It’s difficult to tell whether or not the Atlanta Hawks enjoyed being referred to as the "Spurs East" for the last couple of seasons. You would have to think that being compared to a seemingly undying franchise with five championships in 16 years would be a compliment, but I can see how it could also be taken as a bit of an insult -- not having an identity of your own. Whether or not Mike Budenholzer, who was part of the Spurs’ coaching staff for nearly two decades before taking over in Atlanta, wanted to emulate the Spurs’ system, the similarities between the two teams were striking.
Rewind about 10 months. The Hawks were the surprise team of the 2014-15 season, on a franchise record winning streak, and heading the Eastern Conference standings. The aftertaste of the "Beautiful Game" Spurs team was still lingering in everyone’s mouths, but the Hawks used it to their advantage. Budenholzer took the philosophy, and applied to his own team. The Hawks were the Spurs of the East. From a Brian Martin article on NBA.com from January, the similarities between the 2013-14 Spurs and 2014-15 Hawks were eerily evident.
DefRtg (points allowed per 100 possessions) and OffRtg (points scored per 100 possessions) were nearly identical (SA- 108.2, ATL 107.3), pace was essentially the same (SA - 97.07, ATL- 96.05), Effective field goal percentage differentiated by only 0.3, and true shooting percentage was LITERALLY an exact match (57.1%). When the Spurs played the Hawks, they were nearly playing themselves.
Ball movement, finding the open man, and making the extra pass were all hard and fast rules for both teams. Another principal that helped these squads was that each team’s second unit had the same way of thinking. The Hawks’ bench didn’t have quite the firepower that the Spurs’ did, but the philosophy was there.
This is the idea that Mike Budenholzer took from San Antonio to Atlanta. Many teams were actively attempting to emulate the idea of giving up a good shot for a great shot, and while unselfishness is still at the core of the Spurs' identity, so much has changed for SA in such a short time. Fast forward to the present, and this style of play that the Spurs are currently playing is something that hasn’t been seen in San Antonio in recent memory.
With the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, the offensive emergence of Kawhi Leonard, and the losses of sharpshooter Marco Bellineli and defensive anchor Tiago Splitter, the Spurs are not the same team they were. That’s obvious. The strange thing is, it doesn't seem that these changes should be working as well as they are, considering how the league is evolving.
One of the most noticeable differences is the three-point shooting. A league-wide light bulb went on when teams realized that you get an extra point for making threes, and the NBA is tossing up more shots from behind the arc than ever before. The Spurs were at the head of this trend, even leading the league, but this year sit in the bottom six in three point attempts per game, per NBA.com. The Hawks are 5th.
The amount of isolation plays have increased as well. The Beautiful Basketball motion that creates one wide open look after another can be still seen in certain waves from the second unit, but sometimes San Antonio simply relies on Kawhi's scoring ability. And he's doing much of that away from the basket. The Spurs are seemingly living off of the mid range, thanks to LaMarcus and Kawhi, and have shot nearly twice as many shots from this area than inside the paint, per NBA.com. While most call these long 2’s the most inefficient shots in basketball, the Spurs are making it work.
The adaptability of the Spurs throughout the years is nothing short of incredible. This team, who's counted on the same main core since the emergence of Manu Ginobili, was able to re-visualize the cogs in it's machine, and is now being considered the team best suited well to take down the mighty Golden State Warriors. How is that even possible? The mid-range is working, but that's not what's winning games...
The Spurs control the pace of a game with suffocating defense, leading the NBA in DefRtg is the main reason the Spurs can sport the league's second best record. But several solid positives can be seen on the other end even though the offense sometimes operates in fits and starts. Kawhi is about un-guardable right now, scoring 20+ on the regular. Tony Parker is slicing through the lane and opening up the floor. LaMarcus is keeping opposing defenses on their toes simply by being on the floor, and Manu Ginobili is sparking the second unit on a nightly basis. But the fact is that the offense isn't close to reaching its ceiling, and the Spurs are still beating teams by double digits.
On Saturday night, the Spurs held the Hawks to 12 second quarter points, and for the for the 11th time this season, the Spurs held their opponent to under 90 points. San Antonio is perfect in those games. There simply isn't another team who's playing this way, and that may be my favorite thing about this Spurs team.. Despite what the Warriors are doing right now (and let me say that it is incredible), teams should be afraid of the Spurs.
Just like always.
Quote of the Night:
Kawhi, when asked what superhero he would compare Tim Duncan to:
"Just one person: Tim Duncan... He's one of a kind"
- Via Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung), MySA
47: Kawhi Leonard went 3-for-3 from downtown on Saturday night and is now shooting 47% from three on the season. What else can he learn how to do at this point?
32: Kawhi’s +/-: I don’t generally look too much into this stat with individuals, but +32 seems pretty good.
23: The Spurs held the Hawks to 23% from downtown, and Atlanta averages a solid 36% on the year.
18: The amount of rebounds that a certain 39-year-old legendary power forward pulled down tonight. It’s crazy how many boards he can grab while only jumping an inch off the ground.
6: The minutes that Boban Marjanovic got to play. I don’t care how many points he scored (one), I just love watching him on the floor. He made 6-foot-8 Mike Scott look like a small child.
9-0: The Spurs' home record this season.
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker now have 700 wins together and become the fastest duo in NBA history to reach 700 wins, doing so in 962 games.— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) November 29, 2015
When Defenses Don't Talk... https://t.co/7WSlvCsT3Z— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) November 29, 2015
Yes.— Did Boban play? (@DidBobanPlay) November 29, 2015