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Are The San Antonio Spurs Boring?

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The Spurs have won 15 straight games, they're scoring more points than ever, and more than a decade after their first title, they are title favorites in the West. So why does this all seem so boring?


Since March 1, the San Antonio Spurs have gone 31-5. They've won 15 straight, too. And over the course of their win streak they're averaging 110.8 points-per-game. So, they're playing the best basketball in the league and they've done it by playing the most uptempo style in the NBA, outscoring everyone.

We should love this team, right? These aren't the same old Spurs? A friend who's been living in China for the past two years asked me last night if the Spurs are still as boring as they used to be.

"They aren't, but they are," I said.

On the one hand ... As opposed to the grinding death machine they used to be, these Spurs play more like the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns teams they used to murder in cold blood. Tony Parker's a constant blur, they push the ball every chance they get, they lead the league three-point percentage, and they led all teams in offensive efficiency during the regular season. Plus, their scoring can come from just about anyone.

Kevin Arnovitz elaborates on this point at True Hoop today:

... boredom, at its very root, can be defined as the absence of choice. Get stuck with a program that uses the same formula to produce the same outcome over and over and over again, and you get bored. ... We're rarely bored when our expectations are challenged, and the most interesting way to do that is by introducing choice into the equation. Anything can happen means that the range of possibilities is endless.

When the Spurs bring the ball upcourt, that's usually the case. They relied on isolation plays only 7.1 percent of the time in the regular season. (Only the Magic used a smaller percentage of their possessions in iso.) In their first-round sweep of Utah, the Spurs ran isos only 24 times in four games. (The Knicks, in contrast, had 124 such possessions over five games.) Instead, the Spurs did what they usually do to get what they want in the half court -- rely on motion, timing, ball movement and, most of all, choice.

It's not just that the Spurs are scoring, but they do it in different ways every down the court. So they really shouldn't be boring. Except ... I don't know. They're still boring to me. The same old Spurs, even if they're completely different.

I want to like them, I know that other people enjoy them, and they are light years ahead of the grinding death machine they used to be. But they're still the Spurs to me, the team that makes art feel like science. It bugs me that I can't enjoy this Spurs team as much I probably should.

(Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

So let me try and explain myself.

To answer the True Hoop arguments above, anything can happen doesn't automatically equal excitement. The Princeton offense is full of possibilities on every possession, but there's a difference between Princeton running it to perfection or Chris Webber and the 2002 Kings doing the same. Charisma and creativity make a big difference. The Spurs may have found the latter, but the former is another story.

More than any other sport, basketball thrives on personality. Kobe Bryant definitely seems like a basketball sociopath off the court, sure, but we've learned the most about Kobe's true colors on the court. Same with LeBron, who we've come to know as vulnerable and fascinating almost entirely because of things that have happened on the court. Derrick Rose may as well be mute off the court, but we know there's more beneath the surface because we've seen him go ballistic with a basketball in his hands.

This is what makes basketball fun. You watch the game and read the way different personalities respond. It's not a perfect science but it's a game never gets old, and as such, neither does The Game. And what personality do the San Antonio Spurs have, even now?

They churn along and over the past few months they've churned out better results than anyone in basketball, but it doesn't change what we don't see. Everyone says that Tim Duncan's personality just isn't very interesting and that's why the Spurs have never gotten the credit they deserve, but that's not true. Tim Duncan's actually kind of hilarious. These commercials are great. His old Sprite and Nike ads, too. Duncan's problem is that he's got no personality on the court. His game's (still) deadly effective, but the way he does it makes Hoosiers look like an And-1 Mixtape.

It's not about age or athleticism, either. It feels like Paul Pierce's feet haven't left the floor in six years, but he's one of the most entertaining players in basketball because all he does is find new, ridiculous ways to put the ball in the hoop. If Tim Duncan is king of the bankshot from the post, Paul Pierce is king of splitting the double team, stumbling into the paint on a jump stop, bobbling the ball on an unnecessary pivot, then launching a fadeaway jumper from the foul line that hits every part of the rim and falls in. Both guys are incredible, but which would you rather watch?

Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are two exceptions to the rule. Either one can take a simple play and make it exhilarating, but in the shadow of San Antonio's towering legacy of cold efficiency, it's harder to enjoy those guys. All due respect to Popovich's genius as a coach, wouldn't Manu be more fun creating offense from scratch for 35 minutes-a-night on the Clippers?

Even if the Spurs play like the '07 Suns these days, you get the feeling they do it because it works, not because it's fun for them, and definitely not because it's entertaining for us.

The nominal spontaneity of Tony Parker choosing from five different options makes no difference, really. It's not spontaneous if all roads lead to easy buckets and open jumpers. The Suns were fun because they forfeited sanity for the sake of raw offense. Nothing about the Spurs offense seems insane. They play this way because it's really, really effective. If it wasn't, they wouldn't.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Ruthless efficiency isn't a crime, but it's not as fun as the radioactive lunacy we see when someone like Russell goes Westbrook careening into three people on a fast break. It's not as fun as Kobe pulling the ball out and taking a contested 23-footer with the game on the line. It's not even as fun as LeBron James pulling the ball out, then making "the right play" and passing to Udonis Haslem with the game on the line. Each one of those cases opens a world of interpretation that takes us right back to all the arguments that last forever.

You may think these arguments are stupid and that success or failure on a basketball court can be understood with statistics that show who really deserves to be lionized for crunch time heroics, and which teams really play the most exciting basketball. But maybe "That’s a load of shit."

All of those stats debates come back to the same truth: Basketball's a balance of art and science. And the Spurs live at one extreme on that spectrum. There's no room for interpretation when you have a formula that's proven and perfected. The results speak for themselves. Which is to say, they could score 200 points-a-game and the message would be the exact same.

  1. San Antonio is really good and viciously disciplined.
  2. Popovich's formula still works even as it's been tweaked over the years.
  3. Gregg Popovich is probably the most underrated basketball coach of all time.

Those have been the lessons for a decade now.

So I guess I'd explain myself this way: Basketball's fun because there's almost always an element of unknown to the history that may or may not unfold. But the Spurs are so numb and surgical and brutally consistent, there's no intrigue left except to hope they fail.

I love Tim Duncan off the court, Gregg Popovich's interviews provide better theater than any coach this side of Stan Van Gundy, and both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili should be fun as hell. Together, though, it's all sorta mechanical. Even the fast breaks, the threes, and the scoring that could come from anyone on the court. The basketball fan in me feels guilty, but I just can't get excited about the Spurs. They've gotten so good at this I can't help but root against them.

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