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In search for the perfect San Antonio Spurs lineup

Dec 2, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates his game winning shot with teammates during the second half against the Washington Wizards at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 2, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates his game winning shot with teammates during the second half against the Washington Wizards at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
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Almost one third of regular season is behind us. With 7 new players, the Spurs are still figuring out which group gets along the best on the court. So let’s take a brief look on the effectiveness of different Spurs lineups so far.

First of all, the Spurs tried a lot lineup combinations so far; in first 23 games, Gregg Popovich sent out on the floor 204 different 5-man units. In comparison with other 5 top-seeded teams in the league, it’s the most by far margin.

Warriors, who also changed their roster significantly, tried out 163 lineups. Cavaliers came out with 132, Rockets with 112, Clippers had 99 combinations, and Raptors 88.

This number itself shows that Spurs are still searching, still figuring things out. Obviously with this much changes during games, on-court chemistry is suffering. But at this stage of regular season it’s more about finding the best combination of players. It’s about establishing which group of guys gets along the best on the court.

Of course, majority of these combinations played only for few minutes and often in one game only. So the focus in this article will be lineups that played most minutes, and in more than one game. The criteria for purposes of this article was playing at least 10 minutes together in at least 3 games. Now we’ve narrowed our focus to 18 lineups; so let’s see what their statistics say.

Most used lineups

Projected starting five for the Spurs was Parker, Green, Leonard, Aldridge and Gasol. However, due to injuries and occasional resting, this group played together only in 10 out of 23 games for Spurs. That’s the least number of games for starting unit when comparing with five mentioned contenders.

The lineup that played in most games (12) so far is Mills, Ginobili, Leonard, Lee and Aldridge. Other than that, only Mills, Ginobili, Simmons, Lee and Dedmon lineup played in 10 games.

In therms of total minutes played, original starting five played team-high 152 minutes together. Although it’s by far the most for all Spurs lineups, it’s still way behind their main competition. Unit with Mills, Anderson, Leonard, Aldridge and Gasol spent second-most 50 minutes on the court.

After starting first three games and played 42 minutes,  Parker, Leonard, Anderson, LaMarcus and Pau never played again. We’ll talk more about the reasons for that later.

Most defensive-efficient units

The main goal of experimenting with different lineups is always finding the most productive. For Spurs, it’s always about both ends of the floor, but everything starts with defense. So first we’ll take a look at most efficient defensive Spurs’ lineups.

Although they played only 15 minutes together in 6 games, Mills, Simmons, Kawhi, LaMarcus and Dedmon were terrific defensively. To realize quality of their defensive display, we’ll show their numbers translated in Per 48 Minutes stats.

With them on the floor, Spurs opponents were able to score only 60.5 points per 48 minutes. They were shooting 12.5% from beyond 3-point arc, and managed to get only 6.8 assists in that period. The spurs also had +63.6 point differential  at the same time.

Although this unit didn’t get much playing time, it’s definitely one to keep an eye on  in future. It’s very likely that Patty, Simmons and Dedmon will have huge role when Parker, Manu and Pau decide to retire.

This is one of the most athletic Spurs lineups. They have ability to defend small-ball lineups due to their versatility, but with enough size to protect the rim. Also, Kawhi’s and Simmons’ athleticism with Patty’s energy is perfect for aggressive perimeter defense. Definitely the one for the future.

Another second-unit lineup displayed great defense. This is also the most effective lineup for Spurs this season. Mills, Ginobili, Simmons, Lee and Dedmon were dominant so far together. They played total of 36 minutes in 10 games. But they made sure their time count.

While on the floor together, these five guys made their opponents shoot miserable 29.2%, including 10.5% for 3-point. Teams made 20 turnovers per 48 minutes against this unit, scoring 70.7 points, with -43.5 in point differentials. Really dominant display for these guys.

We can see Dedmond’s impact on Spurs game. He provides much-needed rim protection and aggressiveness on offensive board. His mobility also helps Spurs to defend small-ball lineups. It’s not coincidence that he’s part of most effective Spurs lineups.

Dec 10, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs point guard Patty Mills (8) shoots the ball against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Best offensive units

Spurs prefer high basketball-IQ players in roster. Their offense is based on fluid ball and player movement. This style of play demands of players to make quick but right decisions. Aside from Kawhi and LaMarcus, who have green light for ISO plays, others need to oblige this philosophy.

For new player to get comfortable with this system, time is always a factor. It’s still early in the season, especially for the Spurs for things to be fluid on offense. So let’s see who gets along best on offensive side of the court so far.

Again, lineup with Mills, Simmons, Leonard, Aldridge and Dedmon stands out. Same like on defensive end, they were great offensively in their 15 minutes on court. They shoot 56% from the field, 50% from beyond the arc. They are also great on offensive board, averaging 19.1 offensive rebounds per 48 minutes, which is team-high rate. Their overall offensive rating (per 100 possessions) is 140.7, also team-high.

Aldridge, Ginobili, Lee, Leonard, and Mills is interesting combination. Although they have great offensive efficiency  (126.6 Net rating), their defense was terrible. They allowed team-worst 142 points per 100 possessions in 20 minutes on the court. That certainly isn’t something that Pop would want to experiment with further without some defensive effort.

Lineup with Mills, Ginobili, Simmons, Lee and Dedmon dominated on offensive side same as on D. Shooting excellent 50% (52.6% for 3), they added some solid offensive display to complement their suffocating defense. With 116 points per 48 minutes, they outscored opponents by 45.3 points.

With this being projected Spurs second unit, it’s encouraging for the  Spurs to see these guys get along very quickly. Pop will definitely need their impact when Playoffs start.

Groups that don’t get along…for now

As mentioned before, although starters in first three games, Parker, Anderson, Leonard, Aldridge and Gasol never got on the floor together again. That’s not a coincidence.

Although Spurs won these three games, it certainly wasn’t because of this unit. In 42 minutes they spent on the floor together, opponents outscored them by 18 points. That’s a team-low margin. They were also not as good at shooting threes (33.3%), and had team-low rebound rate (30.8 rebounds per 48 minutes).

There is an ongoing discussion whether Mills should be Spurs starting point guard. If we look at statistics when he was on court with Green, Kawhi, LaMarcus and Pau, numbers are not in this unit’s favor.

For 29.4 minutes on the floor, this lineup was outscored 19.6 points per 48 minutes by opponents. They also shoot poor 39.6% from the field (although had good 43.8% for 3). On the other side, opponents were shooting 50% (38.9% for 3), and made 11.4 steals per 48.

Aside from less productivity and point deficit, with Mills as a starter Spurs displayed worse shooting percentage and assist ratio than with Parker as starting guard. It seems that Parker’s play-making abilities are more valuable to Spurs with enough offensive talent around him.

Dec 8, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) reacts to a foul call against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at the United Center. Chicago defeated San Antonio 95-91. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

What about starting 5?

Spurs staring five is not at their full potential yet. To be honest, they played only 10 games together, so we can expect only improvement as time goes by.

One thing that should be considered is their rebounding. Starters allowed 11.7 offensive rebounds for opponents per 48 minutes, one of the team-most. Although Pau statistically isn’t bad defender, he has a huge hole to fill.

Duncan was vocal leader on defense for so long, so his absence has to make impact. It’s not only about statistics. Communication is extremely important on defensive end, and when guy who was in charge of communication leaves, others need time to adjust.

On offensive end, starting 5 has enough talent and experience to improve. When Gasol gets comfortable with finding his spots and shoots on the floor, ball will move better and offense will become fluid. Same was with Aldridge last season.

Conclusion

While starting five is still work in progress, bench is starting to step up for Spurs. Most efficient lineups for Spurs so far are mainly made of second-unit players. The fact is that their effectiveness would be significantly worse if playing minutes increase.

But the thing is, it’s not really a problem. Bench players will never have huge game time – it’s starters’ job. Bench needs to do exactly what they’re doing so far – be as much effective as possible while starters are resting. Dewayne Dedmon’s example says it all.

Although they’re still not playing at their full potential, Spurs are managing to win games. It’s encouraging thing to be able to have top 3 score in the league and still have plenty of room for improvement.

Must Read: Spurs are 19-5 overall after a 3-1 week

For Spurs, regular season is just preparation. They have 82 games to put all the pieces together. With new roster, Pop has tried out huge number of different lineup combinations. Some of them were failures, but it’s just part of a search for good ones.

If their bench continue to produce like they did recently, and starters continue to improve, the Spurs will be ready for another title run.

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