Corporate Knowledge: The Spurs championship flaw
Since the beginning of the Gregg Popovich era, the San Antonio Spurs have valued experience and system above all else. They refer to this as “Corporate Knowledge.” At 48 Minutes of Hell we too value experience, information, and insight on all things Spurs and look forward to providing you with links and quick-hitting analysis for your weekly dose of Corporate Knowledge.
An opposing scout’s take on the Spurs for Sports Illustrated: “I don’t think they have the legs to compete in the playoffs against the top teams. In one game, they can beat anyone. In a best-of-seven, the top teams in the West are going to beat them. With Duncan, even if they limit him in the regular season to keep him as fresh as possible, you can’t have him on the floor for 38 minutes a game in a seven-game series. The same goes for Ginobili. They just can’t recover like they used to, and some of their opponents, like the Thunder, will have young stars who can play big minutes over and over during the course of a seven-game series.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does a masterful job of managing Duncan and Ginobili’s regular season minutes, keeping them fresh and effective for the playoffs. But the reality is that in their mid-30’s Duncan and Ginobili retain much of their respective games if only in more limited stretches.
Even while optimally managing rest, any extended stretches of playing more than 30-35 minutes will trigger diminishing returns.
The Spurs, at their best, are still an elite team capable of beating any of the league’s best. The problem is given the ages of Duncan and Ginobili, the team cannot sustain their peak levels of play as long as teams like the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder, who boast stars capable of playing all 48 minutes with little drop off if need be.
Popovich offsets the impact of this reality by bringing Ginobili off the bench, ensuring he or Parker are on the floor at all times and leaving the Spurs with at least one elite player in the lineup. It’s a tactic I fully expect to continue this season, as Ginobili conceded to the Express-News earlier this week:
Ginobili quote via Mike Monroe at the Express-News: “I expect to come from the bench again, but who knows for how long?” he said. “Every year, it changes. But I don’t think we’re going to change much this time. We finished the last season great, 20 wins a row. Unfortunately, we lost the last four. It happens.
“But I think we found a good bench combination with Jack (Stephen Jackson), Tiago (Splitter), Gary (Neal), Matt (Bonner) and me. We had a great second unit that was very successful last year, so I don’t think that much is going to change.”
While the Spurs have tremendous depth, it comes with a major caveat. The second unit features a potent mixture of shooting and energy, but its potential goes largely unrealized without a catalyst.
The Spurs boast an army of specialty players—shooters, pick and roll bigs, energy players—whose skill sets lack shot creation. Without Ginobili in the second unit to serve as a playmaker, the Spurs depth literally fell apart.
Until injuries ended his season, and ultimately his career, T.J. Ford provided enough playmaking for the second unit to afford the Spurs the luxury of starting Ginobili. But with no playmaking point guard behind Parker, Ginobili remains the key to unlocking the entirety of the Spurs’ depth.
In the Western Conference Finals Popovich was forced to turn to Ginobili as an emergency starter when Danny Green’s play dropped off to the point it was effectively dragging down the rest of the starting unit by allowing defenders to key on Tony Parker.
Matthew Tynan at Pounding the Rock: “If players around Parker, Ginobili and Duncan had been able to sustain success – as they had all season – and maintain the trust they earned from their All-Star teammates, we very well might be having a completely different discussion right now. While I hate to keep picking on Green (he’s certainly not THE reason for the Spurs’ failures), the need for Popovich to reinsert Manu into the starting lineup in place of the under-performing guard marked the beginning of the end for San Antonio. A second unit that had been so lethal all season was suddenly lacking its leader, and a rotation that had been so trusted was now an experiment.
Sometimes it just comes down to hitting shots and playing defense. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?”
So assuming the gains made last year hold serve, and there is no surprising drop off from any major part of the rotation, what are the keys to the Spurs competing against the NBA’s elite in a playoff series given the limitations discussed here?
- It’s a given the Spurs best lineup will not be on the floor as often as those of the Thunder, Heat, or Los Angeles Lakers, so in their time together they must outplay their counterparts to the point that they provide enough cushion to survive extended stretches on the bench for Duncan and Ginobili. While such a feat is not a certainty, it’s certainly within the realm of possibility for the Spurs Big Three.
- While the Spurs have enough depth to withstand variance in performances amongst their role players, there are two role players the Spurs cannot afford to decline in the playoffs—Tiago Splitter and Danny Green. Simply put, the Spurs do not have a shooting guard to place in the starting lineup that can defend both backcourt spots, unless they compromise their depth by starting Ginobili. And Splitter provides the Spurs only option to remain big with Duncan on the bench.
- Luck. But then, there’s always a fair amount of luck involved in winning NBA championships.