I doubt that it will be controversial in this space if I call the 2014 San Antonio Spurs the most perfect example of team basketball in the history of the NBA. For me, the moment that embodied that most was the third quarter of game five of those NBA Finals, where Patty Mills poured in three after three. On most teams, in the playoffs, role players get cut out of the offense, and teams will tensely run play after play for their superstars. Not the San Antonio Spurs, they didn’t care who he was, if he was open, it was his shot.
This current iteration of the Spurs is not nearly that talented, but for the first time in years, that mentality is back. After the Kawhi Leonard trade, the Spurs found themselves with an offense built around isolation mid range shooters, with DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, and others, and even last season the offensive game plan was built around a single ball dominant star in Dejounte Murray, but now it would seem true Gregg Popovich basketball is back, and I am loving every minute of it.
On that title team, every single player had over 70% of their three point attempts assisted, and other than Mills, Tony Parker, Cory Joseph, and Manu Ginobili, everyone in the rotation had the majority of their two point attempts assisted as well. This season, everyone on the team has had over 90% of their three point attempts assisted, and other than Tre Jones and the very small sample size from Blake Wesley, everyone has over half their two point attempts assisted as well.
Not only are a large portion of their buckets being assisted, but how those assists are coming resemble 2014 as well. Last season, with a high usage point guard, the Spurs Murray, with 9.2 assists, had more than double the assists per game of anyone who finished the year with the Spurs (Derrick White averaged 5.6). This year, they lead the league in assists at just over 31 per game while not having anyone average over 5.3 assists per game. In 2014, they also led the league in assists with no one average more than 5.7 a game.
The fact that the Spurs are not wholly reliant on one player to create assists is a big part of why they have performed well so far despite having many key players missing. Everyone is being relied upon to make decisions within the offense, so the offense doesn’t stop just because one player is out.
That is not to say that the current rash of injuries isn’t concerning. One of the reasons that 2014 team was so good was because their depth made it so that no one had to play even 30 minutes a night during the regular season, so everyone was fresh come the playoffs. Pop is trying to manage the minutes this year in a similar way, but because this team is not as talented as the championship contenders in years past, the amount of energy players like Devin Vassell or Keldon Johnson have to exert in 30-34 minutes of play is much higher. It remains to be seen if they can maintain the same level of play over the course of the whole season.
In the meantime, we have the most fun team to watch in the NBA. Win or lose, in seven games this season we’ve seen a top level effort and beautiful team basketball every night but one. If they can continue that for the entire season, it will be a satisfying year from a fan’s perspective regardless of what the final record looks like.