How Tony Parker Got his Swagger Back

Last week I wrote about how Tony Parker played more like his old self while Kawhi Leonard was at home with an alleged stomach bug. With the Spurs’ leading scorer and ball handler out, Parker attacked the rim like he did in the good old days and scored a season high 20 points, albeit on several days rest against a woeful Phoenix team.

It turns out the stomach bug was very real, and caused Leonard to miss another game against Portland and likely affected his performance in his return against Atlanta. In both games Parker again played a bigger role in the offense, looking spry as he scored a combined 40 points.

The defining characteristic of Parker’s playing style throughout his illustrious 16 season career can be summed up in one word: penetration. His quickness off the dribble, his creativity at the rim, those off foot layups and floaters in traffic are what made him an unstoppable force in his heyday.

We haven’t seen that a lot this year, and many have speculated that it’s because Parker is old, slow, and not as good as he once was. He’s certainly older, and a bit slower, but in my humble opinion the main cause of his diminished production this year is the new role he is playing. The evidence to support this hypothesis has grown, as Parker has been attacking much more aggressively with Kawhi out or ineffective.

Over the past three games TP has averaged 20 points, nearly doubling his average of 11 for the year. He has done this shooting 55% from the floor, almost 10 percentage points better than his season mark, all while shooting the ball more than he has throughout the year.

Here’s a selection of plays from the last two games where Parker scores at the rim, ranked in order of ascending filthiness. You’ll notice on most of these plays how aggressively he attacks the rim and looks for his own shot.

8. Parker attacks in the pick and roll, uses a pump fake surrounded by the entire Portland defense, and gets the in between floater to go.

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7. Parker drives, picks up his dribble under the basket, and hits Millsap with a nice fake and pivot for the layup.

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6. Parker uses a double move on Schröder, flashing out towards the 3 point line before quickly cutting to the rim.

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5. TP aggressively drives to the rim in overtime through pretty great defense by Schröder, and gets the close range pull up jumper to go.

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4. This classic TP floater would be higher on the list if Korver didn’t fall on the play.

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3. Tony’s patented goofy foot scoop layup, beating two defenders in the pick and roll.

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2. McCollum goes under the screen here, and TP still beats him to the rack off the dribble with pure speed. It’s tough to tell with all the traffic in the paint, but it looks like he hits this off the wrong foot as well.

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1. This is an incredibly smooth move by Parker, again beating two defenders in the pick and roll and finishing with the reverse.

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Parker has gotten back into drive and score mode, but he’s also been drawing multiple defenders and finding the open man. Here are some buckets that he set up for teammates by attacking the rim.

6. Pau gets the putback here, but Parker sets it all up by sprinting around a screen, driving the lane, pumping and putting up a pretty good shot.

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5. Parker pushes the ball in transition, collapses the D with a drive and kicks it out to Danny for a wide open triple.

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3/4. Here, Parker’s penetration draws multiple defenders and creates open catch and shoot shots for Gasol and Aldridge.

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2. Parker beats McCollum, draws the attention of Anderson’s defender, and hits Kyle with a nice bounce pass for the dunk.

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1. Eyes in the back of his head, behind the back bounce pass to LaMarcus Aldridge.

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Parker’s game is still pretty intact. It’s just that he’s now playing alongside one of the league’s best scorers who possesses the ball around 30% of the time he is on the floor. Coach Popovich has asked Parker to focus on facilitating, and look for his own shot mainly when defenses go under screens and leave him open for a jump shot. This has taken Parker out of the role he thrives in, and definitely taken him out of his comfort zone.

He has looked tentative for most of the season, often picking up his dribble early and looking for a teammate rather than taking it to the rim aggressively. As he has shown in the past few games, he still has the ability to do that. Pop is absolutely right that Parker should focus on setting up his teammates, he should just do it his own way.

Parker is at his best when he drives the lane and looks to score. If he stays away from the paint or only drives to kick it out, defenders don’t have to worry about the most dangerous part of his game. If he attacks the rim intent on scoring, at least every so often, it creates high percentage looks for himself and for his teammates and keeps the defense off balance.

Parker’s play over the past three games has been promising and exciting, but it probably won’t be sustainable long term, especially when Leonardi gets back to full strength. Still, this stretch may prove valuable by boosting Parker’s confidence, and reminding him that he can still do the things that make him great.