Two years ago, San Antonio's Tony Parker had one of the worst years of his career. Injuries limited him to just 56 games, a career low, and he scored his fewest points per game than in any season since he was 21 years old. Parker's True Shooting Percentage of 54.2 was one of his worst,. He turned the ball over too often--15.3 percent of the time--and his assist rate dropped to 30.9 percent. The bottom line: 1.3 WARP, lower than even his rookie season in the NBA.
Last season, Parker experienced a revival, improving in just about every area. Parker's scoring average rose to 17.5 and his TS% jumped to 56.9. His turnover rate dropped (14.3 percent), his assist rate soared (36.5) and he appeared in 78 games--a five-year high.
So what happened? Two things. First, Parker improved his play in the pick-and-roll.
Also, with coach Gregg Popovich emphasizing more transition, Parker was able to better take advantage of an area of the game in which he excels.
The interesting thing was that Parker wasn't bad in the pick-and-roll during the 2009-10 season. He actually posted a very good figure of .881 points per possession, ranking the in the 68th percentile in the NBA. Last season, he got even better. His PPP on pick-and-rolls jumped to .914, landing him in the league's top 15 percent.
Parker's improvement can be directly linked to the development of another skill in the pick-and-roll--going away from screens. Two seasons ago, Parker went away from the screen just 11.6 percent of the time. Last season, that number jumped all the way to 14.3 percent of the time. This was a good thing, because when Parker ignored the screen and went to the rim, he shot 60.6 percent:
Parker is effective going away from screens because his defenders, in an effort to gain an advantage, try to get over the screen early. So the defender ends up leaning in the direction of the screen, anticipating Parker coming off the pick. When Parker notices the defense cheating, he simply changes directions. He darts away from the traffic and attacks the rim.
Going away from the screen also works for Parker because it puts the help defender, usually the man hedging, on his heels. When hedging, bigs in the NBA need to anticipate and jump out a little early to be able to redirect quicker point guards. When Parker goes away from the screen, these bigs are suddenly out of position and have no effect on the play defensively.
In addition to improved play in pick-and-roll situations, Parker's game benefited from a strategic decision made by Popovich. After years of playing a plodding style of basketball built around franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan, Popovich unleashed his hounds with a far greater emphasis on the running game. Two years ago, Parker got out on the break 16.5 percent of the time and was pretty successful there. Last year, Parker had the same type of success--he posted a PPP of 1.20 both years--but he was out in transition much more, running 22.3 percent of the time. With San Antonio looking to break at every opportunity, Parker was able to get to the rim a lot easier:
Last season, Parker was really encouraged to get on the break and attack the defense until somebody stepped up and tried to stop him. If that happened too late, Parker would simply take it all the way to the rim, sometimes in situations in which he would have slowed in down in previous years. What is interesting is that Popovich got everyone behind this strategy. Whenever the Spurs got the ball on defense, whether it be off a turnover or a rebound, they quickly got the basketball in Parker's hands. This gave Parker the chance to get out and attack the defense on the break. If nothing was there, he'd pull it out, but if the defense refused to step up, he'd attack the rim.
Parker's bounce-back season last year was an important one. Despite being just 28 last year, many thought Parker's best years were behind him. However, with Parker continuing to add to his game, and with Popovich catering to him more, the Frenchman is once again becoming a very dangerous threat on the offensive end. I don't see that changing any time soon.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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