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How to understand the Spurs defense

A collection of resources to improve our collective knowledge of the best franchise in sports.

2014 NBA Global Games - Berlin Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

This series seeks to round up some of the best information available on how the Spurs do business. It starts from an organizational perspective and will work its way down to the nitty-gritty tactical details. There’s a lot of incredible Spurs-related media available, so if we miss something, or as new stuff becomes available, let us know and we’ll continue to add and update as we go.

Connected by communication and trust

As covered in the first two parts of this series, the Spurs provided a coaching clinic in Berlin on October 6th, 2014 as part of the NBA’s Global Games that year. Jim Boylen, currently head coach of the Chicago Bulls, was entering his 16th season as an assistant coach in the NBA and second as an assistant coach with the Spurs at the time. He introduced several drills for developing team defense while explaining how those drills applied to the Spurs’ defensive system and concepts.

Like Ettore Messina before him, Coach Boylen reinforced much of what Coach Gregg Popovich began the session with, stressing that the team doesn’t skip steps and repeatedly emphasizing the need for communication, trust and connectivity. “Great winning teams, touch each other. They’re connected.”

In the process of initially explaining his drills, Coach Boylen mentioned some fundamentals of NBA defense, including the importance of the sideline and baseline as the 6th and 7th defenders, and shares a few of the Spurs’ defensive concepts.

Transition defense is a priority for the team, so much so that it’s the defensive situation they talk about first. The Spurs intentionally limit their offensive rebounding opportunities in order to get back in transition, keeping the ball in front of them, which is one of the key organizing principles of the team’s defense. It also applies to individual defensive positioning on the perimeter, where the Spurs use a mild “no middle” stance that seeks to keep the ball away from the center of the floor while also preventing blow-by’s, and to close outs, where they close to the shooters chest with a hand high in an attempt to prevent the shot without giving up a drive.

Coach Boylen refered to this idea as “playing up the floor” and used it to teach help responsibilities in halfcourt defense, too. Help defenders should seek the level of the ball in the Spurs’ system, ensuring that they don’t fall behind the play. That may seem like a recipe for giving up open threes, but it’s important to remember the “line of the ball” that Coach Boylen used to teach shift position. As long as players are in an appropriate position where they can see both the ball and their man, move on the pass (jump to the ball) and understand how their responsibilities shift as the offense moves around the floor, the team should be able to recover in time to deter a shot and defend a drive.

That idea speaks to how the Spurs go about shrinking the floor. By staying connected, staying in the play, and always focusing on the most important player on the floor - the one with the ball - all five defenders can play as a unit. It simply isn’t possible to defend modern NBA offenses without this type of help and recovery/rotation.

A good example Coach Boylen provided was the responsibility of the lowest player on the weakside to help on strong side penetration in most situations. That player rotates over to prevent the ball from getting to the rim, while another player, typically the top defender on the weakside picks up the responsibility to close out on the first pass if it’s a kick out to the perimeter. The initial help defender then rotates back to shift position on the next open offensive player or to a close out if the ball is swung that way.

Twice Coach Boylen mentioned a specific player as he highlighted common shortcomings on defense. We don’t need to spoil them here, but if you’ve been a fan of the team for more than a few years, the examples will probably bring back fond memories, despite how frustrating they were at the time.

As he coached the last drill, he tied together all the concepts and ideas he presented up to that point. While steadily increasing the level of difficulty, he simultaneously taught both the players and the coaches attending the clinic what good defense (well, good Spurs defense, anyway) looked like. It’s constant communication with every defender on a string, focused on their role, involved in the play and aware of their responsibilities.

Previous entries in this series:

Part 1

Part 2

For more on this topic (not necessarily Spurs-focused, but Spurs-adjacent):

Jim Boylen on building a defensive system.

Ettore Messina on defending the middle pick and roll.