Can Marco Belinelli Fill the Danny Green Void for San Antonio Spurs?

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Can Marco Belinelli Fill the Danny Green Void for San Antonio Spurs?
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, losing Danny Green for a month would have been a borderline disaster for the San Antonio Spurs. Thanks to Marco Belinelli's breakout year, Green's projected four-week absence will be little more than a midseason hiccup.

First, the specifics, per NBA.com:

Spurs guard Danny Green underwent an exam on Monday in San Antonio that included both an X-ray and an MRI on his left hand. Results revealed he has a nondisplaced fracture of his second metacarpal. Green suffered the injury in the first half of the Spurs-Timberwolves game on Sunday night. He is expected to miss approximately four weeks.

Don't expect to see panic grip the populace in San Antonio.

That's no knock on Green, though. He's still a valuable cog in the Spurs' championship-chasing machine. He's not enjoying the same kind of shooting numbers he posted in 2012-13, but Green was still knocking down triples at a 38 percent clip while defending exceptionally well before getting hurt.

But Belinelli, a journeyman who is now suiting up for his fifth team in seven seasons, has been outplaying Green on offense for quite a while. The Italian guard is hitting a whopping 50 percent of his three-point attempts this year, easily the highest accuracy rate of any NBA player attempting at least two triples per game, per NBA.com.

From the field, Belinelli is hitting 51.7 percent of his shots while posting per-36-minute numbers that meet or exceed his career highs across the board.

In fact, Belinelli has been a bigger part of the Spurs' rotation for a few weeks now. He's started 11 games this season, including 10 of San Antonio's last 13 contests. On the year, Belinelli has actually been averaging more minutes per game than Green has—22.8 to 22.4.

In order to crystallize the discrepancy between Green and Belinelli's offensive contributions this year, it'll help to see them side by side:

Belinelli vs. Green
FG% 3FG% TS% Points/36 Min. PER
Belinelli .517 .502 .629 17.0 16.3
Green .417 .384 .554 11.8 12.9

Basketball-Reference.com

Clearly, the numbers from the first 40 percent of this season favor Belinelli.

 

Apples and Oranges

 

In analyzing what the Spurs might gain or lose with Green out, it's helps to look at more than raw offensive numbers. That's because San Antonio's shooting guards are very different offensive players.

Belinelli started his career as more of a hybrid guard. He's got the handle, creativity and vision to be a capable offensive initiator. Because of a flair for the dramatic (read: careless turnovers), Belinelli has seen his playmaking duties diminish under Gregg Popovich's no-nonsense offensive scheme.

But there's a flashy point guard somewhere inside Belinelli that tries to surface every so often. And actually, the Spurs might want to utilize him as a pick-and-roll initiator more often. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), he ranks as No. 18 in the entire NBA in points per play on those sets.

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Of course, he's also No. 2 overall coming off screens and No. 13 on spot-up shots. So it's not like there's been a "bad" way to use him this season.

Green, on the other hand, is the kind of player who has enjoyed success by playing a limited role in a fairly rigid system. He's not somebody the Spurs want to see dribbling the ball, and he's certainly not any kind of facilitator.

Nearly 40 percent of his touches come on spot-up opportunities, and while he's been pretty effective in those chances, Green lacks the dynamism that makes Belinelli a more dangerous, well-rounded offensive option.

I mean, when's the last time you saw Green finish with this kind of flair on a backdoor cut?

 

The Other End

 

As you've no doubt surmised by now, Belinelli is in the middle of a freakishly good offensive season. But it'll be difficult to maintain his efficiency as his volume increases. Plus, there's this whole other side of the floor that he'll have to play.

As we'll see, that's where potential problems could arise.

Green, for all of his shooting struggles (again, relatively speaking), has still been an elite defender this season. He held opposing shooting guards to a 9.9 PER, while absolutely erasing small forwards to the tune of a 7.2 PER, per 82games.com.

Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

That's flat-out mean. Green essentially reduces opposing wings to rubble on defense, and he's a big reason the Spurs' D is among the league's top five despite giving significant minutes to the very vulnerable Tony Parker and Boris Diaw.

Between Green and Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio has what might be the best defensive wing duo in the entire NBA.

Belinelli isn't the same kind of defender—not even close, actually.

Individual defensive ratings can be a little noisy, but consider the following: With Belinelli on the court, the Spurs' defensive rating is 99.7, meaning they allow almost a point per possession. With Green, that figure drops to 95.0, per NBA.com.

And if we go back to the opponents' PER metric, Belinelli grades out decently but still allows a figure of 15.7 to shooting guards and 9.7 to small forwards. Those are solid numbers, but they're almost certainly influenced by the way the Spurs tend to hide Belinelli on inferior matchups whenever possible.

Green, meanwhile, never hides.

For what it's worth, Belinelli knows he has to get better on the defensive end.

Per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News, Belinelli was upset after scoring 32 points against the New York Knicks on Jan. 2 because his handful of lapses on the other end allowed Iman Shumpert to get going, which was a huge factor in that surprising Knicks win.

He said: 

I’m really pissed off now, because the last game I made some big mistakes and maybe they cost us the game. ... I don’t really care about my points or whatever. I think it’s all about winning and I’m going to be better on defense.

Belinelli's heart's in the right place, no doubt forced into that position after spending last year under Tom Thibodeau. It's encouraging for the Spurs that the ruthlessly exacting Thibs thought highly enough of Belinelli's defensive growth to allow him onto the court every so often.

He can be better, and he probably will be as he continues to acclimate to the Spurs' system. No matter how much he improves, though, Belinelli will never be the kind of dominant defender Green is.

Fortunately, he doesn't have to be.

 

A Solid Trade-Off

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Belinelli's offensive benefits will likely offset his defensive shortcomings. Plus, the Spurs still have Leonard to unleash on the opponent's best wing scorer. There aren't many instances in which the Spurs will have to deal with two major threats that would require Belinelli to match up against a dangerous shooting guard.

During the month of Green's absence, San Antonio will face the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 22, followed by the Miami Heat on Jan. 26. I suppose Belinelli might struggle to deal with Dwyane Wade, but so does everybody else.

Other than that, the Spurs will start their annual rodeo toad trip in February, which'll see them head out East where, frankly, there's not much in the way of wing scoring duos. In short, Marco will be fine.

San Antonio will certainly want Green back at full strength (and hopefully shooting the ball a bit better) for its eventual grueling road through the Western Conference playoffs. But Belinelli is more than capable of holding down the fort for now.

 

*All stats accurate through games played Jan. 13.

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