Thursday, September 30, 2010

The need at the wings and Greg Popovich's 3-man rotations

So most of the Spurs blogs I'm reading are currently talking about what to do about our wing situation.  Most will probably ask the question: "Who will replace Bruce Bowen?".  And while I understand the question from a skill-set perspective, I don't necessarily think that broad and simple question really addresses the needs that we really have.  If you haven't already, read the nice prediction post at 48minutes, because they succinctly sum up all the wing players currently at Spurs training camp.  I'm not here to talk about that.  I'm here to address the more fundamental question of what exactly we need, at the wings.

I'm not really an expert on the game of basketball, but I believe that the specific breakdown between SG and SF was created by the game's developers for a reason.  Granted we often use the term "wings" rather broadly sweeping both positions under the rug, but I think in this situation we need to get specific.  In regards to our closers we have an SG in Manu Ginobili and an SF in Richard Jefferson.  While Manu is, well Manu, we don't look to him for lockdown defensive prowess simply because we need his energy for the offensive end, and that suits us just fine, so long as he's decent to above average defensively, which he is.  From last season's showing, most of us are probably more than a little disappointed with Richard Jefferson, and by now (at age 30) we really can't expect him to develop into that Bruce Bowen-esque mold of defensive, 3-point shooting small forward.  So what do we need?  Well, ideally, it's someone who can slide between SG and SF comfortably, defending multiple positions (that's his primary job) while hitting those open corner spot up threes (that's his secondary job).  Someone that can, in our current situation, play next to both Jefferson and Ginobili.  In 1999 that was Jaren Jackson (next to Mario Elie and Sean Elliott) in 2003 that was Stephen Jackson (next to Bowen and Ginobili) in 2005, well 2005 was kind of a weird year, but we can use that as an analog as well, and in 2007 we had Michael Finley.

Ideally, we'd want someone like another Stephen Jackson, underrated passing and ball-handling ability, decent 3-point shooting.  Currently, we don't have anyone in particular super comfortable with that role, while George Hill is our touted defensive specialist, he can't guard the bigger players, making him more of a combo-guard defensive specialist similar to the mold of Kirk Hinrich or Delonte West.  While an ideal Bruce Bowen replacement may be someone like Tayshaun Prince or Shane Battier, I don't know that we can readily get them as we don't really have any assets worth trading (that I personally am comfortable parting with to match salaries for said players).  Okay, I wrote a bunch of stuff and I want to make sure everyone is still following me.

Historically, Pop has had the most success platooning three players across two positions, leveraging more versatile players to maintain the system that has driven the Spurs into the postseason.  However, what this requires is a player that can play across two positions.  From 1999 through 2003 Pop used an exclusive big man rotation of Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Malik Rose.  This worked simply because Duncan could slide to C whenever Rose entered the game and then Robinson naturally played C, so any combination of 2 out of the 3 worked, because Tim Duncan is a PF that can play C (or as Kelly Dwyer puts it: a C that can play PF).  In 2005 in the Finals, Pop went with the rotation of Duncan, Nazr Mohammed, and Robert Horry.  While in 2007 Pop expanded the rotation to four players, if you considered Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson as the two-headed center that most did, it still kind of counted as three.  We're talking about wings here though.  Well, the best examples I've already given above: Jaren Jackson, Stephen Jackson, and Michael Finley.  Later we tried Keith Bogans and Ime Udoka, but they didn't work too well.  So the question remains, are there such players left in the league?  Well Stephen Jackson obviously still plays, and he's doing what we want him to do, just for a different team.  I think if you look hard enough, you'll find these players, players with the size and length to compete with bigger SFs but also the footwork to contest quicker SGs.  Here are my following wants, and please note, these aren't necessarily realistic possibilities, but I think they'd be great fits next to Jefferson and Ginobili:

Wilson Chandler (6-8, 220 lbs, currently on Knicks roster)
When Wilson Chandler first came into the scene, he was heralded as thus: "Renaldo Balkman with a jump shot", mainly because Isaiah Thomas drafted him a year after he drafted Balkman, another 6-8, 210 lb forward.  Both hustle on defense, while not with the effectiveness perhaps of Bruce Bowen (though I don't know that there would be a lot of players who would have that), he's done a decent job and has also developed a long range game, boasting a decently respectable 30.8% career 3pt shooting percentage.  While significantly lower than Bowen's career 39.3% if we go into the shooting breakdown, Chandler's shooting percentage was impaired by his inability to hit wing 3s.  However, from the right corner he was shooting a nice 43.5% and a decent 30.6% from the left last season for a combined 35.6% from either corner.  In his previous season he shot a nice 37.9% from the corners, 40.5% from the right and 36.1% from the left.  I attribute this dropoff to a confusion in his role, especially with Danilo Gallinari being healthy and throwing Chandler around the roster.  Chandler is also known for being able to finish strong at the rim finding most of his shots right at the basket, so he definitely fits the younger and more athletic mold.

Kelenna Azubuike (6-5, 220 lbs, currently on Knicks roster)
Azubuike is another one of those D-League call-up success stories.  He's strong, athletic and finishes strong at the rim.  While probably not the best defender in the league by any stretch, nor even one of the better ones possibly, he's stalwart and works hard to defend his man.  After Baron Davis fled the Bay Area for sunny LA, Azubuike started to see a lot more playing time and he did much with it.  He is a career 40.9% 3 point shooter and only his mid-range game seems really suspect.  Since he was injured much of last season, let's look to the season before, where he shot over 40% on all 3 point zones.  While he seems to favor the left wing, he did shoot a combined 44.4% from the corners on a total of 54 attempts.  While he's a little shorter than many SFs, he has the size and strength to compete with the best of them.  If you're tracking my Spurs history analogs, think of him as a better Devin Brown or a more athletic Jaren Jackson.

Martell Webster (6-7, 235 lbs, currently on Timberwolves roster)
Webster was credited as one of the defensive specialists in Portland, playing excellent defense against Kobe Bryant during Lakers games.  Then, to make room for youngster Nicolas Batum, he was traded to the Timberwolves.  He also is credited with being a very streaky shooter.  He's fairly athletic and good at keeping with opposing wings.  As for his shooting, well, he is also something of a 3 point specialist finding a large majority of his shots from beyond the arc, and showing a decent 37.3% career 3-point shooting percentage.  Last season, he found a degree of success from the corners, nailing 40% from the right and 37.6% from the left, making him a viable threat from either corner at a combined 38.6% over 140 shots.

Dorrell Wright (6-9, 210 lbs, currently on Warriors roster)
Wright isn't a very realistic possibility as the Warriors just brought him in this season, for something we like in him, that is: defense.  He's long, and he's decent defensively, was slated as potentially the SF to play next to Dwayne Wade, but a series of injuries bogged him down and then he got stuck behind Michael Beasley and Shawn Marion on the depth chart.  Career-wise he's a 34.4% 3 point shooter.  Last season he shot 38.9% overall from beyond the arc, including 41.8% from the corners (39% from the left, 43.9% from the right on a total of 98 attempts).  He got almost half of his looks from the corners so, it's a pretty good fit I would say.

DeShawn Stevenson (6-5, 218 lbs, currently on Mavericks roster)
Stevenson really is more of an SG, so how well he'd fare against bigger SF players is questionable, but he was the defensive specialist on a Wizards squad that did decently.  Since Stevenson was traded and in limbo last season, and injured for much of the season prior, we jump all the way back to 2007-2008 for some of the metrics.  From the left corner he shot a decent 31.4% from the right a blistering 50%, combined that's 40.8% from the corners on 103 attempts.  As a side note, he also shot 40.3% on 243 attempts for his wing 3s.  While not entirely analogous, he did do this playing with the Wizards Big 3 of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison, granted, for a lot of that season, one of them was always injured.

Sasha Pavlovic (6-7, 235 lbs, currently free agent)
For metrics on Pavlovic, I'm going to have to go back to when he had solid rotation minutes, which was basically 2006-2007 when as the starting SG he helped the Cavs make it all the way to the NBA Finals.  Of his noted accomplishments that season, the premier was playing excellent defense against Vince Carter in the first round of the Playoffs against the Nets.  That year he hit 38.2% of his corner 3s, though mostly from the left as he only hit 27.3% of his right corner threes.  Career wise he's a respectable 35.2% 3 point shooter, and does a decent job of getting to the rim. 

Anthony Parker (6-6, 210 lbs, currently on Cavaliers roster)
Parker was once the second option behind Chris Bosh on the Raptors.  Oftentimes he drew the most difficult defensive assignments there too, and while he didn't shut anyone down, he did as admirable a job as anyone could have hoped for.  Parker is also known for his long range touch.  Last season playing behind Delonte West Parker shot 41.4% from beyond the arc which closely correlates to his career average of 41.5% long range.  If we break it down Parker definitely favors the corners, taking 167 shots (of his season total of 261 3 point attempts and 475 total FG attempts) from there, hitting 44.9% of his corner threes.  Having worked with Mike Brown, a former Greg Popovich man, I'd say he would fit into the system pretty well.

While we could laud the likes of Josh Childress or Thabo Sefalosha, I don't know how entirely realistic or cost effective it would be to land the likes of said players.  I'm sure there are a lot more players out there that warrant our attention on this matter, but I'm just raising the issue of what I think our roster needs at the wing currently are.  If someone we have now steps up and fills that gap I'll be happy, but until then, we need to find a way to fit somebody around Manu and Jefferson, as it stands, I don't know that we have that somebody.  A lot of people think it'll be a combination of young talent and older folks, some combination of Alonzo Gee, James Anderson, and Bobby Simmons.  Hey, if it works, then it works.  We all agree this guy has to be a defensive specialist, we all agree he needs to be able to hit corner threes, I think we can all agree we're not going to find the next coming of Bruce Bowen, Richard Jefferson certainly isn't, and isn't going to be, but if Jefferson is to be our SF for better or worse at this point, let's compromise a little and meet in the middle.  If we take our last successful roster wing rotation of primarily Finley, Ginobili, and Bowen, and figure out who that third guy is going to be this season next to Ginobili and Jefferson, let's try this: better than Finley on defense and better than Bowen on offense, that's not so bad now is it?

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