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The San Antonio Spurs and the Invisible Game

There are many little things the young Spurs are still working on that we don’t see.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

As we watch these young Spurs I’m reminded of the Beautiful Game era and its barely known cousin, the Invisible Game. The Beautiful Game era of course spoke to ball movement, and the Spurs still are exhibiting that in a lot of ways as a high-assist team.

But what I will call here the Invisible Game is a step away from statistics and metrics. The Invisible Game is also where a 10-20 point swing can happen in any game. The Invisible Game is where it’s won or lost. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheets and is a combination of hustle, fundamentals and execution. It includes things that most definitely don’t show up on the stat sheet like footwork, cutting crisply, beating your opponent down court, defensive position, blocking out, screening without fouling and defending without fouling and more.

The exciting thing I think will be watching improvements in the Invisible Game, which includes minor but important actions like cutting without the ball. You will see in my opinion other players learning this from those veterans, most notably on backdoor cuts, leading to super easy baskets. An example would be found easily in two Spurs veterans Cedi Osman and Doug McDermott, who move crisply without the ball. For example when there’s an open spot with a three-point shot waiting at the end of it watch them sprint, all out on a bee line for that spot.

The Invisible Game is I think where Coaches earn their money, not from made threes, and also the players who are on court coaches. In the example above of backdoor cuts I feel like we are seeing young players like Malaki Branham learning that from Osman and McDermott.

In the low post, the Spurs most fundamental player is Zach Collins, who has excellent footwork. In time, fans would like to see that rub off on Wembanyama as he learns to flash for the ball and make a big target and how to pivot in traffic and to use his body, including his rear end to stay on balance, and hold his position.

Let’s talk Defense in the Invisible Game. On defense in transition too often I see the Spurs attempting to run at the same pace as their defender to make a last second play on the ball near the basket when fundamentally, they’re better off to make a beeline for the rim, and not having to dribble, generally should be able to beat their opponent to that space. There are also more obvious plays like finding your man and knowing your personnel, there are certain players on the other team, that when the ball goes up, it’s almost advisable to not worry about getting the rebound yourself, but make sure that that player does not. I think this type of execution found on most well coached college teams a very much missing element in the Spurs. Fortunately, they have a coach who I feel is being lenient right now, but as these tangibles aren’t carried out well, I think a first and second stringer will find a second or third string player in their place for a quick reminder.

Despite the losing streak we should be very excited about this team! I personally always felt very fortunate that we had the Big Three but I also always thought it would be really great for basketball to show a young team of players, who are not from the AAU circuit or All American to be coached up and become a winning team much like the Miami Heat in the past year and for that matter, the Nuggets. To me, this is more the essence of basketball than free agency and super teams.

True, they won the lottery, but I still think Wembanyama’s success as a winning player will result in coaching and this intangible Invisible Game. And this is what happens perhaps on a major losing streak. It’s one thing to wave off the Invisible Game when you’re an NBA player and essentially a superstar even by being in the NBA but this lesson of losing, I think in some ways will break down these players, and put them in a position to learn from failure, and be forced to understand team basketball and to follow the coaching that will help them.

How, you say, can I sit back and chuckle that everything is going to plan? Well, maybe I’m just too loyal, but I believe an eight game game losing streak can forge a team more than a 4-4 record. In a way it will teach these Spurs more perhaps than a .500 record and might get them executing on these invisible metrics, that theoretically, can win or lose the game with a 10 to 20 point swing. I think that is the focus at this point, not whether the shots fall or not.

You can also see the Spurs learning from one another. I see Branham benefiting from some of the same back door cuts that the veterans are getting easy buckets off of at times, and more players are rounding off for a handoff and using their motion to be attacking the basket which is effective. More invisible metrics include not picking up your dribble, moving the ball ahead through passing not dribbling when possible, and playing at the right times with pace to not allow the defense to set up. The Spurs, for all the pace they play with are not getting many fast break points. This, of course, is obviously a result of them having to take the ball out of the net too many times, which is a separate problem.

It’s not for me to coach too much from the couch but just as a fan I try to watch the game away from the ball and watch this invisible part of the game. I find at times like this when you’re not winning a lot this is where you’ll find satisfaction and also see improvement.

Speaking of improvement, as VW literally grows up, you can be absolutely sure that he is going to learn the tricks and tools of the trade. And unlike some people I don’t think that he needs to put on 50 pounds to get where he needs to go. Look at Kevin Durant, he’s done just fine on the skinny side.

But as the game approaches tonight I say all this to other Spurs fans for now to look beyond the score look beyond the record and enjoy this process and be able to love Spurs basketball for what it is right now. Tonight as you watch the game perhaps you will do what I do sometimes and watch the Invisible Game, the game away from the ball. Two handed passes. Two handed rebounds, not picking up your dribble, boxing out, sharp cuts and match up awareness. I’ve been a lot of opportunities on the Invisible side of the game the Spurs. With their length on defense, in my opinion, they should have their hands up and arms stretched out in passing lanes. Again, none of these things show up in the stat sheet. And some nights the shots will fall or they won’t, especially in the three-point era, but I’m contending that there’s approximately 10 points maybe more lost each game, valuable points, from this invisible category of statistics. But as this category of the game becomes more visible to our Beloved Spurs, it will show up in the score and the win column as they keep Pounding the Rock.

Go Spurs!