Are the San Antonio Spurs Deeper Than Ever?

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Are the San Antonio Spurs Deeper Than Ever?
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The San Antonio bench has been fantastic so far this season, but does fantastic mean the best-ever unit?

Historically, the San Antonio Spurs have been stacked with bench players who perfectly fit head coach Gregg Popovich's system, and the 2013-14 season is no different.

In fact, by season's end, the current reserve unit could comprise San Antonio's best and deepest bench ever.

Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green typically lead the team onto the court, but their respective backups have kept the Spurs among the top of the conference.

And if the reserves continue to play well, San Antonio will be primed for another deep playoff run and in contention for the franchise's fifth championship.

 

What Makes The 2013-14 Bench So Good?

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During the 2013 postseason, Manu Ginobili was pressing too much. This year, Ginobili has been playing more relaxed ball, and the Spurs are on a roll.

Manu Ginobili is in his familiar role as the sixth man. As Bleacher Report's Garrett Jochnau pointed out, Ginobili is, at least for now, "back."

Offseason addition Marco Belinelli has been a perfect fit with San Antonio, coming off the bench and consistently providing an offensive spark. Belinelli has connected on a league-leading 56.5 percent of his three-point attempts.

Point guard Patty Mills, who has earned a much larger role than he occupied last year, is playing efficient basketball, largely alongside Ginobili and Belinelli. According to Basketball-Reference, Mills has posted a 118 offensive rating compared to 98 on defense.

Power forward Boris Diaw has been more aggressive, something Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News highlighted during the preseason. Diaw wanted to be "more useful on the court" and not "just a passing dummy."

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So far, Diaw has averaged 9.8 points (54.1 percent shooting) and 3.4 rebounds during 23.4 minutes per contest.

Reserve forwards Jeff Ayres and Aron Baynes will not score a ton of points, but both are physical rebounders who have admirably filled in behind Splitter.

For example, though Ayres started, played 25 minutes and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Milwaukee Bucks, he did not score a single point. But the Spurs didn't suffer because of it.

Rounding out the bench, Matt Bonner has quietly made 45.5 percent of his long-distance shots—not that it's a novel concept or something. Cory Joseph was expected to receive the majority of minutes as the backup to Parker, but he is still effective as a limited-role reserve.

John Schuhmann of the NBA Hang Time Blog notes that the Spurs bench is propelling the team's hot start.

Overall, Popovich sends in attackers, shooters, rebounders or defenders depending on a given situation, and the bench also makes for a well-rounded second unit.

 

Comparing 2013-14 Bench to 2012-13 Season

During the 2012-13 playoffs, the Spurs bench was vital to the team's postseason success, helping San Antonio win 12 of 14 games to reach the NBA finals in convincing fashion.

One season later, the roster has not changed much, seeing only Gary Neal depart in free agency and Stephen Jackson released before the 2013 postseason. Belinelli and Ayres were added during the offseason, but the core otherwise remained constant.

To date, Ginobili's scoring average has lessened by a point, but his shooting percentage has increased from 42.5 to 46.5.

What's more, he has continued to pass the ball well, sticking around 4.6 assists, but the dependence on Ginobili to create has lessened. Between Belinelli's and Mills' off-ball movement, Ginobili has been able to facilitate more, and his turnovers per game have dropped from 2.2 to 1.8.

As mentioned earlier, Belinelli is a perfect fit in San Antonio. He has not been a defensive liability, and his torrid shooting demands attention from opponents. Essentially, Belinelli gives Ginobili an extra uncontested step into the lane and is always available for a kick-out pass for an open three, which is one reason Ginobili has better protected the ball.

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Patty Mills has earned an increase in playing time due to his effective handling at point guard.

Mills played limited minutes last year, but he has taken over Nando De Colo's responsibilities and performed well. Mills is a much bigger offensive threat than De Colo, and the Aussie is a pest on the defensive end of the court.

Current Dallas Mavericks forward DeJuan Blair averaged 5.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in 14.0 minutes per game last season, but he has definitely been replaced. Between Diaw's newfound aggressiveness and Ayres' rebounding prowess, the Spurs have made up for Blair's small but meaningful contributions.

Bonner and Baynes do not appear in every game, but neither has regressed since the 2012-13 campaign. Lastly, Joseph plays the least of any Spur, but when the final man on your bench appeared in 20 games during the previous postseason, he is certainly an asset.

On paper, the San Antonio reserves are better than the 2012-13 unit, and that bench was a rather solid group.

 

Comparing 2013-14 Bench to Previous Seasons

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Looking back at the Spurs' deepest benches of years past, especially championship teams, it is important to immediately recognize both Duncan and Ginobili being in their prime. Parker was a young gun and the third or fourth wheel on the team.

In 1998-99, the likes of Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose, Antonio Daniels, Steve Kerr, Jerome Kersey and Will Perdue picked up where Duncan and David Robinson left off. Jackson, Daniels and Kerr manned the backcourt, while Rose, Kersey and Perdue hit the boards.

Overall, the 1998-99 team was dominant, aiding its superstars and going 15-2 in the postseason.

San Antonio quite possibly had its deepest unit in 2002-03, since Popovich had a mix of shooters, distributors, defenders and rebounders.

Rose provided both scoring and boards, Speedy Claxton dished a few dimes and grabbed some steals, and Kevin Willis was physical on the interior. Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry supplied the sharpshooting, and Ginobili started to come into his own as a rookie.

The Spurs won their most impressive championship during the 2004-05 campaign, beating the Detroit Pistons, and Popovich had no qualms about going 12-deep on a given regular-season night.

From shooter Brent Barry to point guard Beno Udrih to clutch forward Robert Horry, San Antonio had some real talent coming off the bench. But when the Spurs reached the playoffs, Pop really only tabbed eight or nine players per night.

Two years later, Ginobili, Barry and Horry were the most important reserves on a team that won 16 of 20 playoff games en route to a title. Center Francisco Elson and point guard Jacque Vaughn also contributed on a nightly basis, so the 2006-07 bench rivals the 2013-14 squad.

 

Deepest Bench Ever?

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The 2013-14 bench can be relied upon during the postseason to give the starters a break without giving up big leads or falling too far behind.

Ginobili can be the primary ball-handler while Tony Parker is getting a breather, and that is something he does relatively well. Belinelli and Mills relieve the pressure to score the Argentine clearly placed on himself last season.

Additionally, Diaw complements the backcourt by providing ball movement and efficient shooting, while Ayres is the main rebounder. Though primarily used in blowouts, Bonner, Baynes and Joseph are the final pieces to a diverse group.

Ultimately, this is close to being one of the deepest groups in San Antonio history. Considering only Parker logs more than 30 minutes per game, it would come as a complete surprise if Popovich did not play at least 10 players on a given night.

However, it may be a bit premature to give this unit that title. Previous title-winning groups have that ever-important and often-elusive championship ring, something to which most of the 2013 reserves cannot stake a claim just yet.

Of course, if these Spurs continue to thrive because of their bench and make a run toward an NBA title, they'll certainly demand a second look.

 

Note: Stats taken from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference. Accurate as of Dec. 16, 2013.

Follow Bleacher Report NBA Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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