I grew up hearing, knowing and believing that defense wins championships. I have sat by while it's been discussed and I have seen it play out in front of my eyes. It is a truism. It's one of the sacrosanct pillars of basketball knowledge that is rarely questioned. A championship contender must be able to get stops in big spots, end of story.
The Spurs used to have a great defense. Well, that's not quite accurate. The Spurs had a spectacular defense. They ate teams up with excellent interior big men, a superior one-on-one wing defender, and airtight rotations that were perfectly in sync. The team dominated by scoring enough points to win while holding their opponents to well below their averages for points, pace, field goal percentage, and efficiency. But players age and rosters change, and now I find myself in a situation where I look at the team at the beginning of this season and think, "We'll probably win close to 60 regular season games, but once we get to the playoffs, who knows if it'll translate."
That's when another part of my brain, the part that recognizes patterns, mentions that this is precisely the formula that the Phoenix Suns used to employ: excellent offense and a defense as good as it can be, but not elite. And that reality is an eye-opener. Facts are facts, and I can see that while San Antonio's current style of play isn't tailor-made for playoff success, it's the best style to maximize the team's chances for a ring. As a fan, I'm resigning myself to the current state of the team and hoping for the best.
Then that pattern-recognition center (probably located somewhere next to the hypothalamus) chirps up again to inform me that the Los Angeles Lakers, with the hiring of Mike D'Antoni, are in that exact same situation. Steve Nash will run an offense filled out with better talent than he's ever had before -- at nearly every position. I expect them to be a fabulous offensive team. I also see them being in the middle of the pack on defense. Just like where the Spurs have been for the last three plus years.
When things changed for the Spurs
The beginning of the 2010-11 season was one of the biggest mind-boggling moments of my sports life. After more than a dozen seasons of Pop prowling the sidelines and constantly yelling at Tony and Manu to slow the pace, work the ball up the court and get a good shot, everything changed. Suddenly, he was wheeling his arms around like a third base coach waving a runner home, urging the guys to move more quickly, get transition baskets and push the pace.
I remember sitting with the other bloggers who cover the team. Each and every one of us were gobsmacked. We simply couldn't believe what we were seeing, and we didn't expect it to continue. Here it was just a few months after the team had been swept by the Suns (sans D'Antoni, if you remember) and the team was playing by entirely different rules in an utterly new system - and doing so at a league leading offensive efficiency while topping the Western Conference in wins.
What team does that without a huge amount of turnover? When has that ever happened in league history, where the team kept the same personnel in place (both on the court and on the sideline) and executed such a bold and complete metamorphosis? It's never been done, because it's nearly impossible to do. You'd have to be nearly crazy to try it, and you'd have have a secret weapon to actually have a shot at pulling it off.
Without a doubt, the secret is Gregg Popovich.
It's impossible to overstate what he means to the franchise in every possible way. He is that rarest of coaches who is able to work in a coach-centric mode, where he knows what he wants from his role players, and works to find guys with those talents to fit into his system. But he can also work in a player-centric mode, where he shifts his system to make best use of the talents of the players at his disposal. I don't think there has ever been another NBA coach capable of operating in both of those environments. The man is one of a kind.
Which brings me back to the Lakers, the team that Pop beat yesterday with a brilliant play designed specifically to take advantage of Kobe's tendency to gravitate toward the paint in order to help in game-ending situations. Los Angeles is now beginning the same kind of transformation with their team that San Antonio kicked off two years ago. It's a foundational shift of coach and vision, that follows a massive change of players. They've fired Mike Brown, who was known for his defensive acumen, and they've hired D'Antoni, the offensive guru. That is the way that teams deal with problems with their roster, or issues with the team's play. That is how the whole league responds in a crisis: install a different coaching staff, get new players, and change the philosophy of the team. And because it's the Los Angeles Lakers, when they react to distress, they go out and sign the best players in the league. When they don't win out of the gate, they sign the best offensive coach available, who is now faced with installing a brand new system in the middle of a season, with several players he's unfamiliar with coaching, and make it all gel this year so that Dwight Howard doesn't go elsewhere at the end of the season. Oh, and because it's L.A., they need to contend for the championship this year too.
These two teams, who have combined to win nine of the last fourteen championships, are in such similar positions. They are trying to recapture their former glory with aging stars and new paradigms. But they're separated by a gulf so much wider than the distance between their cities, more distinct than the styles of their communities, more varied than the personalities of the players. And those differences begin with a man who has stamped his imprint onto the very fabric of the franchise. The Spurs have Popovich, a man who has, over the last 17 years, settled so many questions for the Spurs that they don't have to deal with the kind of drama that the Lakers are going through, and have been going through since Phil Jackson retired a year and a half ago. And that is the difference in these teams.
The Lakers are now the mirror image of the Spurs, but they're operating with less time, less familiarity, and less of a margin for error.