Friday Film: Popovich’s Worst Defense Ever


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Gregg Popovich is in completely uncharted territory, playing with the worst defense in the NBA and the worst defense he has ever had in his entire career.

San Antonio has given up 108+ points in each game to start the season. If a baby was born the last time they did that in any four-game stretch, that baby would now be old enough to legally enter a bar and drink away the pain induced by watching this absolute trainwreck of a defense. It was the 1996-97 season. David Robinson was injured, Pop took over as head coach 18 games in, and they finished 20-62 before drafting Tim Duncan.

The Spurs have given up 122.7 points per 100 possessions this year, good for dead last in the NBA. Among players averaging 25 minutes or more per game, Patty Mills has the worst individual defensive rating in the league at 133.3, and Pau Gasol isn’t much further from the bottom of the barrel at 131.2.

Summer departures and injuries have decimated the roster, leaving the Spurs undermanned on the wings and at the rim. It isn’t just a personnel issue, though. The guys on the floor aren’t communicating, or rotating, or doing things that make logical sense. Mental mistakes abound for this group, and we’ve simply never seen anything like it in San Antonio since that lost season 22 years ago.

The Pacers came to town on Wednesday night as the most efficient three-point shooting team in the league, and they hit 17 of 31 shots from downtown. A whopping 23 of those attempts came without a Spurs defender within six feet of the shooter, and they hit 14, meaning 82 percent of their made threes in the game were wide open. The moved the ball, and the Spurs didn’t rotate and got caught watching it.

On this play, Bojan Bogdanovic gets past Rudy Gay off the dribble baseline, and Bryn Forbes helps off of the corner when it is completely unnecessary. His wild block attempt takes him completely out of the play, and the man he left open makes a simple pass to Oladipo after DeRozan rotated off of him and nobody made a secondary rotation.

The Spurs play at the slowest pace in the league, yet they are giving up the second most points in transition in the league. Here guys are slow to get back, and a trailing Oladipo is left wide open for three as the defense watches Collison put a nice move on Marco Belinelli.

Patty Mills is a defensive liability, and it would be easy to simply attribute that to his forgivable diminutive stature. However, the longest-tenured Spur is making some rookie mistakes out there, and it may lead to a substantial reduction in playing time. On this play it might make sense to flash down quickly at Oladipo, but Mills plants himself at the free throw line and leaves his man wide open.

Here, Patty takes himself out of the play and then stays out of it. Maybe he didn’t guard anyone on the perimeter because he thought the three guys fighting for the ball under the basket would get it and pass it to him to start the offense, but that’s not a great excuse. Belinelli is also in a terrible position on this play watching the ball.

Here, Mills (-30) again helps far too aggressively on a pick and roll targeting Pau Gasol (-24). That might be a gameplan thing because Gasol has the lateral quickness of a newborn deer, but Patty loses CoJo again completely. Once the ball gets passed to him, Mills takes a few steps toward him to wave as he goes by before giving up on the play entirely. Pau also puts up the white flag once Joseph passes to an open shooter, opting to box out. It’s a very clever play by Joseph to flare to that open corner, one that has gotten Steph Curry many buckets.

Here again we see a player help on a pick and roll targeting Gasol, but this time it’s the Spurs’ best defensive player at the moment, Dante Cunningham. He and Gay do a good job to contain the drive, but the action got Gasol watching the ball and drifting into the paint, leaving his man open for 3.

This play came with the Spurs already down 22, but Forbes and Mills were watching the ball and rotating late all game. They are the worst defensive pair on the team, giving up an unconscionable 139.6 points per 100 possessions in the 42 minutes they have shared the floor this year. They’re like Ant Man and the Wasp if they just stayed tiny the whole time and also regularly fell asleep while they were fighting much bigger foes.

The pairings of Gasol with Belinelli and Gasol with Mills each give up over 135 points per 100 possessions, and each of the worst 5-man lineups (minimum 5 minutes) include some combination of Mills, Forbes, Belinelli, and Gasol. Patty Mills is in all five of those lineups, and unquestionably the worst defender on the worst defense in basketball right now.

Mills is 6 feet tall soaking wet, gambles for steals, gets out of position for no reason, mentally checks out of plays, and places a tremendous strain on the rest of the defense. When the rest of the defense is anchored by 38-year-old inflatable tube man Pau Gasol, bad things happen. If you paid me 16 million dollars a year and my only job was to watch Pau Gasol play defense, it wouldn’t be enough money.

These terrible individual defenders combine to form a terrible defense Voltron. They are the two biggest problems for a team defense with more problems than I have the time or emotional energy to enumerate. The entire team lacks communication, discipline, physicality, and accountability on the defensive end. It is a freight train on which the cars uncouple and then crash into each other under the basket. It doesn’t even qualify as a chain, it’s a few good links, a few weak ones and two that are flat out broken.

Aldridge needs to step up as a vocal leader on the defense, and young rim protector Jakob Poeltl needs to play more than 11 minutes per game. Cunningham played well when he started and guarded LeBron James, and maybe he should remain in the starting lineup. Why not move DeMar DeRozan to the position he plays right now, point guard?

A lineup of DeRozan, Gay, Cunningham, Aldridge, and Poeltl gives the Spurs size and the ability to switch on the perimeter. Forbes takes Patty’s role on the bench because he’s a marginally better defender and comparable shooter, and Mills plays substantially fewer minutes when San Antonio needs an offensive jolt.

Even if nothing changes, the communication will eventually improve as the new players integrate. This defense probably won’t remain the worst in the league, but it probably will remain pretty bad unless significant roster moves are made. The good news is that the Spurs have a top-five offense that has kept them in games, but they show no sign of consistently stopping opponents.

Gregg Popovich once joked that he didn’t want to coach a team without Tim Duncan on it because he didn’t want to be held responsible for what might happen. Duncan is gone, and so are Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, so now Pop’s best defender is Dante Cunningham and he has to make it work.

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