, I’ve categorized the Spurs’ big men from last season based on the way they scored the basketball into three descriptions: the Versatile Ones, the Specialists, and the Blue-Collar guys.

The Versatile Ones

The first category is the Versatile Ones which is comprised of Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw. To be put into this category, a player has to be relied upon for different roles in the offense – scoring the ball from the post, scoring by knocking down a jumper, scoring off a pick or cutting, passing, moving the ball, etc. Duncan and Diaw both encompass all of these traits in their individual games. Here’s a breakdown of their five most used scoring possessions via Synergy, which has all their regular season and playoff data built in.

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Duncan usually scored out of the post, as the Spurs would still go down into their 4-Down set whenever there was a mismatch available for Duncan, or if anything wasn’t working on the perimeter with the guards and forwards. Duncan averaged 0.93 points per possession (PPP) out of the post, ranked 43rd among all NBA players last season, according to Synergy. For Diaw, going into the post was his second most used way of scoring, and he ranked 24th in post-up scoring, averaging 0.98 PPP. When Diaw had begun his short stint as a free agent, I had written a detailed piece on him, on both sides of the ball, if you’d like to read more about his impact. Diaw’s most used method of scoring was the Spot-Up shot. Whether it was stretching the defense and nailing 3-pointers, or scoring off mid-range jumpers, Diaw has the ability to shoot from the outside when he chooses to do so. For Duncan, shooting the Spot-Up was his fourth most used method of scoring. Duncan usually shot the Spot-Up after pick-and-pop sequences. Lastly, one of the main methods of scoring the both of them used was scoring by rolling to the basket after a pick. For Duncan, it was the second most used way of scoring, while for Diaw, it was his third most used method.

The Specialists

I categorized Matt Bonner and Austin Daye as the Specialists because they have one specific role when on the floor – spread the floor to open driving lanes, and get themselves into position to shoot Spot-Up 3-pointers. Below is Bonner and Daye’s five most used scoring possessions which illustrate their preferred method of scoring.

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Diving deeper into how they shot off of the Spot-Up, Bonner scored 1.16 PPP off Spot-Up shots, ranked 33rd in the NBA. Daye averaged 1.26 PPP on Spot-Ups, ranked 14th in the league. Looking at their 3-point percentages in more detail, Bonner shot 43.8% from beyond the arc on his Spot-Up threes, while Daye shot 47.8% off those deep shots. Bonner also shot 45% out of transition from three, and 44% off pick-and-pop threes.

For Bonner going forward, he’s likely to continue to be a Specialist, as he’ll come in and supply the 3-point shooting when needed. For Daye, there’s potential for more growth next season. Last season, in the games Daye played in, he played most of his possessions at the power forward spot, but also spent some time at the small forward position. In the Las Vegas Summer League in July, Daye mainly played the small forward spot and had to work on handling the ball in the pick-and-roll more often, so there could be room for potential growth next season.

The Blue-Collar Guys

Since Tiago Splitter joined the Spurs, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has often described Splitter as a “blue-collar” type of player – someone who doesn’t need the ball to create a scoring opportunity, someone who scores by cutting and setting picks, then rolling to the basket; or someone who grabs offensive rebounds to find their points. These players aren’t players who take 3-pointers, nor do they post as often as players like Duncan or Diaw, but these are the guys who do the “dirty work” that doesn’t always show up on a basic stat sheet. Splitter, Jeff Ayres, and Aron Baynes all represent the Blue-Collar guys group. Below is their five most used methods of scoring from last season.

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All three scored most often with two types of methods – cutting to the basket without the ball for a layup or dunk, or setting a pick, then rolling to the basket for a layup or dunk. The cut was the main type of scoring method for all three, but in the case of Ayres, he actually ranked 76th in the NBA at scoring by cutting, as he averaged 1.26 PPP. As I recently wrote about Ayres, he still had some trouble actually catching those passes, as turnovers were one of the issues that sometimes got in the way of more opportunities for him to score. As for scoring off the pick-and-roll by rolling to the basket, all three ranked in the top-100 at doing it. Splitter scored 1.18 PPP, ranked 17th, Ayres scored 1.07 PPP, ranked 47th, and Baynes averaged 1.00 PPP, ranked 79th in the league.

Unless either of the three players develops a more stable post-game or develops an 18 foot jumper, they’ll continue to fall in the Blue-Collar guy category. At the moment, Baynes is still a restricted free agent, so there’s a chance the Spurs could have just two of the Blue-Collar big men on their roster at the start of the first game of the regular season.

Categories displayed by ball movement

Using the SportVU data, it was interesting to see that each of the three categories was supported by how often the players touched and passed the ball on average per game (chart below). With Duncan and Diaw being the Versatile Ones, they both had more command in the offense; by moving the ball, usually at the top of the elbows. Splitter too had a high amount of touches considering he was in the Blue-Collar player group, but not nearly as many as Duncan and Diaw. Behind Splitter, even Ayres was involved in moving the ball as well on offense. Being that Bonner and Daye fell into the specialist group, they both touched and moved the ball least of the group outside of Baynes.

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In putting the Spurs’ big men into categories in terms of their offensive skill sets, this might be a way to help in categorizing other big men around the league. On the Spurs’ team, one must keep in mind why Duncan, Splitter, and Diaw were the core members of the Spurs’ frontcourt when the playoffs came, and that’s mainly due to their key roles on the defensive end of the floor. So the next time you’re watching a game, thinking about which free agent could be a fit for a certain team, you might be able to use these categories to evaluate what type of player they are, and how their skill set could fit with that team.

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.