“Why don’t we just give him Coach of the Century? I mean, he’s the greatest. He’s the best. He’s the smartest man in the history of the world and the best coach in any sport ever, in my opinion.”
Dallas Mavericks Head Coach, Rick Carlisle, on Gregg Popovich winning Coach of the Year.
Spurs Gonna Spurs
Bad news everyone:
The Spurs are being the Spurs again.
Do they have a fate Spurred by the basketball gods, or is their success just Spur of the moment? Will they continue to win consistently, or will it just be in Spurts?
These are the questions that Spurred me to analyze this team in all of its majesty in this post: plus I am desperately avoiding an obligatory post/podcast talking about how good the Warriors because that is sooooo mainstream.
Not my style.
Instead, I will attempt, and succeed (We The Best) to address one Big Fundamental question:
How Are The Spurs Always So Spurs?
Three-point spacing hits a point of diminishing returns: the reality of the league is that there is only one player universally worthy of a double team beyond the arc – Steph. Even players like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, James Harden don’t warrant a double team from behind the line unconditionally. Their 3 point shooting can be sufficiently stifled by elite defenders most nights, if not all.
While the rest of the league tries to replicate the Warriors unique style of play, I wonder why they have yet to grasp that they simply don’t have the unique talent to do so – there is only one Steph Curry. Teams simply cannot beat the Warriors at their own game. The league is learning the hard way that you need to play to your talents to win. The best coaches formulate their methodology based on their roster composition: the best coaches are flexible. That’s why Marc Jackson is a garbage can of a coach. I mean, what the hell Marc, you suck so much.
He’s so bad at coaching, oh my God.
The Spurs roster is known for its continuity, particularly when it comes to their Big 4: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Matt Bonner. However, as the league has evolved and as the Spurs’ players have aged, they’ve adapted in order maintain their chokehold on contention. The Spurs have followed in the footsteps of one of history’s greatest and most inspiring figures:
They’ve changed…. A LOT.
(Sorry, I’m really into DJ Khaled right now. He’s not relevant to the post or anything.)
This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The 3.
Three pointers are great, don’t get me wrong. Just ask Big Poppa:
See? Who doesn’t love the circus?
All grumpiness aside, even Popovich knows that the 3 point shot has become an essential part of the modern NBA… but this team isn’t equipped to play like the Warriors. So they don’t:
The 2015-16 Spurs don’t shoot many threes. They rank a stunning 26th in three-point attempts and are tied for 20th in corner three-point attempts specifically. Both are San Antonio’s lowest marks in the Popovich era by a wide margin. They have just four high-volume three-point shooters: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills. Expected plans to turn LaMarcus Aldridge into a three-point shooter have not come to pass; he’s taken just eight all season without making one.
62.9% of the Spurs’ shots from less than 5 feet from the basket – 3rd in the league.
45.9% of their shots from 5-9 feet from the basket – 3rd in the league.
45.3% of their shots from 15-19 feet from the basket – 3rd in the league.
but, most importantly:
43.1 % of their shots from 20-24 feet from the basket – 1st in the league.
The San Antonio Spurs space the floor with long-range 2s, and it’s not just an effective strategy: it’s downright dominant.
If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of Daryl Morey’s head exploding.
Defense Is Bigger In Texas
The possession above is a crystallization of the unrivaled synchronicity of the ’15-’16 San Antonio Spurs. If you’ve been an NBA fan since the new millenium, then you should fully understand the degree to which the defensive prowess of this Spurs iteration is unique – we haven’t seen defense so sexy since the beginning of the 21st century.
In the East, the defensive juggernaut was the Detroit Pistons:
That Pistons team won a championship in 2003-2004.
In the West, the defensive juggernaut was our neighborhood, friendly Spurs.
Except back then, they were not so friendly.
That’s Bruce Bowen.
He’s bat shit crazy.
In the post, David Robinson and Tim Duncan obliterated everything like defensive cyborgs with basketball-seeking missiles.
- 1 Defensive Player of the Year Award
- 4 All-Defensive First Teams
- 4 All-Defensive Second Teams
- 14 year career – averaged 3 BPG and 1.4 SPG,
- including highs of 4.5 BPG and 2.3 SPG in 1992.
The Big Fundamental has been a historically great defensive player as well – year, after year, after year, after year, after year, after year, after year. He’s been named to an All-Defensive Team in 15 seasons, the most of any player in NBA history, locking down the paint for a nearly two decades, including this year. Last month, November, he was arguably the best defender in the league.
I would make that argument; in fact, I’m about to:
Let’s start by looking at Real Plus-Minus (RPM), which looks at the impact a player has on his team per 100 possessions and has separate defensive and offensive components. Duncan rates by far the best in Defensive RPM, adding a value of 5.89 points per 100 defensive possessions. The next-best player in Defensive RPM in November was Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan(plus-4.34).
Just how much better than Jordan was Duncan? The gap between those two is larger than the gap between Jordan and the 14th-rated player in Defensive RPM.
It’s early, but Duncan’s Defensive RPM in November is better than any other player’s over the last eight full seasons.
San Antonio’s defense allowed 92.8 points per 100 possessions with Duncan on the court, 94.1 with him off the court.
As a rim protector, Duncan held opponents to 40.9 percent shooting. Only Rudy Gobert and Serge Ibaka allowed a lower field goal percentage at the rim among qualified players who contested at least six field-goal attempts per game.
Defending the Alamo
27 games into the season, the Spurs have a defensive efficiency rating of 92.0 – the chart on the left are the defensive efficiency ratings of the 8 best defensive teams since 1977 (considered to be the modern era of the NBA).
You might have noticed something: if the Spurs were to maintain their level of defensive absurdity, the 3 best defenses in modern NBA history would each be different iterations of the same Spurs team.
We are witnessing a full scale defensive renaissance. This is the type of basketball that is an art form – it’s not always so pretty (see Nets for example.)
The Merciless San Antonio Winning Machine
For the last few years, the Spurs have adjusted to their aging core by surrounding them with 3 point assassins, and using quick, fluid ball-movement to catch defenses off-guard. That created space: space for Tony Parker, the youngest and most athletic, to create shots off of drives to the basket – space for Manu Ginobili to catch passes on cuts to the basket/ lateral movement to create an opening to shoot – space for Tim Duncan to post up his defender and either score in his wily Tim Duncan way (so wily!), or to pass the ball out of a double team, opening up an opportunity for a teammate to score an easy bucket.
The Spurs style literally hasn’t changed:
The view that the Spurs have changed is understandable, but it also fundamentally misidentifies the reason for the Spurs’ success because it conflates their tactics with their strategy.
Don’t feel bad, because many NBA teams made the same mistake. They saw the Spurs’ gradual evolution into the proto-Warriors and believed they too had to go small and shoot lots of threes to succeed in the modern NBA. The Spurs’ spacing supposedly nurtured their whiplash ball movement and devastating efficiency on both ends. Create the same sort of space, and the fluidity would naturally follow.
As it turns out, that thinking is backwards. Watch the Spurs for just a few minutes, and it becomes clear that their strategy, or what they are trying to accomplish, has not changed. It’s the tactics, or how they do it, that has to fit the personnel.
This is the paradox the rest of the league cannot solve. The Spurs are different, but they’re really the same as ever.
The only thing that actually changed was the roster composition. This is still the Spurs: in fact, the Spurs have been the Spurs since Tim Duncan was drafted into the NBA several centuries ago.
It’s not so much that the Spurs are the first modern team to attempt this style of play, or even the first modern team to successfully implement this style of play. Popovich is actually very much so adapting the Thibodeau play-style. There are some key differences though: so key, in fact, that I am chuckling to myself as I write this because oh my god – Thibs – you are one crazy mother-fucker. Most notably, Popovich has opted not to undermine the health and well-being of his players by ignoring their injuries, not to play his starters excessive minutes, exhaust the team with hellish practices, and not to generally fuck everything up.
Memphis, too, gritted and grinded their way into the upper echelon of their conference year after year; but, again, there key differences:
- Pathetic outside shooting.
- No offensively/defensively balanced wing options.
- Not enough offensive consistency or athletic dynamism.
Back in the East, David West, who spent the last few years on the Indiana Pacers, is all too familiar with many aspects of the Spurs ‘new’ approach. It was not very long ago that the Pacers finished with the best record in the East by relying on 2 big men and an incredibly talented 2-way wing to carry their team.
Like the Grizzlies, they were a very successful team – they were legitimate contenders for a few years. That’s pretty damn good by league standards.
But the Spurs just finished cranking out 5 championships; they hold themselves to higher standards than the rest of the league.
Higher standards like the Pau, Bynum, and Kobe Lakers team that the Spurs met in the Western Conference on more than one occasion. That Championship Lakers team was strikingly similar in both composition and play style, with a slight difference in pace and offensive construction (triangles – yech).
Even this season, somehow, the league hasn’t noticed that the Cavaliers project to play both sides of the court in a stylistically identical way based on their roster similarities – we just haven’t seen that reality come to pass because:
- They have more offensive pliability so, during the regular season, they coast by resting on defense, as opposed to the Spurs who have done the opposite up to this point.
- They just cant manage to field their whole team because everyone is always injured.
Recall the way that LeBron slowed down the Cavalier attack to capitalize on their superior size, rebounding, and defense – how they shot more mid-range shots, used more shot-clock, played at a much slower pace: it was so Spurs.
Lets tap the breaks for a second and think critically about the modern NBA league. Is it true that this Spurs team is a throwback team?
But that’s only because the throwback Spurs invented and then perfected the Spurs brand of basketball 20 years before the Warriors began their long-range onslaught.
And please don’t get me wrong; the Warriors are sexy as hell. Steph Curry is on track to be the most dominant and game-changing offensive player in NBA History.
Yes: the most dominant. the most game-changing.
However, the Spurs have two vital qualities that are very rare in the modern NBA landscape; in fact, these qualities have been rare in the NBA landscape throughout all of the league’s history:
- They have alot of talent.
- They have a very good coach.
- who has implemented a particularly good system.
There’s no W,I, or N in TEAM
There’s an awful lot of awful quotes about team work.
Yeah. Yes. Totally. Absolutely. Agreed.
No, actually, you know what?
Fuck your geese.
Good teams have good players. Great teams have great players.
I’ll take good players over good teamwork any day. I’d take good coaching over teamwork any day, too. Most days I’d take good players over good coaching, but Wednesday and Sunday I’d take good coaching.
The Spurs have both. Actually, they have all 3.
They may not play Morey ball, but there’s more to analytics than excel spreadsheets and League of Legends. Go ask any Rockets player how they right now about analytics: I’m willing to bet that analytics isn’t the first word that comes to mind that starts with those 4 letters when it comes to how they’ve been fucked by the Morey Ball Myopia.
I love analytics, but smart basketball is… smarter. And Coach Carlisle, the tied-for-second-with-Brad-Stephens-for-best coach in the league believes that Popovich is qualified in that regard:
I second that notion.
He’s also loyal. and grateful.
In all honesty, I can’t wait to watch this team grow. The Spurs play beautiful basketball, and I love beautiful basketball.