On first glance at his season numbers, you wouldn’t assume San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker is having a tough season. Through 47 games, the 2013 FIBA Europe Men's Player of the Year is averaging nearly 18 points on 50% shooting, and in 30.9 minutes per game, no less. Should his per game average hold, Parker’s minutes would tie the second lowest tally since his rookie season.
The eye and the numbers will typically tell different stories. When digging through the stat sheet, we’re often misled by the box score on a player’s performance. Advanced metrics have been a godsend in filling in the blanks, but data can never completely convey what the eye sees. In print, Tony Parker is having another solid season, but it’s obvious that Tony is struggling to live up to his 2012-13 performance. Between his visits to the injury list, Tony has at times looked slower, less explosive, and aberrantly timid.
At 38-15, the Spurs are second in the Western Conference behind the Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder and are also on pace for a franchise record road record. But despite lofty numbers at the NBA’s unofficial halftime, the Spurs – like Parker – just haven’t looked quite right for most of the season. Injuries are the obvious crutch to lean on, but it is a valid one. The Spurs have been forced to roll out 22 different starting lineups this season, including two games featuring Developmental League call-ups. When you step back to consider that and how important consistency and chemistry is to a team, 38-15 is damn impressive.
In January, the Spurs first lost the trio of Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard to injuries by the way of “freak” accidents. Along with losing three-fifths of their starting rotation, the Spurs were also without their best defensive pieces for three weeks. The Spurs strategy of minute-management for the veteran core became strained and Manu Ginobili’s left hamstring quickly achieved the same status. Add in a handful of broken noses (Nando De Colo and Matt Bonner), food poisoning (Boris Diaw), and back spasms (Marco Belinelli), and you get a clear picture of how the New Year has been treating the San Antonio Spurs. Since their return to the lineup, Splitter and Green have already suffered less minor injuries (shin contusion and knuckle sprain respectively). While some injuries are just bad luck, others are the result of an exhausted body part hitting its breaking point.
Tony’s health rejoined the injury conversation after he left the Washington Wizards game on February 2nd with tightness in his lower back. Fatigue is a dangerous element to bet against. Fatigued players are more susceptible to injury for a variety of reasons. The body may not have enough strength to stabilize on a stressed joint. A tired muscle may not offer enough control and stretch beyond its limit. Athletes like Parker are finely tuned machines both in health and technique. When the body is exhausted, technique is sacrificed and the body tends to be placed more often into stressful situations. Age escalates the rate at which the latter occurs; just ask Ginobili and former ironman Steve Nash. Parker will turn 32 this May, and at some point, will likely play in his 1,200th professional game (national team play not included).
Tony basically hasn’t been 100% for almost a year and will unlikely hit that mark any time this season. Rest is absolutely crucial in recovery, and unless Coach Gregg Popovich benches him for a month with a fake injury, the rigorous NBA schedule won’t allow Parker to rest up. Last March, Tony suffered a grade-2 left ankle sprain but returned sooner than expected to finish the season. Parker would later strain his right hamstring in Game 4 of the NBA Finals (apologies for the reminder) and was clearly a shell of his normal self throughout the remainder of the series. After leading the Spurs as far as you can go in the NBA playoffs, Parker continued to do the same with Team France in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament. Playing nearly 30 minutes per game, Tony’s participation in the summer tournament essentially played up to the start of training camp. Since the start of this season, Parker has suffered ailments with his ankle, shin, back, hand, hip, and groin. Also keep in mind that Tony hasn’t had a summer free of international play since 2010.
In the renaissance of the Spurs title hopes, the offense has been structured with Tony as the main engine. Parker’s speed, agility, exceptional pick-and-roll skillset, and respectable tools outside the paint create nightmares for defenses. Some fans gripe about Tony’s lack of assists but Parker tends to play in favor of smart, team-focused passing. Think of it as the basketball equivalent of the hockey assist. But with a hang-up in Tony’s ability to blitz off the screen, lose his man off-the-ball, or beat the closing vise in the lane, the Spurs offense stagnates on the outside. Typically we see Ginobili run the show when Parker is off the floor, but the Argentinean is dealing with his own problems.
The Spurs also can’t afford to live without Parker’s closing abilities. During his MVP-caliber run last season, Parker averaged 5.3 points on 51% shooting in the final period. This season those numbers are currently sitting on 6 points on 59%. For comparison, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are currently 7/55.8% and 7/44%, respectively. It feels like eons since the hotly debated time that was Parker’s formative years – a time when Coach Popovich was apprehensive in placing trust in the overly aggressive guard. Back then, everything flowed through the Big Fundamental – and as Tim Duncan went, so did the Spurs. Now half-a-generation later, the maxim now rings “As Parker goes, so do the Spurs.”
No coach takes on the big picture approach better than Popovich. Coach Pop has thrown away double-digit win streaks for the sake of rest and has faced the fire of both media and league scrutiny for treating prime time games with a preseason temperament. The Spurs need every minute of rest they can supply Parker and with the team still crawling out from underneath the injury landslide, Popovich will continue to choose team health over playoff seeding. The Spurs will only go as Parker does, and if the French guard is still hampered by strains and sprains come April, playoff seeding won’t mean a thing.