The San Antonio Spurs and the Path Ahead

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Published: May 22, 2014
Monty Williams

A few years ago, I hated the Spurs. I was entering college and the Pelicans (Hornets) were fresh off of a devastating series against them. But New Orleans has since taken a descent into the cold lottery waters and now I find myself admiring bits and pieces of other teams.. no more so than the Spurs, whose style seems so unspectacular but whose results are far from ordinary. The Spurs just shellacked a team with two of the best players in the NBA. Yes, Serge Ibaka is injured, and that has undoubtedly affected the series. But what the Spurs just did wasn’t an aberration, and it wasn’t cruel punishment of an ordinary team. The Thunder are still good. The Spurs were just that fantastic.

It feels weird to effusively praise a team that I don’t follow, but I can’t help it. Everything that I truly love about basketball- spacing, ball movement, chemistry, unselfishness, and above all, an extremely high level of intelligence and skill, is present in boundless quantity on the Spurs. They are deliberate, fast, and seamlessly transition from option 1 to option 5. They adapt to everything. They make the extra pass. Their offense is one of perpetual movement. Manu Ginobili is throwing passes corner to corner. Tony Parker is getting wherever he wants to. Tim Duncan is still the ageless wonder. And then there’s Kawhi Leonard, the glue that can patch any hole that presents itself.

 

Every year, the playoffs are rife with learning opportunities. Dell Demps and the franchise may have embarked upon an unorthodox rebuilding journey, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to learn from other teams; right now, the Spurs are doling out these lessons left and right. And while the Pelicans are still making their journey uphill, the playoffs are revealing what lies ahead.

Lesson 1: Pick up people who buy into the team and not themselves.

It’s cliché, but it’s true. When a Spur makes a mistake, he moves on, and so do his teammates. The Spurs players turn down okay shots and pass to teammates who have better ones. They don’t force the issue and they don’t play outside of their abilities. Of course, getting players to buy in is a whole lot easier if your stars buy in, and there’s no better example of a player who sets the tone than Tim Duncan. It also doesn’t hurt when your supporting cast’s skill set is a perfect complement to your core.

The Pelicans are in a unique position with Anthony Davis, who possesses both insane ability and a willingness to do what’s best for his team.  Surround him with guys who will fall in line and get rid of anyone who doesn’t.

Lesson 2: Don’t put players on the court that you have to hide on offense

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are two of the most effective scorers in the league but have been stifled so far in the San Antonio series. It’s not because they’re not talented, and contrary to what some would lead you to believe, it’s not because they don’t have “what it takes” to win. It’s because San Antonio isn’t afraid of Thabo Selfolosha. They don’t care if Kendrick Perkins gets space. They care about making Westbrook and Durant work for every shot, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. Memphis did it too.

Perkins

Perkins attempted a shot fake here and elicited no reaction from the Spurs. They couldn’t care less if he shoots from there.

We have talked ad-nauseam about how the Pelicans were often playing 3 or 4 versus 5 this year, and when the team was healthy, the Pelicans were somewhat able to hide that. But there’s a big difference between playing a great defense every 5-6 games and playing one every night. And maybe you can hide one guy, but you surely can’t hide two.

Lesson 3: If you can’t move, you’re dead

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers doesn’t have the best reputation as a defender, but he was working his tail off to get around screens when they played San Antonio in Game 1.. but in vain, because Tony Parker was torching the Blazers. A good bit of that blame got shifted onto Lillard. He deserves some, but Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge weren’t doing him any favors. Lillard was getting screened two, three times every play. It’s too much to ask your guards to fight through screen after screen without a teammate delaying his assignment so he can recover.

Lillard

The Blazers played a conservative defensive system to mitigate the damage teams could do against their slow-footed bigs.. but that’s not much help when you’re playing Tony Parker. Timmy D sets a bruising screen and Lillard is all but taken out of the play while Lopez sags to take away Parker’s drive. Parker gets a pull-up jumper that he can hit in his sleep and Damian Lillard gets a haunting memory of The Big Fundamental.

Contrast that with the OKC-Memphis matchup. Tony Allen was getting an extraordinary amount of recognition for the work he was doing on Kevin Durant, and deservedly so. But it wasn’t just Allen. Allen was chasing Durant through screens and his teammates were delaying Durant so Allen could recover. You don’t stop someone as good as Durant without some help.

To be clear, Tony Allen and Damian Lillard are on very opposite ends of the defensive ability spectrum and mentioning their defense in the same breath is blasphemy. But pretending that players do the majority of their defending on an island is just as preposterous. Putting an immobile defender on the court is asking for your defense to be exploited.

 

 

 

5 comments
Caffeinedisaster
Caffeinedisaster

I think we could add some good roleplayers this offseason.

Teams will be moving pieces/salaries trying to land a Lebron, Love, Carmelo or others. (most of which will have no chance at getting them, but their loss could be our gain)

504ever
504ever

So based on this, Gordon is even more gone.  He violates #1 and the spirit of #3 'cause he is unwilling to really play defense.  

The core four obviously pass this test, with the admission that Anderson's defense is barely passible.  I think Morrow passes similar to Anderson.  Late season Austin River's seems good.  You could even pass Smith, Roberts, and Babbitt on these tests.  What about Ajinca and Withey?  Can they move enough on defense? 

Aminu fails the half court offense test, but is he really that much worse of an overall player than Splitter, especially if Aminu comes off the bench or plays small ball PF?


Next questions: Who do you add?  Is this more data in favor of PJ Tucker?  Are there options at C if not Ajinca and Withey?

Michael Pellissier
Michael Pellissier

@Caffeinedisaster there will always be opportunities to improve, and I think this summer will be another step forward. The needs are pretty clear and the team has said as much. I'm looking forward to the offseason.

Michael Pellissier
Michael Pellissier

@504ever sorry, meant to say this earlier: yes, Tiago Splitter is a far better player than Al-Farouq. Smart, 7 feet tall, mobile, good passer, good rim protector. Leagues apart.

Michael Pellissier
Michael Pellissier

@504ever Yes, Gordon does not fit according to these guidelines. I have tried not to beat that agenda into the ground just to keep things fresh, but I agree with both your points and there is ample evidence that he doesn't fit.

Anderson's ability to play help defense is limited, but his offense has such a tremendous effect on our team that it kind of pushes his defensive inadequacies to the side. His defense is not so bad that it can't be covered for.

I don't have a lot of worries about Withey's defense, but I do feel pretty comfortable saying that I don't think he'll ever be starter-quality.. as a piece off of the bench, I think he's fine. As for Ajinca, let me get back to you.

I am not the one who started the PJ Tucker train, but I'll say that I am 100% on it. I am happy with a Ryno-AD frontcourt for the majority of a game if we have excellent wing defense/rebounding, and I think Tucker would be a great fit. Tyreke isn't always locked in on defense, but if you could get him on his A game alongside Jrue/Tucker, you would have the makings of a really flexible, athletic, and strong wing defense. Seriously, you could switch so much.

The concerns outlined in the article apply most to starters and get a little less important as you move down the rotation.