Bench Briefings: Examining the Juice Unit through two games

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Introducing a new feature here at Project Spurs, where every Friday we will observe, analyze and react overreact to the happenings on San Antonio’s bench. This week we start with some general observations of the second unit through two games.

The San Antonio Spurs are about 2.5 percent of the way through the 2016-17 season, and even though the silver and black are 2-0, there’s not much we can take away from these two games that can forecast the rest of the season.

That doesn’t mean we can’t try.

By The Numbers:

  • 8.5: Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich hasn’t been shy about using different variations of his second unit early this season. The Spurs have already used 26 different lineups, but the most common bench lineup is the five of Dewayne Dedmon-David Lee-Jonathon Simmons-Manu Ginobili-Patty Mills. In their seven minutes on the floor, those five have a +/- of +8.5. Not bad when compared to the Spurs’ starting lineup which has logged twice as many minutes together with a +/- of -11.
  • 48: A point of emphasis heading into the season was a renewed effort to attempt more 3-pointers than the 18.5 attempts the Spurs took per game last season. So far the Spurs average 21 attempts per game from beyond the arc, connecting at a 43 percent clip. But the bench is responsible for almost two-thirds of those attempts, shooting 48 percent from the field.
  • ∞: Okay, so infinity isn’t technically a number. But it does describe the amount of highlights and fun the Juice Unit has provided so far.

Observations:

    • Let’s get this out of the way. The Lee signing isn’t as bad as I expected. There’s still plenty of time for him to disappoint, especially on the defensive end, but watching Lee get into a rhythm is a treat. The last two seasons have been forgetful for the 11-year veteran, but Lee’s proving he has plenty left to offer the Spurs as a skilled passer and scorer. Lee’s shooting over 50 percent from within 14 feet, which is exactly what he shot last season with the Mavericks from mid-range. His ability to play on or off the ball in the pick-and-roll suits Pop’s offense, and Lee’s repertoire in the post is nauseating for defenders. Plus, he does cool things like eat a ton of Chipotle and make passes like this:
  • Manu Ginobili: There’s not much to say here. Ginobili is 39 years old and playing 20 minutes a night, while still managing to make defenders look like fools. Regardless of his contract, any production you can get out of him at this stage of his career is a miracle and a slap to the face of Father Time.
  • In terms of growth potential, Dedmon is probably tapped out. At the age of 27, there’s only so much better you can get, right? Wrong. Slightly. Dedmon may look like a breakout star or candidate for Most Improved Player, but it’s because he fits a role San Antonio desperately needed; an athletic defensive big, which hasn’t been a thing in the Spurs organization since…David Robinson? Francisco Elson? Pops Mensah-Bonsu?! Either way, Dedmon’s rim protection is crucial to a frontcourt that practically has none, unless Kawhi Leonard shifts to power forward full-time. The Spurs shut the door on a Sacramento Kings comeback with a lineup that included Dedmon, LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard. Unless the offense is struggling, look for that trend to continue, especially against teams with an athletic big like DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis.

Jonathon Calvin Simmons:

Finally, the part you’ve all been waiting for.

Real quick, did you know Jonathon Simmons once paid $150 to tryout for the D-League’s Austin Spurs? You might have heard about it here, here or here. Even our Austin Spurs site wrote about it in January, here.

It’s no secret Pop wants to entrust Simmons with more minutes. With Danny Green sidelined and Kyle Anderson playing a pseudo-shooting guard, Simmons’ athletic ability and shooting is more vital than ever. But before you start clamoring for him to take Green’s starting job (which has been a thing since last season), it’s time to remember how critical it is for Simmons to stay on the bench.

First off, he doesn’t and won’t play on the ball. In 56 games last season, 62 percent of his field goals came on an assist. Through two games, that number is at 67 percent and could climb even higher when Anderson returns to the bench as a third ball-handler behind Ginobili and Mills.

Secondly, Simmons is most effective in two spots: Inside the restricted area, and from each corner beyond the arc.

Here’s a comparison between Simmons and Green from last year:

Defensive rating – Simmons (101.2), Green (95.3)

Advantage Green.

Career 3-point percent – Simmons (40.4) , Green (42.8)

Yes, we’re going to completely ignore Green’s struggles from last year because he deserves a chance to redeem himself first.

Advantage Green.

Dunks –  Umm…

Advantage Simmons.

The point is, both are solid complimentary pieces to the Spurs as a unit, but Green’s shooting and defense is superior. It’s not inconceivable to think Simmons could eventually surpass Green, but Popovich isn’t going to screw with the backcourt chemistry Green and Parker have just because of one superhuman performance against a supposedly immortal team.

What matters is that Simmons grows more comfortable inside the offense and in his role. With 80 games left in the season, this team needs someone who’s prepared for everything from a CD-DNP to 30 minutes of playing time against arguably the best team in the NBA.

So far so good for a man who once paid $150 to tryout for a D-League team, just to be able to make more than that in one minute of game action.

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