The Spurs Have Excelled Because of Their Bench

After a 96-91 win last month against the Dallas Mavericks, one of the worst teams in the NBA, Gregg Popovich blasted his team’s performance in the postgame press conference, and probably did a whole lot worse behind closed doors. And this was after a win. That should provide some idea of the kind of season the Spurs are having. After routing the almighty Golden State Warriors on opening night, San Antonio has kept on chugging along, jumping out to an 18-4 record—one game back of the Warriors for the league’s best record.

Perhaps it speaks to the greatness of Kawhi Leonard, or the steadiness of LaMarcus Aldridge, or the genius of Popovich that the Spurs have been so successful despite many predictions that they’d regress significantly. It’s probably all of those things; but there’s something else at play here.

In a sense, San Antonio is winning in spite of itself. Many of the Spurs’ veterans are aging and underperforming. Tony Parker is posting some of his worst numbers since his rookie year, and his defensive ability is in rapid decline; Manu Ginobili is still kicking, but more limited than ever; Pau Gasol has been blah offensively and doesn’t anchor the defense nearly as well as Tim Duncan did.

In a conference whose best team makes its living by playing small and fast, the San Antonio plays big and slow. But it’s bench offers a change of pace, which is why it may be the Spurs’ most important asset.

The Spurs have twelve players in their rotation legitimately capable of playing major minutes, and Popovich has no problem going deep into his bench. While isolating a guy like Leonard or Aldridge is a massive luxury, San Antonio’s bench units play with a peppy, pass-happy flare that wows spectators and decimates opponents.

Ginobili is still effective as a shooter and facilitator in low-usage situations, and David Lee has feasted on opposing second units, averaging 6.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting. Kyle Anderson appears to be the odd man out right now, but his size and passing ability can still come in handy despite his lack of quickness. Rookie Davis Bertans has burst onto the scene as of late, and the Latvian can really stroke it from downtown. He may slip out of the rotation once the playoffs roll around, but in the meantime, he gives the Spurs another knockdown shooter off the bench.

Patty Mills is a delight, as usual, and is posting career-highs in points, minutes, and field goal percentage. He’s one of the best spot-up shooters in the league, and his experience in this summer’s Olympics really helped his overall game:

But perhaps the most important players on the Spurs’ bench are Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon, two superb athletes that will make a combined $3.77 million this year after San Antonio scooped them off the scrap heap. With Leonard and Aldridge on the floor, the Spurs don’t need more scoring as much as they need energy and defense, which are Simmons and Dedmon’s calling cards. Take a look at how the Spurs’ bench-heavy units have played compared to their starting lineup:

Spurs bench table

It’s no coincidence that Mills, Simmons, and Dedmon appear in each of those last three groups. Good things happen when they share the floor, and playing them with studs like Leonard and Aldridge makes the Spurs lethal.

Simmons attacks the basket mercilessly whenever he gets the chance, and can defend across three positions on the perimeter. He’s a non-shooter at this point, but he plays many of his minutes alongside Mills, Ginobili, and Leonard, so his lack of a jumpshot doesn’t kill the offense, and he compensates for it with his explosiveness as a slasher:

Teams will do a better job boarding up the paint and forcing Simmons to shoot in the playoffs, so whether he starts launching with more consistency will be worth monitoring.

Dedmon recently missed six games with a knee injury—part of the reason those three aforementioned bench lineups haven’t played many minutes together—but has been a force when healthy. He’s limited offensively, but he knows his role, and uses his length and athleticism to control the interior by gobbling up rebounds and swatting away shots. At 7 feet, 245 pounds, Dedmon has the size and strength to body up brutes in the post, as he does here on DeMarcus Cousins:

Cousins is one of the toughest covers in the NBA, but Dedmon uses his length to make an already tough shot even more difficult. That kind of defense alone is enough to earn playing time, but Dedmon also possesses the quickness to switch onto guards and fly in from nowhere and alter shots:

Dedmon is the Spurs most switchable big (and maybe their only one), which is a necessity if you want to beat the Warriors. Golden State will target a team’s weakest defender and involve them in as Steph Curry or Kevin Durant pick-and-rolls as possible, eventually forcing a lopsided matchup advantage. The best way to combat that is to play a lineup that can (somewhat) neutralize those mismatches. San Antonio is one of the few teams in the NBA with that kind of personnel, and the lineup of Mills, Simmons, Leonard, Aldridge, and Dedmon unlocks options on both sides of the floor that the starters don’t. It’s not as much about who starts games as who finishes them, and those five have made a convincing case to be Popovich’s crunch time unit.

Simmons and Dedmon were crucial in San Antonio’s opening night thrashing of Golden State because of their athleticism and defense, and while it’s unclear whether Pop will trust either of them to play big minutes in the playoffs (Simmons played just 26 minutes in last year’s playoffs), they might be the Spurs’ best chance of beating the Warriors in a seven-game series.


Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and

Stats current as of December 8, 2016.

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