If you are 17 years old or younger there hasn’t been a single year in your life that the Spurs haven’t won t least 50 games (they went 37-13 in the 1999 lockout season, a win percentage of .740 or 60.6 games over an 82 game season). Let that soak in for a minute.
50 wins in 17 straight years is ridiculous and arguably more impressive than the more celebrated 3 peat of the Lakers. Add in 4 championships separated by 8 years—and the Spurs were a miraculous Ray Allen shot away from 5 championships spanning 14 years—and it’s easy to see why the Spurs are the model franchise in the NBA.
The reason behind this is Gregg Popovich. He is best coach in the NBA right now by a wide margin and has managed to evolve his style to match the rules of the NBA. During his early Spurs years Pop relied on the twin towers of Duncan and Robinson and played a very conservative defensive style.
With Robinson long gone and Duncan not able to shoulder the majority of the offense the Spurs have changed. Influenced by the international emphasis on spacing, Pop created a truly dynamic offense based upon ball movement and shooting.
Compared to most NBA offenses revolve completely around the pick n roll the Spurs are a different animal. Instead of the pick n roll or iso heavy sets that rely on on winning one on one match ups the Spurs have built their offense around smart off ball movement, drive and kick and excellent spacing. Using this principals Popovich has created a top 5 offense – in offensive efficiency—despite lacking a true superstar like Durant or LeBron.
While the stats are impressive enough the only way to truly appreciate what the Spurs are doing is to look at the game tape. Let’s look at two plays form the past week that demonstrates just how pleasing the Spurs can be to watch.
The most impressive part of this play is how the Spurs start this action with 10 seconds on the shot clock. After a Tony Parker pulled out of a semi transition opportunity, the Spurs didn’t panic they did what they always do, continue pressing the defense with constant movement.
The action started with Manu cutting off Diaw on a screen/handoff. This forces Gasol to slide over to provide help and also distracts Bazemore from his man Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi notices this and cuts back baseline towards the rim. At the same time, Duncan creates space underneath for Leonard by popping to the high post. This creates a high low post situation that allows the Spurs to get the ball underneath the rim by passing and oft ball movement, a rarity in the drive heavy NBA.
In the end, Leonard takes an unnecessary dribble and allows his defender to recover ending the possibility of an uncontested layup. Still, Leonard gathers himself and takes advantage of the collapsed Lakers defense by kicking the ball out to a wide open Tony Parker.
Beating up the Lakers with the likes of Leonard, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker is one thing but the really beauty of Popovich’s system is how well it works with the other 7 Spur players. Let’s look at how the Spurs offense didn’t miss a beat despite playing a lineup of Banes, Diaw, Mills, Ginobili and Belinelli against a very good Bulls defense.
Here is a perfect example of how the Spurs offensive identity allows them to be efficient even with lesser players on the court. Again the action starts off a screen – this time it’s a double pick – and Ginobili is allowed to take advantage of a scrambling defense.
This time his defender goes over the screen so Manu attacks the paint. The beginning of his drive brings Taj Gibson forward vacating the area around the rim. Seeing this Macro Belinelli makes a smart backcourt cut that Manu finds with a quick bounce pass. After receiving the ball near the rim, Tom Thibedeau’s defense collapses around Belinelli. Luckily for Belinelli while he was cutting along the baseline Patty Mills was sliding down from the top of the key for the open corner three, the best shot in the NBA except for lay ups. The things these two plays have in common is great off ball movement.
And it is not just one player making a great cut it is multiple players cutting off ball at once in unison. This sort of teamwork and chemistry is so rare in the NBA it actually takes some time to truly appreciate it. Most NBA fans like watching the high flying teams like the Heat, Thunder or Clippers. And why not, they are exciting as hell featuring ridiculous athletes that do things only a tiny fraction of humans can do.
While I enjoy all of the ally oops and fast break dunks they don’t even approach the kind of satisfaction that I get watching the Spurs. Maybe it’s the fact the Spurs game isn't based on incredible athleticism or overwhelming talent, and instead they relying on passing and teamwork, two things that are often romanticized.
A great coach once described a basketball team as a hand; together as a fist it’s hard and formidable but if separated each finger is weak and easily breakable. This is exactly what Popovich has created in San Antonito, a team who’s players individually are more or less replaceable outside of Duncan and Parker but when they are brought together by Pop’s system to form an elite team. Or more simply, the Spurs sum is greater than their individual parts.
Due to their small market, lack of a true superstar and a basketball culture that values high flying dunks instead of ball movement, the Spurs will never get the attention they deserve. But Popovich and his Spurs don’t seem to mind that, their focused on something bigger, playing perfect basketball.More basketball and sports film breakdowns available at InsidetheFilmRoom.com.