The month of December has been anything but kind to the San Antonio Spurs, but all signs suggest that the veteran team will survive its ongoing rough stretch.
After November, the defending champs sat on an impressive 12-4 record—even more impressive given the early-season injuries to Tiago Splitter and Marco Belinelli, in addition to the continued absence of Patty Mills.
But the subsequent month threw its fair share of curveballs, primarily in the form of injuries to stars Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
Without their offensive playmaker and defensive leader, the Spurs slipped following their characteristically hot start, finishing December with an 8-10 record—their first losing December record of the Tim Duncan-era.
The Spurs are undoubtedly in a rut, with nearly all of their troubles seemingly stemming from the absences of their big-impact stars.
Yet, even as the injury bug continues to plague San Antonio, the team's trademark depth has all but guaranteed that it will teeter on, though at a slower pace than some might have hoped.
With second-unit stars to guide the way, as well as role players outperforming expectations on a nightly basis, the Spurs' bench will continue to stabilize the team and keep it relevant to the playoff picture, despite key injuries that would derail other squads.
Star Power in the Second Unit
Two years ago, it appeared that Manu Ginobili was on his last leg.
Struggling in every facet of the game, the veteran guard was a shadow of his former self and in the process of a steep decline.
The Manu Ginobili that has shown up in 2014-15 hardly resembles that player.
Looking far more like he did in his heyday—though with a bald spot in place of his luscious locks—the second-unit spark has been great all season, though his role in keeping San Antonio afloat during the month of December is especially noteworthy.
Putting up his fair share of vintage performances—including his most recent 26-point night in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans—he showed that he can still be the offensive leader without Parker at the helm.
By all accounts, he's among the early favorites in the competition for best sixth man, with Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb citing Ginobili as his December pick for the honor.
After making just 31.8 percent of his three-point attempts and only mustering single-figure scoring seven times in November, the 13th-year veteran has made a vastly improved 39.7 percent of those long-range attempts while tallying double-figure points in his first 11 appearances this month. That includes a Dec. 1 game against the Philadelphia 76ers in which he posted 14 points in just 13 minutes.
The injuries to Parker and Leonard have created an additional need for playmaking and scoring on the wing, the two things Ginobili does best. He contributed back-to-back double-doubles in recent meetings with the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, collecting a combined 30 points and 23 assists while twice making at least 60 percent of his field-goal attempts.
Averaging 15 points, nearly six assists and four rebounds in just over 27 minutes of nightly action on the month, his role as an offensive spark has been put on full display, with production far outmatching what most over-the-hill bench players can offer.
He'll be used cautiously once Parker returns—his injury history suggests that he should avoid taking on too big a role. But as a whole, the month of December proved that he can still spearhead the offense as both a dynamic scorer and playmaker should the team's usual suspects struggle to get on the court.
Joining Ginobili in the Spurs' crop of starter-worthy bench players is Boris Diaw, who isn't enjoying quite the renaissance that the former is. After shining in the spotlight during his first two seasons with the team, the versatile big man has certainly cooled off—especially as a shooter, as Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News recently pointed out (subscription required):
Opponents had to respect his long-range accuracy, facilitating his ability to drive defenders from the 3-point line to the paint, where he is one of the NBA’s most creative big men.
So it was concerning recently when Diaw, a major contributor in Games 5 and 6 when the Spurs closed out their Western Conference finals series against the Thunder in May, suddenly lost his touch from long range.
In the 12 games before he made 2 of 3 long-distance shots in Monday’s victory over the Clippers at the AT&T Center, Diaw had missed 24 of his previous 32 3-pointers over 12 games.
And yet, even during a period of struggle, Diaw has played a key role in preventing a total collapse from San Antonio's end. His ability to orchestrate has helped the Spurs overcome injuries to Parker and—until recently—Patty Mills, while his post presence alleviated the team's need for another big man in the wake of the injury that derailed Tiago Splitter for the first 22 games of the season.
His ability to take on any role gives hope that, whenever his number is called, he'll bring San Antonio whatever it needs most. Whether that's playmaking, bench scoring or low-post production—it will depend on the makeup of the injury report—there's very little that falls beyond Diaw's comfort zone.
Once he snaps out of his current slump, he'll be even more lethal. Even so, Diaw is easily recognizable as a starting-caliber talent, and his ability to ignite a spark off the bench alongside Ginobili ensures that the team will have leaders available even when key pieces are watching from the sideline.
Big Play from Unusual Suspects
Though certainly the most-recognizable, Ginobili and Diaw are hardly the only role players who have stepped up to fill big shoes.
The Spurs have found production behind a host of bench players, some of whom spent the previous season as little more than glorified benchwarmers.
Cory Joseph's breakout season has been well-documented, but the Spurs' former third-string guard saw his role increase significantly while Patty Mills missed the season's first 31 games, and then even more when Tony Parker fell victim to the injury bug.
Now starting, Joseph is proving that he belongs on a nightly basis, averaging double-digit scoring for the first time in his career. His recent stretch of success featured four straight games in which he scored double figures at a rate higher than 60 percent, prior to Wednesday's contest against New Orleans in which he finished with nine.
He can score from anywhere on the court and exudes the confidence of a seasoned veteran in the passing game. Though he's not an everyday NBA starter, the 23-year-old is showing signs that he may be ready for that role in the near future.
But aside from the offensive contributions made in light of Mills and Parker's absences, Joseph has filled in admirably as a defensive leader on the perimeter—the area at which San Antonio has been left the weakest with Leonard out.
Last year, Danny Green was the Spurs' only other elite perimeter defender outside of Leonard. Now, Joseph—long recognized for his ball-stopping ability—has been given enough playing time to make a serious defensive impact.
Though he doesn't guard the same type of players, he has played a huge role in keeping the Spurs defense afloat—as much as one could, that is, given the team's heavy reliance on Leonard.
In the post, Aron Baynes has made significant strides in his second full NBA season, having emerged as a pick-and-roll threat and rebounding machine.
With Splitter absent for the season's start, Baynes was asked to fill a big role as the team's only other Spurs big capable of playing center outside of Duncan. With Duncan's minutes carefully monitored, San Antonio found itself asking a lot of a player who averaged just nine minutes last season.
Naturally, Baynes rose to the challenge.
Having set—and re-set, and re-set again—his career high in scoring during his featured role this season, the Australian interior threat is emerging as a more-than-capable rotation player.
He rebounds at a high rate and can seemingly body up any player in the league. Even though his impact has flown fairly under the radar, people—like Sports Illustrated's Chris Johnson—are beginning to take notice.
Baynes, 28, is enjoying the best stretch of his career to date while helping the Spurs compensate for the absence of Tiago Splitter, who is dealing with a calf injury. Baynes tallied double-figure points in six of eight games last month, capped by a career-high 15-point showing in a win over the 76ers last Monday...
His strong play in Spain has translated to an encouraging start with San Antonio this season. Through 20 games, Baynes is averaging career highs in points (7.2), rebounds (4.9) and field goal percentage (59.8 percent). His Player Efficiency Rating has jumped by nearly seven points (to 16.3) and his true shooting percentage has increased more than 15 percentage points. Most notably, with Splitter out, Baynes is averaging 17 minutes per game, up from 9.3 last season.
Though he isn't going to carry San Antonio into the playoffs on his shoulders, Baynes was a key component in the team's overcoming of Splitter's injury—something that could have had drastic consequences had the Spurs not found an ample replacement.
Going forward, he'll continue to play a big role as Duncan and Splitter's minutes remain monitored for rest and injury reasons, respectively. And should San Antonio need a stand-in for an extended stretch, Baynes has proven himself as a worthy candidate.
Beyond Joseph and Baynes, the Spurs certainly have other options. Marco Belinelli is playing well after a slow start and Mills, three games into his return, will add another scoring spark and playmaker to the mix.
San Antonio's bench has long been praised as one of the league's best, and the 2014-15 incarnation has been no different. From Sixth Man of the Year candidates to previously overlooked second-unit standouts, the Spurs offense has its fair share of weapons.
Having survived what should be the most difficult month of the season with an 8-10 record, the team's supporting cast will have brighter days ahead as the Spurs stars recover.