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When Spurs headlines become a conundrum

That time I almost mistook what ended up being a great article because of the headline...

San Antonio Spurs v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Writers depend on their editors. One important thing we rely on: We need the headline writer to get the theme of the post. For instance, it would not be productive for a post about how Patty Mills has been so great for the Spurs to headline the article with “Why Are All Aussies So Short?”

The reason I started this post with this introduction arose from the headline (and subhead) from Kevin O’Connor’s recent post for The Ringer:

The San Antonio Spurs Paradox

Gregg Popovich has overseen one of the most progressive organizations in basketball in the past two decades. So why do the Spurs play like they are trapped in another age? And what does their future look like?”

Before I even finished reading the headline, I had written much of this post in my head. If all you read was the headline, you would assume that the article would be yet another criticism of the present Spurs’ team reliance on mid-range (read “inefficient”) mid-range shots and post-ups. I assumed that the article would go on to talk about the Spurs had unwisely chosen to play a 1990’s offense in the 21st century. The implicit criticism would have been that time had passed Gregg Popovich by — clinging to what worked in the Tim Duncan/David Robinson era, not willing to step into the New Frontier of threes, dunks and free throws.

I had the perfect rejoinder to that criticism: Both Pop and I had cut our teeth (where did that expression come from??) coaching small college Division III ball — Pop at Pomona Pitzer, me at Claremont McKenna College, schools essentially across the street from each other in Southern California. When one recruits players in Division III, coaches get the best players they can, and fit the program to fit those players. Indeed, sometimes we would change our offensive scheme from one season to the next, depending on what players we were able to bring in the door that year — players who would be with the program for four years.

Pop did that at Pomona Pitzer, and has continued to do that in San Antonio. When he had dominant post players, the Spurs slowed it down and pounded the ball into the Admiral and the Great Duncan. After the Admiral retired, and Duncan aged, the Spurs sped up their game. Get the ball to Tony Parker and run — with shooters like Gary Neal, Danny Green and Matt Bonner spotting up for threes. That morphed into the Beautiful Game Spurs, with constant movement from Manu Ginobili, Mills, Parker and others, and great passers like Boris Diaw dropping dimes and great screeners like Tiago Splitter opening up shooters with bone-crushing screens. (Tiago also mastered the pick and roll kick out to the corner three.)

The article written in my head would have then led to a discussion of the present Spurs. It would have pointed out that Pop was not stuck in the last century, but instead doing exactly what his background had taught him: The system must fit the players, not the other way around. You must play the hand that you have been dealt, not some imaginary hand you wish you had. Do you want DeMar DeRozan firing up threes that he does not think will go in? Do you want LaMarcus Aldridge not to shoot the mid-range jumper that he has spent his career mastering? And I would have pointed out that Pop has freed Bryn Forbes to let it fly from three essentially whenever he wants to, converted Rudy Gay into a “Stretch Four” with three point range, and empowered Dejounte Murray to run one-man fast breaks whenever the mood strikes.

I didn’t actually read The Ringer article for over a day after I saw the headline and wrote the article in my head. (My excuse: I had a trial in-between seeing the headline and having time to put the article I wrote in my head into print. Reminder to new readers — I am a trial lawyer when not writing for PtR.)

Once I read the article, I discovered that the headline cheated the article. Kevin O’Conner got it exactly right, though he didn’t mention the Division III connection. (I am sure he didn’t coach against Pop when I did, as I knew all the coaches in our league.) Contrary to what the headline implies, Kevin’s analysis of the present Spurs is spot on. As just one example:

“Adaptability is the hallmark of San Antonio under Popovich. He tailors their system to fit the strengths of the personnel, and these days, the Spurs have a paradoxical style that inspires nostalgia for the past, appreciation for the present, and curiosity about whatever might be coming in the NBA.”

. . .

“It’s not like the Spurs suck on offense. Based on the way we talk about the NBA on Twitter, podcasts, and with our friends, it often seems like the midrange jumper should be banned. But it’s worked out for the Spurs: They ranked seventh in offense last season and are seventh this season. And even though DeRozan and Aldridge live in the dreaded midrange, their passes frequently result in analytics-happy 3s or layups. And the rest of the team shoots a lot of 3s.”

Read the entire article — it may give Spurs fans some perspective as to how a non-local analyst views the present Spurs, and more importantly, the team’s future. Here is the link to the article again, with an apology to Kevin for almost criticizing an article he didn’t write but one his headline writer thought he had.