Solving Popovich’s Personnel Puzzle

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Gregg Popovich will soon be making changes to the Spurs starting lineup, or at least he should be.

The current group of Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Dante Cunningham, and LaMarcus Aldridge are being outscored by an abysmal 31.8 points per 100 possessions. They have already shared the court for 60 minutes of game time in just five games, quickly and alarmingly becoming Pop’s most played lineup of the season.

Popovich has already put 171 different five-man lineups on the floor early in a season with a lot of new faces and a roster built around one particular player who is no longer wearing silver and black. His challenge isn’t just to devise the best starting lineup, he has to figure out who should close games, and how to balance those lineups for everything in between.

Every group needs a ball handler to initiate plays, shooters to space the floor, and enough defense to compete. It is a 48-minute tightrope walk for the Spurs coaching staff to achieve that balance with the healthy players on this roster. The team is led by two All Stars who can’t shoot from deep, and the rest are role players who each do certain things very well and other things very poorly.

This personnel puzzle has tied my brain into a pretzel and legitimately stresses me out. Advanced stats can help, but they don’t tell the whole story even when the sample sizes are much bigger. There are three distinct problems that need to be addressed at the same time to solve the puzzle. Here is my best effort at doing that.

The Point Guard Problem

Derrick White is proving himself to be a talented and well-rounded player in his return from a preseason injury, but he’s also struggling to fit in with the starting lineup at times. Despite his clear talent, the Spurs are being outscored by 21.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. He’s a solid individual defender, but the second-year player clearly needs to work on his positioning and team defense.

White’s major defensive lapses come in transition and the pick and roll, both of which require a ton of communication and chemistry. That takes time to build, and the White will eventually recover from Bryn Forbes’ head start and become the best defensive point guard on the roster. He has the physical tools and his game is very polished, he just needs to get used to playing with this team.

However, that doesn’t mean that White should start the games. In fact, he shouldn’t for a few reasons. Bryn Forbes is averaging 12.8 points per game this year and has earned his place in the starting lineup. He’s shooting 44% on three-pointers, which is exactly the backcourt partner a ball-dominant interior scorer like DeMar DeRozan needs.

White can shoot, but he plays better creating the offense for himself and for teammates as a true point guard. If he shares the floor with DeRozan, roles on offense get muddled and players wind up in spots where they’re not that effective. He’ll have more of an opportunity to create off the dribble if he runs the second unit, and he might get a pointer or two from a certain newly-retired bald guy who still has a locker in the team facility.

In addition to staggering the playmaking ability of DeRozan and White, Popovich also needs to stagger the identical strengths and weaknesses of Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills. They’re both undersized off guards who launch threes, create when they have to and have a difficult time on defense no matter how hard they try. They’ve played 142 minutes together, and they’re giving up 109.2 points per 100 possessions.

Two players who do the same job and could both get bullied in the post by Steph Curry should not share the floor unless they’re both shooting like Splash Brothers on that particular night, or if the other team puts out two guards who Patty Mills can handle defensively. The first seems likelier than the second.

The Aldridge at Center Problem

LaMarcus Aldridge is primarily playing center for Popovich this year, and his mixed results have been well documented. He’s rebounding at an elite level on the offensive end, protecting the rim, and scoring 17.4 points per game despite the disappearance of his signature jumper.

One of the reasons the 6’11” Aldridge’s shot hasn’t gone in this season is that true 7 footers have the size to alter his patented fadeaway. That size disadvantage hurts in the post and at the rim, so if Pop insists on keeping LaMarcus at the five, he needs to change his game.

If Aldridge is smaller than the center guarding him, he and DeMar DeRozan need to pick and pop him to death. DeRozan leads the league in drives per game, and he frequently commands a double team from the opposing center at the rim. If Aldridge hangs back at the elbow after setting a screen, the play will often result in an easier layup for DeMar or a wide-open catch and shoot jumper for Aldridge.

This strategy allows DeRozan to establish himself creating out of the pick and pop, and it should also give Aldridge enough open looks to get into a rhythm shooting the ball. It also increases the likelihood that Aldridge will get switched onto a smaller defender. To execute it, the other players on the court need to be three-point threats and adequate defenders.

The Three and D Problem

This problem makes solving the other two a particularly vexing challenge. There isn’t a single prototypical three and D guy on the roster after the departure of Danny Green, and every role player on this team struggles in at least one of those areas. A lineup of shooters will be porous defensively, and a defensive-minded group will not space the floor well for DeRozan and Aldridge.

Pop started Dante Cunningham in the third game of the season to guard LeBron James, and he’s kept him in there ever since. Cunningham is the Spurs best wing defender, and he helped turn around a historically bad defense playing heavy minutes. Cunningham is not a volume shooter, but he’s making 39 percent of his threes this year. His job on offense is to stand in the corner, shoot if he’s open, or keep the play moving if he’s not. He is solid in that role and needs to be in the starting lineup.

So far, the starting lineup consists of Forbes, DeRozan, Cunningham, and Aldridge. The obvious answer for that last spot is Rudy Gay, a proven scorer, and adequate defender. That lineup is tied for Popovich’s most used but has a net rating of just +0.8 in 60 minutes of play. Gay is a heavy isolation scorer, so when he goes to work it leaves DeRozan and Aldridge spacing the floor, poorly. This lineup should continue to play together but probably shouldn’t start.

Gay’s playmaking and shot creation would be missed on the bench, and so would his defense. Even though he’s a talented player and the third-leading scorer on the team, putting him in the starting lineup would throw the rotation out of whack and seriously weaken the bench unit. Plus, he’s already missed a few games this season, and consistency is important in the starting five.

The Spurs could go for a bigger lineup with a true center, but Poeltl doesn’t space the floor well and Gasol is better suited for a bench role at 37. He is the Spurs most accurate three-point shooter, but he can’t run the floor quickly enough and his defense is severely lacking. He’s always been one of the best passing big men in the game, and he has become a quarterback of sorts for the second unit.

Poeltl is a solid young seven-footer, but he’s still learning the Spurs system. He gets rebounds, dives on the floor, and rolls off of screens with the best of them. If LaMarcus is struggling to defend the opposing center, Poeltl can do the dirty work down low and allow Aldridge to play his natural position.

Still, Poeltl isn’t quite ready to start. He struggles to defend the pick and roll at times, loses his man watching the ball, and fouls a lot. He can make a big impact with his size and physicality down low, but that impact should probably be off the bench.

Rookie Chimezie Metu is only playing in garbage time, but maybe that should change. Metu is 6’10”, and his springy legs allow him to play very high above the rim. He hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity to show it off, but his post game is solid and he has a pretty nice mid-range shot as well. He should see the floor more, just not in the starting lineup. He’s only shooting 25 percent, and obviously, defensive communication will take some learning.

Davis Bertans is a prototypical stretch four. He might have the best shooting range on this roster, and he has the athleticism to defend multiple positions well. However, his limited playmaking ability makes him a bit of a redundant player next to Dante Cunningham. The pair has a net rating of -29.1 when playing together. Bertans thrives in that catch and shoot role, especially if the Spurs are playing through Aldridge in the post.

The Solution

The last piece of this starting lineup puzzle needs to be a threat from deep who understands the team defense and can make plays for teammates if need be. That piece is Popovich’s prodigal son, Marco Belinelli.

The lineup of Forbes, DeRozan, Belinelli, Cunningham, and Aldridge has only played together for a total of four minutes across six games, but they’re outscoring opponents by a completely unsustainable 93.1 points per 100 possessions. Obviously, that sample size is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, but it’s essentially the same as the Spurs’ fourth-most used lineup.

Swap Mills in for his body double Forbes and that group has played 29 minutes over 11 games. Their net rating is +35.3, a 67 point swing in the right direction by simply replacing Derrick White with Marco Belinelli in the starting lineup. The advanced stats are useful, but they don’t tell us why this works.

First, the spacing around DeRozan and Aldridge is perfect. Forbes, Belinelli, and Cunningham all have the ability to make the defense pay if left open at the arc. Belinelli moves without the ball better than almost anyone else in the league, and his offense ranges from facilitating to taking running 26-foot heat checks, and everything in between.

Belinelli is not a fantastic isolation defender, but he has the size and anticipation to make smart and impactful plays on that end of the floor. As long as he plays within the system that he knows so well, he won’t be a liability. His defense becomes a problem if surrounded by two or more bad defenders, like Mills and Gasol.

The Italian veteran strengthens that starting five, and putting him there also balances the rotation pretty perfectly for the rest of the game. The first substitution of the game for the Spurs should be Mills in for Forbes. Rudy Gay can come in and replace either Belinelli or Cunningham, depending on who is playing better and who is needed more. If both need a rest and Pop wants to stay small, Bertans could come in as well and the lineup remains balanced.

Aldridge, Gay, Belinelli, DeRozan, and Mills make up Pop’s sixth most used lineup, and their net rating is a stellar +24.3 across seven games. Throw Bertans in there instead of Gay, and it’s +28.0 in seven games. Again, this lineup works because there’s enough shooting around Aldridge and DeRozan and there’s enough defense to go around.

Alternatively, Popovich could insert either Gasol or Poeltl to allow Aldridge to work in the post against the opposing team’s power forward. In that case DeRozan should probably head to the bench for White, who is a better shooter. As talented as DeRozan is, his presence on the floor makes it more difficult for Aldridge to post up. When DeMar rests, LaMarcus should use that opportunity to establish himself down low.

Staggering minutes between Aldridge and DeRozan should allow them both to do their respective things without getting in the other’s way. Pop can ensure that he has at least one All-Star on the floor for most of the 48 minutes, and that’s always a good thing.

When it’s time for Aldridge to rest, DeRozan can run pick and roll with his Toronto pal Jakob Poeltl. Rudy Gay spaces the floor, adds a playmaker and plays solid defense. This lineup calls for either Mills or Forbes playing off guard, and any one of Bertans, Belinelli, or Cunningham should complete the group nicely. Pop could also put Metu in for Poeltl here.

The bottom line is that players at the same position with similar skills and deficiencies should not be sharing the floor together. That means Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills, Dante Cunningham and Davis Bertans, Poeltl and Metu, and for the most part DeRozan and White.

Despite his shooting struggles, Aldridge is still the best bet at starting center. He needs to pick and pop more to draw the opposing center out of the paint and flip the size disadvantage on its head. He should take advantage when switched onto smaller defenders, or if later in the game Popovich pairs him with a true center and three shooters.

Closing Time

When it comes time to win the game, balancing the whole rotation is no longer a concern. The final few minutes are about playing the best five-man group possible. As of right now, most situations will call for the proposed starters Forbes, DeRozan, Belinelli, and Aldridge, and Rudy Gay replacing Cunningham. This lineup has posted a net rating of +28.1 over four games.

Gay is a good enough defender, and his isolation scoring is vital down the stretch. Pop could put Mills in for Forbes here and go with experience, but Forbes is the better defender. If the Spurs find themselves winning by a substantial but not insurmountable margin, they could replace Belinelli with Cunningham for a lineup that has held opponents to 99.2 points per 100 possessions.

If the Spurs are down, it’ll be tough to claw back into the game because their two best players do not shoot threes well. Situations like these call for Davis Bertans. Put him in there instead of Belinelli, and that lineup is scoring 126.3 points per 100 possessions. In any case, we know that DeMar DeRozan will dominate possession for San Antonio down the stretch.

Almost no situation calls for Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills on the floor together, not even if there’s a fire. This is especially true at the end of the game. Eventually, neither should be playing down the stretch. That responsibility will go to Derrick White once he starts playing defense up to his potential.

There are a million different ways to go about this incredibly complex puzzle, and the Spurs are paying people smarter than me to figure it out. If you have any questions, comments, concerns, quibbles, or better ideas, let me know on Twitter @RealTomPetrini. I will answer from my bathtub with a much-needed glass of wine in my hand.

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