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The Back-Up Plan

By Jeff Koch on March 13, 2012.

Game day was overshadowed yesterday by T.J. Ford’s announcement that he will retire from the NBA. I actually heard the news first listening to PTI on ESPN, and actually gasped. After reading the reports and articles, I understood. There’s not a person alive that would begrudge him his decision nor wish him the best of luck. I will miss having him on the team, especially since he was the best back-up PG we’ve had in a long time.

His departure from playing might actually clear up the rotation a bit, though. Call it clarity by subtraction. Part of what made the road trip so successful was that, due to injury, we mostly had a playoff-like rotation set. There was very little tinkering, and we played with who we had. On this latest homestand, we’ve been adding in new pieces, and Pop is back to his mad scientist ways. The issue was that we had 11 quality rotation players, and not enough time to really go around.

Last night’s game against the Wizards was the first time I think we saw a glimpse of what the rotation might be like moving forward and into the playoffs.

We have 4 bigs who all play. Duncan and Blair start; Bonner and Splitter come off the bench. Bonner and Blair more or less rotate for each other, as do Duncan and Splitter. However, I do expect that Duncan and Splitter will see the court together at the end of many close games.

It looks like the team is down to a 3 man guard rotation of Parker, Ginobili, and Neal. Parker is obviously our only true point guard; but both Ginobili and Neal are capable of running the offense (and, in the case of Ginobili, a lot better than ‘capable’). Before Ginobili got injured last night, there seemed to be a nice flow between the three rotating in and out. Parker and Ginobili started, but Ginobili was the first player substituted, for Neal. Then Ginobili came back in for Parker.

A couple of interesting things here: it feels like most of the time 2 of the 3 will be on the court, which prevents Neal from having to run as the only ball-handler on the court for long stretches. But this also gives the team two players through which the offense can start most of the time. Neal will most likely only see a few minutes of PG time with the second unit, which he is capable of. But most of the time he’ll be the 2-Guard, or splitting duty with Ginobili.

Finally, RJ is the starting small forward, with Leonard and Green behind him. Green can also swing down and pick up some 2-Guard (especially when Neal is PG, giving the team another decent ball handler on the court), while Leonard and Jefferson can also both play ‘up’ at small ball power forward.

That’s 10 players, all of which I think will see time. I think Green and Leonard stand to see their minutes shrink the most, followed by Blair and Bonner. Given the recent play of RJ, I’d actually prefer to see Leonard get more time at the 3 (and probably even start). At this point, the only thing RJ seems to be better at than Leonard is 3-pt shooting…and even that is leveling out. Leonard is a better defender, better rebounder, and seems to get his hands and body in more of those 50-50 plays. Which is all to say, he does more positive for the team. But Pop trusts his veterans, and so RJ will most likely stay the starter and get the most minutes.

The only other topic from last night’s game that interests me is this question: can Parker be his recent ‘best play of his career’ self when Ginobili is on the court? His game last night didn’t explode until Ginobili left with injury, after which he more or less single-handedly won the game for us. We obviously can’t compete without a healthy Ginobili. But it’s also quite clear that we can’t compete without the most recent vintage of Parker. I’m beginning to worry both players can’t exist on the floor together.

Something to keep an eye on.

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