Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Part 1 of a three-part series in which I take a look at the transformation of the Spurs into an elite offense, and why the re-emergence of the defense is a product years in the making.
"The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."
- Albert Einstein
The remodeling of the Spurs' system since the Phoenix Suns pick-and-rolled them to an early playoff death in 2010 hasn't been an overnight evolution. Perhaps you can classify the offensive style change as close to this, given the relative shock of the sparkly new high-scoring machine we saw in San Antonio. But the practiced perfection of a philosophy is a process few actually achieve, regardless of arena. Not only does it require a refinement of mentality, a stylistic evolution often demands roster rearrangement.
Against those Steve Nash Suns, we saw a Spurs team without the requisite depth, size and athleticism to supplement its aging core. The days of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili winning titles with the likes of Jaren Jackson, Mario Elie and Rasho Nesterovic -- relative plug-in players on short contracts and small salaries -- were no longer. Any future title hopes for the Big 3 necessitated an influx of game-changing talent, and at least a shred of athleticism. Duncan would most likely never be an elite pick-and-roll defender again in his career, especially when the situation involved his man popping for the jump shot.
But as quickly as the game changed for the old grind-it-out Spurs, the lineup turnover has been a bit more gradual. With the ever-coveted "athletic stretch four" becoming such a valuable -- not to mention expensive -- commodity in today's NBA, the Spurs have revamped in other ways, focusing on the percentages and schematically forcing opponents into taking the mid-range jumper, one of the least efficient shots in basketball.
If you're going to have a weakness defensively, it might as well be the area in which opponents have the lowest percentage of success.
In that series against the Suns, however, it wasn't just the defense that needed an overhaul, the Duncan-centric offense would soon be a thing of the past. The Spurs' aging big man had lost a step from what had never really been an uber-athletic physical makeup, but San Antonio did have a water-bug point guard whose strength had never been playing as a prototypical spot-up guard in an inside-out offense. While he had become serviceable as a shooter in the mid-range and a passer out the pick and roll (which, ironically, is the focus of what the Spurs want to give up defensively), his ability to push the ball and finish in transition were the skills that made him the MVP of the NBA Finals in 2007.
If the Spurs wanted to avoid collapsing what they'd built around Tim Duncan and running the big man into the ground, it was time for a change. It was time for Parker to run the show. He already had the supporting actors in Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
Addressing the problem
Despite my pointing out the Suns series as the turning point for the San Antonio change in philosophy, it was the summer prior to that when the team came to grips with the issues it faced moving forward. The Spurs and their fans (probably more so their fans) had become starved by the need for an athletic, slashing forward to play alongside the Big 3, so the excitement level was palpable when the trade news came down that summer.
Bowen had lost his effectiveness as an elite perimeter defender as he began to age, and the same can be said in different capacities for Oberto and Thomas (though ol' Kurt is still playing to this day at the age of 40 for the New York Knicks, crazy eyes and all). But here was Jefferson, who had run and dunked his way to a maximum contract, ushering in the new Spurs' movement toward an offensive identity to help supplement Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. It would turn out as one of the few major mistakes, if not the only, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich would ever make.
This small-market franchise had been managed at a near perfect level during its run under Pop and R.C. Operating under the league's luxury tax was always at the forefront of its practices, and bringing in players that fit perfectly to tie together a system had become a staple in San Antonio. So the move to bring in RJ was a risky one, but it was a decision the Spurs felt was necessary to make given the inflated payrolls of the very best teams in the NBA. San Antonio felt it could no longer compete without expanding its financial horizons.
So the Spurs moved forward, paying a luxury tax as a perceived price of future success. And the fans certainly didn't mind. After all, this was the player for which they'd been looking, so there would be no backlash against the typically thrifty franchise. The NBA was in a money movement toward the biggest markets, so theoretically their team had to pay up in order to compete.
The Spurs' plan to boost production and put points on the board worked quite well on the surface. The team's pace (possessions per 48 minutes) skyrocketed -- at least by San Antonio standards -- from 90.4 to 94.02 in 2009-10, and as a result averaged 101.4 points per game, 4.4 points more per contest than it did the prior season. The Spurs' offensive rating jumped one point as well -- from 106.2 to 107.2 -- as their net rating differential did nearly the same. From shooting percentages to assist ratios, San Antonio had become a higher-scoring, more efficient offensive team. And while Richard Jefferson's 14.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per 36 minutes were hardly worth $15 million, the offense still clicked, and the Spurs' transfer to a "light up the scoreboard" philosophy had begun.
But as San Antonio would eventually find out, the problem had never been a lack of offensive production. This team couldn't stop people when it needed to any longer, and that was a concern Popovich hadn't had to deal with since Duncan was drafted No. 1 overall in the 1997 draft.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com.
Watch for Part 2 soon at Pounding the Rock.