Back to the Future, Texas-Style
May 21, 2012 by Corrie Trouw • Print Story •
Let's take a moment to think back to 1999 — you know, assuming you existed back then. It was a strange time. Bruce Willis was starring in a movie with people who didn't know they were dead yet, the End Times were only months away, and in an NBA season cut dramatically by a lockout, the San Antonio Spurs played at a level far above their competition.
You see, the 2012 Spurs weren't supposed to be this good. After being upset despite the Western Conference's top seed in last year's postseason, 2012 was going to finally, at long last, no-really-this-time-we're serious, be the end of the Tim Duncan/Greg Popovich era. If you keep betting against black, you eventually have to be right.
Instead, 2012 has turned out to be a year of rejuvenation for the Spurs. The league's smartest organization was brave enough to acknowledge the limitations the shortened and compressed season would pose to its aged nucleus. Defense and low-possession counts are a young man's game. In contrast to their dominant title-winning 1999 team (104 points per offensive possession, 95 points allowed per defensive possession), this year's Spurs have relied on offensive efficiency (111 points per offensive possession, 103 points allowed per defensive possession).
Beyond re-crafting their identity, the Spurs stole an (alleged) tactic from their perennially lottery doomed league-mates: they tanked.
On a handful of nights this season, such as April 9 at Utah, the Spurs chose not to play their older stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. It is a strategy that any battlefield general would endorse: sacrifice the insignificant battle to win the war. But in a league and culture where retreat and sacrifice are loathed, it was a bold decision. Coaches often speak of limiting minutes to key players at the business end of a back-to-back, but not even bringing them along in the first place? Unheard of.
And that is exactly how the Spurs have done it all these years, by embracing what would otherwise seem illogical. San Antonio starts Danny Green, an unheralded swingman out of North Carolina who couldn't scratch Mike Brown's rotation in Cleveland. Gregg Popovich gives significant minutes to the troublesome-elsewhere Stephen Jackson and the left-for-dead Boris Diaw, a survivor of the 2012 Charlotte Bobcat-astrophe.
Great game theorists recognize a point of inflection in their contests where the outcome is swung either way. The Spurs have broken down basketball in this way, and this is precisely where they have cultivated championship-caliber basketball across three decades while the Heat, for example, are struggling to hold together for just a few years. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are redundant; while each is elite in a set of skills, those two sets overlap in several ways. San Antonio, by contrast, collects skills, even if the player only has one to offer. DeJuan Blair may be short, round, and have horrible knees, but he knows how to rebound. On a less established team, Kawhi Leonard would have to use his athleticism and energy to try to score 20 per game; as a Spur, he can use his hustle to disrupt opponents on the wing and constantly move on the offensive end.
Given their longevity, San Antonio's convenient comparable is Michael Jordan's Bulls, but the construction and philosophy of the two teams could not be more different. The Michael Jordan Bulls were a force of one player's will, performing best when a set of satellites fell into orbit in the gravity of a massive star. The Spurs are a different kind of celestial system, one where each body reacts to the pull of the others around him.
However, the nature of this longevity also explains why the Spurs' era has been marked by less sheer dominance. They are vulnerable to being overpowered, whether it be by early 2000s Shaq and Kobe or the "big ball" Memphis used last season. They weave an intricate web that can collapse if any strand is weakened.
Their probable coming showdown with Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals will be a testament to San Antonio's excellence. After all, the Thunder have been built by a Spurs front office alum in the model of his previous organization. And while many of the storylines approaching that series would focus on the old-vs.-young difference, the two teams have more in common than average age would suggest. Like San Antonio, Oklahoma City is a toolbox of implements, each capable of serving a precise need.
For all of the bombast that NBA stars like James and Dwight Howard have inserted into the NBA dialogue of the past several years, San Antonio is a great reminder that championship teams are built in pieces through careful decision-making, not bought and delivered in neat turnkey packages.