clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Spurs have changed, but they're really dominating the same way they always do

In some ways, the Spurs have zagged while the rest of the NBA has zigged. But deep down, they win using the same strategy they always have.

Chris Covatta/Getty Images

It sure feels like the San Antonio Spurs are different this year. As the rest of the league devours the tempting fruit of the three-point line, the Spurs are resisting its sweet nectar. As the rest of the league gives in to using perimeter players up front, the Spurs trot out lumbering big men. As the rest of the league rushes for quick shots, the Spurs are 27th in possessions per game.

Perhaps it's this defiance of conventional wisdom that explains the Spurs' 2015-16 dominance. While the Golden State Warriors captured the sports world's attention, the Spurs snuck up on everyone else with a 21-5 start and a point differential that actually eclipses Golden State's. They squashed the young and promising Utah Jazz like a bug on their kitchen floor on Monday, winning by 37 in a game that wasn't even that close. It was the Spurs' 17th double-digit win this year, which is four more than the Warriors have.

The view that the Spurs have changed is understandable, but it also fundamentally misidentifies the reason for the Spurs' success because it conflates their tactics with their strategy.

Don't feel bad, because many NBA teams made the same mistake. They saw the Spurs' gradual evolution into the proto-Warriors and believed they too had to go small and shoot lots of threes to succeed in the modern NBA. The Spurs' spacing supposedly nurtured their whiplash ball movement and devastating efficiency on both ends. Create the same sort of space, and the fluidity would naturally follow.

As it turns out, that thinking is backwards. Watch the Spurs for just a few minutes, and it becomes clear that their strategy, or what they are trying to accomplish, has not changed. It's the tactics, or how they do it, that has to fit the personnel.

This is the paradox the rest of the league cannot solve. The Spurs are different, but they're really the same as ever.


A few days ago, Gregg Popovich grumbled about the rise of the three-point shot. "I don't think it's basketball," he told reporters in Toronto. "I think it's kind of like a circus sort of thing. Why don't we have a 5-point shot? A 7-point shot? You know, where does it stop, that sort of thing."

It was Grumpy Pop at his finest, yet it also illustrates the tactics vs. strategy conflation that Popovich rejects.

The 2015-16 Spurs don't shoot many threes. They rank a stunning 26th in three-point attempts and are tied for 20th in corner three-point attempts specifically. Both are San Antonio's lowest marks in the Popovich era by a wide margin. They have just four high-volume three-point shooters: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills. Expected plans to turn LaMarcus Aldridge into a three-point shooter have not come to pass; he's taken just eight all season without making one.

Yet, the Spurs' offense fundamentally looks the same because it fundamentally moves the same way. The Spurs' "pace" ranking is deceiving. The right measure isn't how quickly they shoot, but how quickly they actually get into the offense. Here, nothing has changed. These are all screenshots after made baskets.

Few of the 26 teams ahead of the Spurs in pace get on with their sets this quickly. That allows the Spurs to run through more options, and with less space and several new pieces still learning the system, they need that time to run their offense.

Despite the tighter alignment of players, the ball still moves as quickly as ever. It's not the space that lubricates the movement, it's the movement that lubricates the space. Spurs' players catch the ball, internalize the next move and immediately make the decision to pass or attack a gap. Their reads are so quick and automatic that passes other teams can't complete sneak right on through.

The only difference is that San Antonio is increasingly finding a good shot on the third or fourth opening instead of the first or second. That requires using more of the shot clock, which leads to fewer possessions overall, which creates the illusion of the Spurs as a slow-paced team. The reality is that they must play with a lot of pace to give themselves enough chances to exploit smaller cracks in a defense.

That Aldridge and Leonard have fit in without significant problems shows how the system and player adapt to each other. Aldridge's touches and points are down, but after a shaky start where he alternated between passing up open shots and anxiously flinging the ones he did receive, he's discovering how the system generates easier looks from many different spots on the court. Reprogramming his left-block dominance was always going to be difficult, but Aldridge is adapting. He's developed sweet hi-lo chemistry with Tim Duncan and has learned to seal his man in the post to create passing lanes for easy buckets.

To his credit, Aldridge has embraced the Spurs' speed. He developed two bad habits in Portland: holding the ball too long to survey the defense and ceding post position because he could drop in that sweet jumper from anywhere. He has erased both of those in seven weeks in San Antonio, and it's only a matter of time until he sees the fruits of his labor with more buckets.

Leonard is the Spurs' bailout option, and what a bailout option he's become. As Yaron Weitzman noted, the Spurs are finding room to stretch Leonard's one-on-one shot creation skills, and he's adapted wonderfully. Still, only 21 percent of Leonard's offense comes via isolations and post-ups, a number lower than other wing scorers like Carmelo Anthony (45 percent), James Harden (35 percent) and LeBron James (32 percent). The rest is within the flow of the Spurs' offense, via spot-up jumpers, dribble handoffs, screens and transition.

Even Leonard's isolations aren't normal isolations. San Antonio's motion gets him the ball in dangerous spots and he doesn't chill waiting for the double team. Like everything else the Spurs do, Leonard's clear-outs are decisive and purposeful. It may sometimes take Leonard multiple moves to get open, but those moves begin immediately.

The Spurs can still supercharge their tempo with more shooting, speed and playmaking if need be. Ginobili has been sublime off the bench, particularly as an off-ball cutter slicing through tight driving gaps. The Spurs are 18.5 points better per 100 possessions when he plays, the highest mark on the team.

Mills can pour in buckets off the bench in a hurry, while Boris Diaw is as creative as ever.

The rest of the infrastructure remains sound. Tony Parker looks like his old self and Duncan is as deadly as ever with his screens and ball rotation, which is amazing to think about. Only Green is slumping, and his shooting track record suggests he'll eventually bounce back.

The Spurs' offense is the same it always was. The shots they collectively generate may take longer and have lower expected value in a vacuum, but they are more open and in-rhythm than ever. No team has made more jumpers with a defender further than four feet away, per NBASavant. Only the Phoenix Suns have attempted more.

It's no accident the Spurs are third in offensive efficiency despite de-emphasizing the three-point weapon the rest of the league believes is essential.


The Spurs' offense is built on tempo and decisiveness. Their defense is built on taking that away.

That's the strategy for every Spurs team since Duncan's arrival, and it's the strategy that's powering this year's amazing success. No team has matched the Spurs' current defensive rating of 93.7 points per 100 possessions over a full season since 1975. 1975!

Many of the Spurs' tactics are the same. For years, San Antonio has stifled opponents simply by staying in front of them. They don't gamble for steals and keep their big men near the basket on pick-and-rolls. The entire point is to prevent scramble situations that require players to rotate on a string and cover lots of ground. That's why the Spurs are on pace to post the sixth-lowest foul rate in NBA history: players commit fouls when they're out of position, and the Spurs are never out of position.

The Spurs aren't the only team to employ a conservative scheme, but they understand its purpose better than opponents. The Spurs know that the less they have to help each other, the better chance their opponent slams into brick walls. That's why opposing guards must deal with a dogged perimeter defender on their hip, a towering big man blocking their path to the basket and three other defenders covering all other passing options.

Opponents therefore can't drive and collapse the defense, and their screener also can't roll and collapse the defense. A mid-range jumper really is the only option.

The difference comes with the personnel, who have allowed Popovich to turn this system of principles into an especially terrifying collective that pulls opponents into danger zones like a tractor beam. Aldridge has been a beautiful fit, combining with Duncan to form a twin tower of rim protection. Opponents shoot just 43.5 percent with Duncan protecting the hoop and 47.3 percent when it's Aldridge, per tracking data.

Aldridge can struggle at times defending in space, but he's nimble in tight quarters and that's enough for the Spurs. Not many big men can capably drop on a pick-and-roll, then rotate back to stop the rolling big man's free run to the rim.

He can also stonewall most perimeter players when he has to switch, particularly when the shot clock is running down. This is another skill that waned in Portland, but has been revitalized in San Antonio.

When the Spurs face a tricky speed matchup, they can slide Aldridge to center and put Diaw in to check the quicker man. There were concerns that Aldridge's rim protection wouldn't be sufficient in such a scenario because it came and went in Portland, but that hasn't been a problem this year. It also helps that Diaw can get the job done and Duncan is significantly more than fine as an alternative to Aldridge if he's struggling.

Leonard, of course, unlocks so many more tactical options. He's the platonic ideal of a great wing stopper, capable of blanketing his matchup like a shutdown corner in the NFL. There's a reason he became the first perimeter player to win Defensive Player of the Year since Metta World Peace in 2004. He ruins everything.

Leonard is most dangerous when given the freedom to be a destructive rover in passing and driving lanes. He -- and Green to a lesser extent -- single-handedly stops teams from initiating their offense with early ball rotation. He prevents the opponent from revving up the same tempo engine that makes the Spurs' offense successful.

Leonard's work is contagious. Watch how all three Spurs perimeter defenders stop their man from even getting the ball in this clip. That leaves Leonard plenty of time to lock up Avery Bradley at the end of the play.

Leonard generates plenty of steals this way, but his shadow impact is more powerful. He's like a strong safety that forces a quarterback to panic on blitzes without actually sacking him. Leonard disrupts the offense's rhythm, which in turn limits side-to-side ball movement and forces opponents into the same basic one- or two-man actions the Spurs' otherwise conservative scheme is designed to squeeze.

Leonard is a different Spurs beast, but he really just makes it easier for his teammates to execute their traditional strategy. Their defense is clearly different and much better, but it's more appropriate to call it Spurs 2.0 than something else entirely.


The net effect of the Spurs' change in tactics is the same as ever. They are unstoppable on both ends and lurk in the shadows as others marvel at a shiny new object. They remain on a collision course for Western Conference supremacy.

The battle to see whether the Spurs can impose their tactics on the Warriors will be fascinating. Can the Spurs dictate pace and stop Warriors fast breaks? Can San Antonio's size negate Golden State's speed and length? Is Kawhi the antidote to Stephen Curry? Or, will the Spurs' conservative defensive scheme be forced to stretch too far to stop Steph and the offensive flow die against the Warriors' switching defense?

The two teams play for the first time on Jan. 25, but we won't really know the answer to these questions before late May. Until then, the Spurs are fine playing their way in peace as the rest of the league misinterprets their genius. Let everyone else believe the Spurs Way can be broken down into a series of attributes. The Spurs know their roots run far deeper than that.

* * *

SB Nation presents: San Antonio's impressive offseason moves