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Days of Thunder, and the Spurs

What do Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, and Randy Quaid in a 1990 film about an outsider hotshot breaking into the world of NASCAR have to do with Manu Ginobili, Gregg Popovich, and Peter Holt trying to hold on to NBA relevance in a small-market city in Texas? Quite a lot, actually.

How Days of Thunder explains Pop's coaching philosophy

This comment from Chajamamama caught the eye of our fearless leader J.R. Wilco, who then brought its poignancy to my attention.

I kinda feel like Pop is doing the same thing as Robert Duvall does to Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder.

If you recall, Duvall was the crew chief of Cruise's racing team. Cruise could drive, but didn't know the "secrets" to driving great. He thought he could get by on natural talent alone. Duvall challenged him to race a certain amount of laps anyway he wanted to and then switch tires and race the same amount but follow Duvall's driving orders. Afterwards they compared tires: the tires from the Duvall led laps were in much better condition and the time was faster. In this way, Cruise was brought to understand that he needed to listen to his crew chief's greater knowledge to increase his performance and conserve his fuel while reducing wear and tear on his equipment. And he started winning.

In this way, I feel Pop sometimes lets the players be the driving force behind the mojo of the game. You can feel the shift in the team's attitude sometimes when Pop reasserts his authority. (sometimes) Maybe the team sometimes needs to be able to fail or almost fail on their own in order to realize all over again that the Spurs system lets each of them do their best working together. The players may not even realize that they have, as you said, taken the system for granted.

This would explain some of the randomness we see at times that just do not seem to fit in the Spurs usual gameplan.

For those who haven't seen the film, or just need a refresher, here's a clip of the sequence in question:

I've watched Days of Thunder more times than anyone sane should, yet the analogy never occurred to me in the past. But I think it fits perfectly with the Spurs.

We've seen it a lot of times this season: the Spurs start a game well, executing flawlessly on both sides of the floor. Then they start straying from what usually gets them leads, choosing instead to exploit what they think are mismatches or holding the ball too much instead of moving it. They go one-on-one or run the most basic of pick and roll sets and end up strangled by the shot clock. On defense we see gambling or poor effort, which results in offensive boards or points in the paint. They burn the tires. Sometimes this approach works for a little while and the Spurs go on a run fueled by three-point shooting and fast breaks but it's not sustainable. When they abandon the game plan, the team usually goes though offensive droughts and defensive breakdowns and sees leads vanish.

And a lot of times we see Pop letting them play through it, without calling a time out. The bad stretches often last a little longer than most fans would like until, almost out of nowhere, the team starts executing once again. On the Orlando game, we saw that moment manifest itself clearly when, after a terrible end of the second quarter that stretched out to the beginning of the third quarter. Pop called a timeout, talked to the team and designed a beautiful set play that resulted in a Danny Green corner three. From that point on, that lineup played Spurs basketball.

The devolution into an undisciplined team that tried to win on talent alone kept recurring against the Magic (especially with lineups that included seldom used players) and Pop kept letting it happen for a while before ultimately calling a timeout and subbing out players that were under performing or simply "reasserting his authority" and getting the team back on track. I'm using the Orlando game as an example but it has happened in a lot of games this season: the team goes away from the fundamentals of Spurs basketball, Pop lets them play through it to see if they can get back on track and if they can't, he steps in.

Now, this is not one more article romanticizing the "Spurs system" like it's the sole driving force behind the team's success. If you watched Days of Thunder, you know that Cole Trickle was extremely talented. Robert Duvall's character, Harry, knows this and only tries to give the driver the tools to harvest that talent. He tailors the car to fit Cole's driving style and asks for his input. With that information he formulates the best possible game plan for Cole to follow in order to maximize the performance of the car. At the same time, he understands that Cole needs to realize on his own that he should trust his crew chief--that's the only way they can work together and ultimately win.

Pop understands that without the talent he has, no amount of tweaks could make the Spurs a contender. He's built the game plan around the players he has and worked to maximize the team's chances but he knows it's ultimately up to his players to execute the game plan. And for them to do that and to trust him, they need to realize that they need the system in order to harness all that talent in a focused and efficient way. Pop knows that and is showing more patience, letting some guys play through mistakes and letting the team find his own way back into playing winning basketball, only stepping in when he feels he has to.

But while we can use Days of Thunder to make a parallel with this year's team as a whole, no one exemplifies the Cole Trickle/Harry dynamic with Pop better than Manu Ginobili. Manu has always had moments when he seems to abandon all semblance of a game plan, choosing instead to rely on his instincts and his talent. This season it drove some Spurs fans insane how much leeway Pop gave him, even when the bad performances kept piling up. But there's a history there; one about a talented, reckless hot shot that had had success in the past by doing things his way and the older, wiser guy that understood that the only way to guide him and to harness that talent was to let the kid realize that he needed structure without suffocating the qualities that made him special in the first place.

The now infamous "but that's how I play" explanation Manu gave Pop after a mistake early in his Spurs career marked the way their relationship would evolve. Pop as Harry, first frustrated by this guy that was the opposite of orthodox before learning to value the unpredictability of his approach and Manu as Cole, the guy that figured out after a while that playing within a system wasn't restraining his talent, but enhancing it.

Many would say that, as time has passed, it may be time to reassess the relationship from both sides, and that very well may be true. But that's the subject for another post. For now, all I'll say is that I'm hoping both Manu and the team as a whole realize that being consistent and meticulous doesn't mean abandoning all imagination and creativity. There's still room for the unpredictable even in the most rigorous of systems and it's often necessary to think outside the box to overcome the toughest challenges. If they trust it, the Spurs system could provide them with a chance of winning the Daytona 500 (the Larry O´Brien) with one lap to go, the way Harry's advice helped put Cole in that position. But then they will have to figure out a way to get pass that last car all on their own. Pop knows it and is wiling to let the team figure things out now, so when the time comes, they are ready.