The Spurs Awaken
Sometime during the third quarter of the Spurs game I remembered something super important: Star Wars VIII comes out in just over a month. I still remember the first time I saw a Star Wars film- it was episode VI at a Sam’s Club on the biggest and nicest TV they had- which in 1996 was probably a 14 inch Toshiba. While my mom purchased bulk amounts of Crest toothpaste and Trix cereal, I watched the Rebel Alliance overcome the evil Empire once and for all. The moment when the Millennium Falcon and its A-Wing wingman exited the exploding maw of the second Death Star is imprinted on my mind forever.
It was a few years later when I first saw the Spurs play. I started falling for the NBA in the early 2000’s; we had just gotten a second TV so I now had some control the remote while my sister watched Sleepless in Seattle upstairs. The simple no-nonsense uniforms of the Spurs instantly drew my attention, I couldn’t have known at the time they were a metaphor for the organization itself. I remember being in awe of Tim Duncan’s ability to completely dominate a game as inconspicuously as possible, like the guy who can command a room while whispering. Tony Parker was a swashbuckling blur, slipping to the lane at will through crowded traffic. Manu Ginobili was doing Manu Ginobili things (if you haven’t yet read this Ginobili feature by Zach Lowe, you have to). I knew I was watching something special.
I liked Episode VII. My brother-in- law tells me over and over that VII is unoriginal, a carbon copy of the first (which is the 4th, but ... you know). Same sand planet, same orphan learning he/she has the force, same final battle to destroy a super weapon. He wanted something new, something flashy. Jar Jar was new and flashy, I reminded him -- was that really what he wanted? Besides, the movie was intentionally similar to bring back nostalgia and tie the new trilogy to the original installments. My line of reasoning has thus far failed to sway him.
Critics say the Spurs are too similar to past iterations and don’t fit the modern NBA. Every sports media outlet seems legally obligated to publish at least one think piece a week on how the Warriors have revolutionized basketball. The league is going pace and space, spread pick and roll, no country for big men, two points bad-four points better. That’s great for the most part, but the Nets were once new and flashy I want to remind them.
The Spurs are learning new tricks. They still post up their bigs at the elbow while cutters whirl and blur like stars at light speed, but they also spread the floor and run the pick and roll. Although they trail most of the league in 3pt attempts, displays like Tuesday night prove that they are capable of being efficient at a higher volume (15-28, 53.6%).
Despite looking the part of “traditional big men” LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have each expanded their game out to the three point arc in order to meet the demands of a new era. Aldridge is attempting 1.9 threes a game this year and hitting 42.9% of them. Gasol isn’t far behind with numbers of 1.8 attempts per game, while converting 40%. In last night’s win over the Clippers, the duo combined to go 5-7 from downtown, a 71% rate.
Playing two bigs who can shoot has opened up the offense while still allowing the Spurs to bully opponents on the glass. The Spurs are #1 in the NBA in offensive rebounds this season, and #6 in overall rebounds. The Spurs excel at giving themselves second chances while taking them away from opponents. Having two bigs defensively closes off space for opposing bigs and challenges them to beat them from outside, something Blake Griffin failed to do in a 2 of 7 performance from beyond the arc (DeAndre Jordan didn’t attempt any 3’s because he’s DeAndre Jordan).
The Spurs roll out two bigs to start the game, but Rudy Gay gives them the flexibility to throw on small ball units that can spread the floor even more. Once Leonard is back, the Spurs will have the ability to counter the Warriors’ “lineup of death” with a group of Murray, Green, Anderson, Gay, Leonard. That’s a highly switchable group of guys with wingspans of 6’9”, 6’10”, 7’3”, 7’3”, and 7’3”.
Ginobili is like Mark Hamill, the bridge from old to new. Even though his screen time isn’t the same, he is still an absolute Jedi master. His craftiness has aged like wine, and his annually decreasing minutes have made his moments of brilliance shine even brighter. Last night he was an efficient 3-5 from the floor and added 2 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals while leading a bench unit that scored 42 points.
The Spurs are a perfect mix of old and new, the wisdom of the ancients and the novelty brought by advanced metrics. Adjustments are being made to keep the team competitive, but the Spurs aren’t going to change what isn’t broken. I love that a new generation of fans will get the chance to fall in love with the same qualities that made the original so great. You watch and you know you’re seeing something special. May the System be with you.
All stats courtesy of nba.com and draftexpress