One of the most underrated and least talked about joys of being a Spurs fan during the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan Era is that, by hook or by crook, they have cultivated a chameleon-like offensive identity. That is to say, they don't have an identity. They can (and have) play any style they want, depending on A) who they have available on the roster in any given game B) what is required to beat the opponent that night.
To their detractors (who are obviously not paying attention) the Spurs have never deviated at all from their grind-it-out style of the late-90's/early-00's where they planted Duncan in the lower left block, surrounded him with a bunch of three-point shooters and chewed the shot clock down to the nub time and again, content to keep the scores in the 80's. They played at a pace that would frustrate most slugs (so you can imagine how David Stern and the TV executives felt) and methodically forced their foes to submit to their will.
It was glorious, though I admit I may have taken a different view had I League Pass back then and had to endure 82 games of it.
Once Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker entered our consciousness, the Spurs slowly and subtly started to shift to a more guard-oriented, motion-based offense rather than one that ran everything through their all-time pivot man, but still Pop was hesitant --rightly so-- to really open it up for good until the latter part of the decade, once it became apparent that Duncan wasn't up for being beat on in the low post for 35 minutes a night, that both Parker and Ginobili were too talented to be so under-utilized, and perhaps most importantly, that the defense couldn't be the consistent vice it once was without the services of David Robinson, Bruce Bowen or even Robert Horry. (The league banning hand-checking and paint-interference didn't help any either.)
The point is, starting around 2005 or so, the Spurs have undergone a radical metamorphosis where their offense can play fast or slow, big or small, can Iso it up with Parker or Ginobili, can play the drive-and-kick game and can, if need be, still rely on the four-down with Duncan every blue moon. It's true enough that they're known for being primarily a pick-and-roll offense these days, but even in that their attack is more complex and varied than their opponents in that they can set up and execute four or five pick-and-rolls in a 24-second play clock with one guy (Parker) or with various guys (Ginobili, Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, etc.). The Spurs are well-known for employing more misdirection in their sets than just about anyone, but they're also notorious for using the weak side more than just about anyone, and they're not shy about using "horns" looks with their bigs, the hi-lo game with two bigs who can pass, and their guards all know how to run and score off back cuts.
Basically if the Spurs were an NFL team they'd be the New Orleans Saints. They do everything and they do it all to various degrees of excellence. All of this is a relief because, of course, as a Spurs fan I want them to win and even as much of a homer as I am, I cannot deny that their individual parts are not quite as talented 1-on-1 scorers as some of the elite guys in the league, so more team play, offensive flexibility and flat out chicanery are all required for them to be consistently successful.
Stylistically though it's almost as much of a comfort because in this analytic age we're in where more and more teams are starting to use the same front office models, with general managers who have more Harvard MBAs and business/statistical backgrounds than traditional basketball/scouting resumes, the sport is threatening to go the way of baseball in a way that I find discomforting.
Everybody is starting to look the same, more or less.
Don't get me wrong. This is not an old man screed against technology, cluelessly dismissing "stat nerds in their mother's basements ruining sports with math." I'm not Michael Wilbon here, railing against efficient play. (Hell, my favorite all-time player's entire offensive repertoire is based on lay-ups, free throws and three-pointers, and though he's a math whiz I think Gino would admit his playing style was more organic than anything he spent time consciously analyzing.)
I just think that variety is the spice of life and it's boring to watch a league full of teams all strive to set up and shoot corner threes, to play the pick-and-roll, to eschew mid-range shots unless it's a last resort. To me it's no different than all the college football teams running the hurry-up shotgun spread offense and all the baseball teams trying to stack their rotations with strikeout specialists and their batting orders with slow guys with discerning plate approaches who play station-to-station on the bases.
Obviously the only goal for any team should be to win the games as efficiently as possible, but as fans we all collectively suffer when teams all try to copy one another. Leagues are a lot more fun when there are radical differences in teams, not just in terms of talent from squad to squad but also in styles of play. It's why when the Spurs play the Pistons, with their three talented bigs and their potential to play volleyball above the rim, it comes across as refreshing. I mean, Detroit forced the Spurs to briefly use a Tim Duncan-Tiago Splitter-Boris Diaw front court in the first quarter last night. Three bigs! We haven't seen that since the three tower days of Duncan, Robinson and Will Purdue. Then in the second half, thanks to injuries to Parker and Brandon Jennings, both teams decided to just play without a point guard, which reminded me of that period in the early 90's where teams fruitlessly tried to find the next Magic Johnson before realizing that he was a one-off.
(The Spurs ball movement didn't exactly suffer without Parker as they finished with 120 points and 34 assists, but I digress.)
Anyway, compare Detroit's old-school, bullying, blunt-trauma, big-ball attack to some team like the Warriors whose gimmick is... what? That they play like everyone else but just shoot... better? Wheee. In small doses the former is preferable, stylistically.
I completely understand, by the way, that I'm a hypocrite. If the Spurs played like the Pistons and stunk out loud, I'd be ranting and raving for them to play like Houston or Portland, to find better three-point shooters and to take more efficient shots. I realize that all I'm doing is acting like a spoiled brat, asking for our victims to vary their religions now and again rather than all being Christians against our lions.
Yesterday though I came across this interesting and surprising piece by John Schuhmann and I kind of had an epiphany. I wouldn't have guessed in a million years that the Spurs contest more jumpers than anyone, but I wish the data would be broken down further by positions and areas of the floor. I simply refuse to believe, until the proof smacks me in the face, that they contest bigs who shoot from 15-22 feet, for example.
Conversely, I have my questions of how this data pertains to the Thunder, who apparently contest fewer jumpers than anyone. What does this stat do about guys who run out to prevent open threes and force their opponents to pump fake and drive by them? Suppose for a second that somebody like Russell Westbrook runs at Danny Green to take away a corner three. Green puts the ball on the floor and sees that he's got Serge Ibaka waiting for him at the rim and he sees Kevin Durant, whose arms go on forever, is at the elbow, denying the pass to the short elbow or to the top of the key. Literally the only options left to Green are to shoot a long two off the bounce, to attempt a floater over Ibaka or to attempt a risky cross-court pass to the opposite wing. According to the SportsVU tracking data, the Thunder won't be contesting a jumper on the play, but it sure sounds like pretty ideal defense, no?
As most of you know, the mistake many baseball men made with "Moneyball," is that they assumed that it meant the only way to win baseball games, according to Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, was to draw a bunch of walks and to never bunt or attempt to steal bases. That wasn't true at all. Beane would've loved to be able to sign a bunch of guys who could whack home runs and to have great range in the field. As a small-market GM though, he had a shoestring budget so he had to find ways for his team to score the most runs it could for as few dollars as possible. He discovered a market inefficiency in players who made relatively few outs because they walked a lot and didn't take too many risks on the bases. Hording "outs," was his new economy and he saved them like the parable about the squirrel saving acorns for the winter.
Once the rich teams lost enough games to Beane's A's and "Moneyball," became a best-selling book and mandatory reading in all corporate offices, the rich baseball teams who all misunderstood the point of it spent at a premium on all the guys who walked a lot and didn't waste outs. Beane, meanwhile, looked for the "new" market inefficiency with good fielders, since he had no choice but to be one step ahead.
I predict therefore, with basketball going the way of baseball, that it's only a matter of time before some enterprising GM, likely one without a superduperstar like Durant or LeBron James and lacking the means to acquire one anytime soon, embraces the principals of "Moneyball," and realizes that the sport is going to have a market efficiency when it comes to fellas who can shoot the long two at an above-average rate.
I don't know who it will be, but rest assured that in the very near future some team without any big name stars is going to win a lot more games than we expect because they're going to play exactly the opposite of everyone else and they're going to be proficient at shooting from 15-22 feet.
If there's one truism that exists in sports the same as it does in the business world, it's this: It doesn't matter what you do if you do it better than anyone else.