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The genius of the Spurs is their strategic laziness

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The Spurs have the longest run of excellence in the NBA for a good reason, and this might be it.

"Don't hurry back, Tim. Take it easy."
"Don't hurry back, Tim. Take it easy."
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have pulled off an amazing feat by having 19 years of success in the Tim Duncan era. In all sports, it's true that plenty of teams have great runs of success and longevity. But even by those standards, the Spurs have had more success and more longevity, all at once. That's not supposed to happen. There's supposed to be a trade-off.

We see this most of all, of course, in the unflagging success of Tim Duncan. Okay, he can't do all the things he could when he was 25. In fact, he can barely leave the ground, he can barely run in a traditional sense, and when he does push himself to rush, even then he only has a few runs down the court in him every quarter or so. He is, actually, a very old human being by the standards of professional basketball. The "fountain of youth" narrative is mostly trotted out because it's almost impossible to conceive of Tim Duncan doing what he does in professional basketball at his age. What Tim is doing is comparable only to players like Karl Malone and Kareem (at least in the NBA). And even then, it's a great mystery. While the game is perhaps less physical in terms of fights and shoving matches, arguably the physical toll on players per minute is as great as it has ever been. The players every generation get lither, more muscular, more agile. It seems like a very bad time to be a 39-year-old basketball player, and in particular Tim Duncan.

But the coach hasn't turned back into a pumpkin, and the dull bells of midnight haven't struck on this unlikely run of success. In three weeks, Tim Duncan will turn 40, and the 39-year-old's team is 39-0 and shows few signs of collapsing. It seems that their main obstacle to a championship is not the passage of time (at least not anything we can foresee happening by June). Rather, their main obstacle is a group of players in California who are, independently, also incredibly good at basketball.

The question, is, naturally, how can Duncan and the Spurs seem to do this while no one else has? Back when I was blogging here and at other places, I would read a lot of pieces from here, at 48 Minutes, and across the blogosphere and even academia and essays trying to answer that question. I'd read things from Harvard Business school about non-verbal/active communication while listening to a Lowe podcast with RC Buford about how Pop listened to "even the lowly workers" (what a novel concept, right?).I'd read pieces about how the Spurs were able to create virtuous cycles and solve for pattern. I'd read so much about analytics, and how they were reducing workload and cumulative numbers of minutes. I'd read explanations about how "Tim Duncan already had old man game when he was at Wake Forest!" so it's more of an adjustment. Or about how Peter Holt was always such a hands-off owner, or how Chip was such a brilliant shooting coach, or how the role players the Spurs acquired were perfect.

And of course, I'd read conversely how other decision-makers (especially owners) screwed up what they'd built--how they maybe weren't as smart as Pop (James Dolan, for example). Or how the other teams made mistakes Pop wouldn't have made. Or  how they decided to leave or retire when Duncan would have stayed (or not announced it, or whatever). Or that the Spurs built their way here instead of buying their way here. Then about how they acquired LaMarcus Aldridge and still did really well and how this proves that they were even good at that.

Hundreds of explanations and many of them had a lot of of truth to them. These explanations seem to fall under a few general rubrics: Wisdom/Intelligence/Scouting, Continuity/Role/Consistency, Character/Virtue/Social Ethics, Management, and, oh, yeah Basketball-Specific Explanations.

But maybe the simplest, most attractive explanation (beyond, marvelously, not screwing up too many of the other problems of basketball) is the one that inverts the causal arrow completely. Maybe Tim Duncan and the old, withering bodies of the Spurs don't succeed despite his physical limitations due to age, but in part because of them.

Now, I'm not saying the Spurs are wiser now than they were as young people, or that they were necessarily very wise as young people. And I'm not saying they were born with with a gene for some secret knee tendon that you only get after 35 as an evolutionary adaptation for separating roughhousing teens at the local pool. Or that all the Spurs have developed a sense that allows them to perceive when an opponent is out of breath in the post so they can go to the basket right then and they won't have the energy to get in front of you.

Recently, I haven't been watching so much basketball  And I haven't even seen much of the Spurs. But returning to the game gave me the advantage that everything I was seeing appeared new and surprising, like going back to your old home or playground. You know how that slide is so much smaller than you remembered it? Well... that's how I felt about the Spurs' verticals. And suddenly, something about the way they played snapped into place for me.

When I watched the Spurs against the Raptors on Saturday night, I couldn't help but notice that they almost never jumped (except for Kawhi and occasionally LMA on rebounds). They almost never ran (except Patty, though Tony has a few conspicuous bursts in him. They all run for a little bit--but it's rarely a full sprint even then).

I'm saying the Spurs, to a staggering degree, have treated every step, hop, jump, and minor collision on court as a potential hazard to their dynastic success. Kawhi, more than anything, has the most absurd proprioception and "in-control-of-the-situation" vibe of any young player I can recall (at least, among one who wasn't a tiny point guard). Boris Diaw is in no hurry, and gets from here to there on his own terms. Patty Mills runs but is always in control. David West is tough but doesn't stray from a formula of a few key motions. Manu reins in more of his scarier impulses these days. And Tony seems to run if and only if he has to get open or get back. They will sacrifice for the team but only when they know it will pay off.

It's shocking when other teams play the Spurs if you've been watching either regularly. See, it seems that every other team has an extra burst of speed, hops, and dancing creativity that the Spurs either won't or can't compete with. What you're seeing in these other teams is what a normal NBA athlete looks like. And it's palpable if you're looking for it. If the Spurs have creativity (as they certainly do on both a team and individual level) it often only shows up in subtle details:Tim Duncan's little dolphin rebound taps to teammates. The behind-the-back/nutmeg passes that Manu breaks out once in awhile. The way Tony puts his body between the defender and the ball just so before setting up his layup just so. How Kawhi dribbles, like, into traffic and the whole team collapses, then hesitates above the free throw line to get right back out of traffic. Danny Green's inexplicably brilliant transition defense, which among other things, usually doesn't end with him getting hit in the face. Everything Boris Diaw does on and off the court. Professor Andre MIller (not emeritus, yet, somehow) tricking players into biting on head-fakes and ball-fakes and spin-moves and probably a multi-level-marketing pitch as well.

What the Spurs do in their own moments of creativity, while restrained, is intelligent and wise and innovative and physically difficult--but what I'd suggest is that most players on other teams (in their moments of success) are more fully actualized, mind and body, on any individual play or ballgame. It's ridiculous to consider the sort of acrobatics and body control involved in a DeAndre Jordan dunk over someone. They really are spectacular athletes, and sometimes we in San Antonio lose sight of the full euphoria of an athlete reaching for that extra reserve to hit that extra couple inches in their vertical.

But what I'd further suggest is that, while this stuff is a lot of fun, and smarter in its own way than we give it credit for, these other players jumping up and down on a hardwood floor, or running and strafing back and forth a dozen times extra per quarter, isn't helping their team win commensurately with the physical toll it takes, at least (or maybe especially) when this calculation of risk/reward is taken over many years.

By being less totally actualized than even older players on other teams, the Spurs in fact give themselves a much better chance to be playing long past even those older players. They still end up on the wrong side of 30, but more than anything else, that means longer ice baths for them, longer recovery times, and a second knee brace. Or it means a 3 inch hop on a corner set shot instead of a 15-inch Ray Allen/Steph Curry beaut.  It means dunking less... but it also means that they need to tailor their games to dunk less in the first place, so they're not overextending themselves unless they have a really good reason to leave their feet. They don't leave their feet unless they have to, they don't immediately turn on a dime to switch directions (unless they have to) because there was a sudden steal. Rather, they give themselves a split second to re-adjust,

By all these choices, the Spurs are often seen to be self-sacrificing, or are seen to be working within their limited physical potential. Except when we turn to the win column or the scoreboard, we only see the downside of this approach: we see a lower potential for successful, decisive actions on any possession, on any game, and, possibly, on any season. But they avoid (though, of course, never completely avoid) the wear-and-tear of subtle injuries and the impact of much bigger injuries. They don't work unless they have to, and then they give it their all.

Of course they limit minutes on their older players to minimize the accumulation of those minutes. But I think the conventional thing to do is to treat the accumulation per minute as a fixed quantity that can't be reckoned with. Here, I think, may be the Spurs' great insight: For it's a more profound conservation of motion that the Spurs on the court, to a man, have always been after. As much as possible, they're avoiding the toll of an activity which usually is played with a youthful energy by people with genetic, physical, and mental advantages, and which usually seems to end or severely limit those players' capabilities around the age of 30.

Beyond all the corporate wisdom, all the laissez-faire ownership, the "high-character guys", the work ethic, the sense of humor, the high-BBIQ players, the teamwork, the coaching, the compassion, and the sense of belonging -- much of the Spurs success seems to ride on the fact that no one screws it up. And "no one screwing it up" is not on the level of the macrocosmic culture of decision-making but on the ultra-microscopic little decision at every moment not to put too much stress on your body, unless you have to.

Maybe the Spurs have an indomitable work ethic, but maybe it's also worth decoupling this work ethic from the ethic of physical self-sacrifice. The former is laudable; the latter depends on your time-frame. A self-sacrifice that you know will lessen your ability to work in 5 years...well, it gets complicated, ethically. But the Spurs see it as uncomplicated. They simply don't self-sacrifice, at least not in that way. They don't get the best counting stats in their prime, it's true. But they're in the league longer.

The Spurs don't care about your moral calculus. They will sit players who want to play, and they will sit players whenever they decide to. If they have even the subjective sense that they or a player on the team might get an injury, they avoid the possibility completely. They are, in a sense, strategically lazy. They don't give it 110% and show up every day. They give it 65% and don't jog on uneven surfaces, so that in 10 years they can still give it 65% while their cohorts are out of the league, and they always work within these limitations. Does the math of this decision work out in their favor? The Tim Duncan era suggests it does -- with an impact and scope that goes far beyond our intuitive ability to grasp.