The Spurs’ bench advantage has disappeared

A very big reason for the Spurs’ overachievement this season has been their bench.

San Antonio could always count on the likes of Patty Mills, Davis Bertans, Marco Belinelli and either Jakob Poeltl or Rudy Gay to come off the pine with energy and a willingness to move the ball. They played with great flow and spacing on offense, which contrasted the starters, who sometimes played too much one-on-one offense and struggled with spacing.

The Spurs are putting forth a strong showing in their first-round playoff series against the Nuggets. The series is tied 2-2, and San Antonio still has a real chance at advancing.

But the Spurs’ four rotation players off the bench (Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Davis Bertans) are providing absolutely nothing for the Spurs in the series. Let’s discuss what’s limiting them from achieving their regular season success.

What does the lineup and impact data show?

The numbers show very clearly that the bench isn’t pulling its usual weight.

San Antonio’s 10 most common three-player lineup combinations in this series are made up of every possible trio of starters. All of those combos possess net ratings ranging from plus-4.5 to plus-17.2 in sample sizes ranging from 53 to 90 minutes (there’s a bunch of overlap in the combinations, of course).

But the team’s overall net rating is minus-2.7. Here’s why:

Basically, when there are more reserves than starters on the floor, the Spurs suffer. This wasn’t at all the case in the regular season.

Player Impact Plus-Minus, which accounts for opponent shooting luck and box-score contributions, also shows a major dip in the bench’s playoff performance.

But why? Let’s dive in.

Rudy Gay has been a disaster

Gay’s team-worst PIPM is consistent with the eye test. He’s not getting to the rim on offense and is committing silly turnovers. He’s taken only three shots within five feet in the series, making one. Gay normally attacks mismatches confidently, but he hasn’t been doing that. He has eight assists and nine turnovers in the series.

After a solid shooting performance in Game 1 (6-of-9 shooting for 14 points), the veteran forward has made four of his 24 field-goal attempts and has just 18 points. He’s just taken a massive plunge in impact after a really solid regular season.

The Spurs are relying on Gay to be the focal point, or at least a key initiator, of many lineups he’s playing with. San Antonio’s other reserves can’t consistently create shots for themselves, so Gay is often the initiator.

But it’s tough to build a capable offense around a player who doesn’t get into the paint, settles for contested midrange jumpers, and has more turnovers than assists.

All four key bench players have struggled on defense

Gay and Bertans were decent on defense in the regular season. But Gay’s effort, especially in transition, hasn’t been great in this series, and Bertans is just not a good matchup against the Nuggets on that end. Denver’s key interior players (Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee) are all too strong for him inside. The Nuggets have several perimeter slashers who have a major speed advantage against him.

The biggest problems, though, are Mills and Belinelli. In the slog of the regular season, squads are more concerned with improving themselves on offense than exploiting the opposition’s weak points on defense. It’s easier to hide liabilities.

In the playoffs, though, teams craft specific gameplans to suit their matchup. The Nuggets and their coaching staff have done a great job exploiting Mills’ lack of size and athleticism and Belinelli’s lack of athleticism and effort. In transition, they’re nothing more than traffic cones.

Belinelli has been especially cringeworthy.

Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has discussed the importance of physicality in this series and making the opposition “feel” you. He’s right. Unfortunately, none of the Spurs’ reserves really have shown the effort or physical tools to make the Nuggets “feel” them.

A shorter rotation means less usage for the reserves

Gregg Popovich knows he can’t go to bench-heavy units for long stretches in the playoffs. The defense would be too weak, and they don’t have enough shot creation against a locked-in Nuggets defense.

The reserves’ minutes have all decreased by anywhere from 2.4 to 6 per game in the postseason. That means each guy is seeing a bigger share of his minutes with the starters, who are consequently playing more.

The problem with more minutes in starter-heavy lineups is that there are so few shots available. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are the top two offensive options, Derrick White has been mostly excellent on that end and Bryn Forbes has been money from three-point range for the last couple months. How are others supposed to find their normal allotment of shots when three or four of those players are also on the floor doing their thing?

All four reserves have had their usage percentages decrease, some by less (Gay is just 0.2 percent lower) and others by more (Mills is down from 17.3 to 11.7). As a result, none of them are in a rhythm. They’re slashing combined shooting percentages of 36.1/35.5/69 after being at 44.9/39.7/85.9 in the regular season.

Give Denver some credit for this. The Nuggets seem to be making a concerted effort to stay at home on the Spurs’ bench shooters and forcing San Antonio’s non-shooting big guns to beat them. It’s worked decently well, particularly in the Denver wins.

For San Antonio, though, Mills and Belinelli are clear negatives if they aren’t taking and making jumpers. Bertans and Gay aren’t usually that way, but that has been the case in this series. Gay’s floor game and defense aren’t cutting it. Bertans has been a liability on the boards and is struggling against Denver’s interior size and strength.

Final thoughts

There’s no clear solution for the Spurs’ bench problems in this series. Shots going in would be nice, but they have to actually be available to San Antonio’s key outside shooters. Gay obviously has to be much better in all facets.

Fans have suggested that Pop give rookie Lonnie Walker IV some or all of Belinelli’s minutes. Honestly, it’s not the worst idea. Belinelli has been painful to watch on defense. Regardless, though, the defensive issues from the bench would still be there.

If San Antonio is going to finish off an upset bid against Denver, it’s probably going to need some star performances from its best three players: Aldridge, DeRozan and White.

Note: All stats are from BBall Index or, unless otherwise indicated. Video clips are from Ximo Pierto’s YouTube account.

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