How Tony Parker has turned back the clock this season and made the Spurs even more dangerous.
With the Golden State Warriors winning at a historic rate, the familiar narrative of the San Antonio Spurs “flying under the radar” is in vogue again. There are a bevy of reasons for the Spurs’ perception as an “overlooked” team. For one, the city of San Antonio is not typically seen as one of the most glamorous markets. Also, head coach and President of Basketball Operations Gregg Popovich’s no-nonsense leadership style has permeated the entire organization. His low-key persona perfectly gels with the almost comically reserved personalities of both the face of the franchise, Tim Duncan, and their best player, Kawhi Leonard.
Not all Spurs subscribe to this modest, inconspicuous lifestyle, though. Spurs’ point guard Tony Parker has appeared in the tabloids multiple times throughout his career for various reasons. Parker has dropped a rap album, suffered an eye injury during a fight between Drake and Chris Brown in a New York City night club, and endured a very public divorce with TV star Eva Longoria after allegedly having an affair with a teammate’s wife.
Parker’s transgressions read like Gilbert Arenas fanfiction, so you would think his high profile off-the-court incidents would make it difficult for Parker to be overshadowed on the court; yet that is exactly what is happening to the French guard this season. Much of the praise for the Spurs so far has centered around Leonard’s leap, new acquisition LaMarcus Aldridge‘s fit, the team’s league-best defense, and the play of arguably the best bench in the NBA. Even acknowledging all these concurrent story lines, one of the primary reasons for San Antonio’s hot start is Tony Parker’s return to All-Star form.
Parker’s per-game averages last year of 14.4 points (on 48.6% shooting) and 4.9 assists were his lowest outputs since his rookie year. On the Spurs, though, statistics alone should not be used to measure value, as their offensive system has traditionally relied on continuous ball movement and a balanced scoring attack. When Parker returned from a hamstring injury that he suffered in December last year, he simply did not pass the eye test (no pun intended). Parker’s effectiveness has always come from his ability to get into the paint to create for himself and teammates using adroit ball-handling and a variety of change-of-pace maneuvers. The typically shifty point guard too often failed to create the space necessary to get good looks at the basket. Watch last year as Parker challenged DeAndre Jordan:
This highlight reel block on Parker was not an isolated incident, either, as evidenced by Kris Humphries, Eric Bledsoe, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard all swatting Parker last season. In an interview in March of this year with Yahoo Sports’ Marc Spears, Parker admitted that the injury was still nagging him:
“I have not been the same since I came back, and it’s still bothering me,” Parker said. “Everybody knows. I am not going to use that as an excuse. I am just going to work it out until it gets better… I’ve been through a lot of tough challenges in my career…Right now, this is up there.”
Couple last season’s play with his poor EuroBasket showing this summer, and you’ll understand why many were skeptical that Parker would be able to return to form. At 33 years old, it would not be surprising to see the production of a player, who has relied so heavily on his quickness, to decline precipitously. It would be hard to blame Parker for finally showing some wear and tear after all these years, either. Last season, Parker became the fastest player to reach 1000 games played, a testament to both Parker’s durability and the postseason success San Antonio has achieved. Despite his considerable mileage, though, Parker appears to have turned back the clock with his play this season.
Most noticeable (and incredible) this year has been Parker’s efficiency in scoring the basketball. Parker leads the NBA in field goal percentage among players who have at least nine attempts per game. The leaderboard looks like this:
Look at that group again. Apparently, this level of accuracy is usually reserved for bigs and MVP winners. One look at a year-over-year comparison of Parker’s shot charts goes further in showing where Parker’s shot improvements are coming from:
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Parker’s production is the way in which he is scoring. His production has primarily come from three sources: driving to the tin, pull up mid-range jump shots, and three-point shooting. The first two ways are “classic Parker,” but the three-point shot is a relatively new addition to his repertoire. Parker showcased all of these skills in Monday night’s victory against the Indiana Pacers.
The most dynamic part of Parker’s game has always been his ability to carve up defenses with dribble penetration. While “last year Parker” looked like he lost a step, this year he seems to have regained that burst, and he is making the most of his opportunities. Per NBA.com, among players who attempt at least three shots per game off drives, Parker is sixth in field goal percentage at 53.3% - better than Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and James Harden. When Parker gets a head of steam going, his craftiness makes him very difficult to stop:
Parker uses his speed to blow past flat-footed defenders. Even at his age, Parker remains one of the fastest players in the league. Per SportVU player tracking, only Patty Mills and T.J. McConnell clock in as faster players on the offensive side of the floor.
Many of Parker’s drives are preceded by a pick and roll, where Parker remains one of the most dangerous ball-handlers in the league. In fact, per NBA.com, among ball-handlers with at least 100 pick and roll possessions, only Steph Curry has a better effective field goal percentage coming off of pick and rolls. Check out Parker’s finish Monday night coming off a Boris Diaw screen:
Pull Up Shooting
Parker’s adeptness at creating shots off drives leads to open looks on pull up jump shots as defenses sag off of him. In the month of December, Parker is shooting a scorching 60.6% on pull up jumpers - the best rate in the league this month. When Pacers big Ian Mahinmi got switched onto Parker Monday night, Parker crossed him over three times before he decided to stop toying with the poor, mismatched center. It would’ve been hard to watch if it weren’t so pretty:
One of the biggest knocks on Tony Parker throughout his career has been his inability to consistently hit three-point shots. There was a time in the NBA when having a pure point guard like Rajon Rondo or Ricky Rubio was seen as a plus. However, in the league today, where spacing is valued so highly, point guards need to be able to knock down open three-pointers consistently to keep the defense honest. As a career 32.5% shooter from behind the arc, there was a question whether Parker could provide the level of spacing necessary to operate with both Aldridge and Duncan clogging the paint.
Parker’s Jason Kidd-like transformation to legitimate three-point threat began last year when he took 89 threes (the most he’d taken in 10 seasons) and connected on 42.7% of them. Though Parker started this season reluctant to pull the trigger from behind the arc, the past four games have seen him take two three-pointers per game, connecting at a blistering 62.5% clip.
It remains to be seen whether Parker can maintain this level of three-point accuracy, but it would behoove the Spurs to give Parker the freedom to find out. Despite Pop’s disdain for the three-point shot, if Parker can continue to stretch defenses, and open up driving lanes, it will enable the whole team to play Spurs basketball.
The beauty of this year’s Spurs team is that Kawhi’s emergence and Aldridge’s presence mean there are more options for when the team needs to “get buckets,” lessening the burden on Parker. This relieved pressure should help sustain Parker’s hyper-efficient productivity, while keeping his usage rate low. Parker only needs to take what the defense gives him, and he’s still one of the best in the league at doing so.
Parker’s return to form has been less heralded than other Spurs’ story lines, but it is no less important. The Western Conference includes point guards Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Mike Conley. In order for the Spurs to make a run to the Finals, they will need their former Finals MVP to continue to play like a champion.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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