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How to understand the Spurs defense even better

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

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Doing the obvious thing and doing it well

The Spurs’ defensive success hasn’t received nearly as much attention over the years as the team’s offense. Given that the 2012-2014 manifestation of that offense drew almost universal acclaim as it propelled the team to two consecutive Finals and the franchise’s 5th championship, that’s perhaps understandable. But comparatively speaking, the Spurs’ offense has had much less to do with the team’s accomplishments than their defense.

Even those two Finals’ teams finished with lower ranked offenses than defenses. Incredibly, Coach Gregg Popovich’s teams have finished with a top 5 defense in 18 of his 23 seasons as head coach, including in 2012-13 and 2013-14 when the offense ranked 9th and 7th in the league, respectively. Still, the Spur’s historic stinginess has largely gone uncelebrated.

The 2015-16 squad, though, was particularly dominant on that end of the floor, allowing 3 fewer points per 100 possessions than the 2nd place Warriors, per Cleaning the Glass, roughly equivalent to the gap between the Warriors and the 11th placed Pistons. Their dominance inspired a couple of different looks at how the Spurs approach defense. The first, by Brett Koremenos on Real GM, used an early January game against the Milwaukee Bucks to illustrate a couple of specific examples of how the Spurs helped off non-shooters and used denials to disrupt the flow of an offense.

The Subtle Details of the Spurs Stifling Defense is well worth a read, if for no other reason than to at least briefly relive the days when the team had Tim Duncan patrolling the back line. Before he gets to those plays, though, Koremenos hits at the core of the Spurs’ defensive principles when he mentions how they limit second chances, force their opponents into the midrange, and rarely foul. Those concepts, however, mean nothing without execution, and it’s here where Koremenos reveals the secret ingredient to the Spurs defensive prowess: “It’s easy to think some form of incomprehensible genius is responsible for the subtle components of an elite defense, but in all reality, doing the obvious thing and doing it well (which is the hard part) is often all it takes.”

Once the season was over, John Zall took a deeper look back at how the Spurs had been so difficult to score on in a perfectly titled video.

While not a complete breakdown of the team’s defense, the video reinforces the concepts Koremenos discussed with numerous clips showing the Spurs executing in each of the categories it covers. Zall mixes in some situational defensive priorities, such as the team’s focus on reducing both the frequency and efficiency of their opponent’s transition attempts, with the tactical implementation of their overarching concepts, like denying passing lanes to prevent ball movement and encourage isolation. He also includes some excellent examples of the Spurs’ middle and side ball screen defense, as well as how they tag the roll man and stunt at big men who pop after the screen.

After the Spurs showed up at the top of the defensive rankings again the next season, Coach Daniel took several looks at the Spurs defense, as well. He started with a two-part midseason analysis of the Spurs’ pick and roll defense.

And followed up a few months later with a broader look at the team’s defensive concepts.

He spends the first couple of minutes talking about how the Spurs crossmatch when needed for various reasons, which is an almost universal fact of life in the NBA as teams seek to hide weaker defenders while aligning their best defenders with their opponent’s most dangerous scorers. After that, though, he digs into some of the most important aspects of the team’s defensive system, including their approach to defending postups, how they rotate out of penetration, and more examples of late switches of both on and off ball screens.

Combined, he presents an excellent overall rundown of the techniques the Spurs used to earn their staunch defensive reputation. While some of the examples he cites are in-game tactical adjustments and not part of the team’s broader scheme, they do hammer home just how fragile even a very good defensive ecosystem is. If one part isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, the whole thing is at risk.

Previous entries in this series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5