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.



  • rj

    what about the emergence of kawhi leonard as a playmaker?
    i would think that would be a key to solving the spurs problem of not having a high caliber player able to play 48minutes
    but then again, i don’t think anyone is expecting him to become an allstar caliber player this year…

  • Tyler

    Maybe it’s people just looking at their ages, but the first quote couldn’t be more wrong. The Spurs didn’t lose because the three best players wilted under increased minutes. The Spurs simply lost because they didn’t get the needed contributions from their roles players.

    Really, just going on memory, the big 3 from the Spurs and Thunder essentially played to a draw (relative to what they give their team). The difference was that Perkins, Ibaka, and Sefolosha were better than what the Spurs bench offered.

  • assistman

    I largely agree with this analysis. Manu needs to run the second unit, although if De Colo could take that role he could help to some degree (on offense at least), since Jax and Neal (or Mills) simply doesn’t offer enough playmaking for this system. Certainly don’t expect that from Pop in Nando’s first year. Diaw-Splitter is the best solution to this problem, which means reinserting either Bonner or Blair into the starting 5, also unlikely. However Blair appears to be trying to emulate Diaw’s passing game as much possible, but unfortunately without that mid-range jumper he still doesn’t fit next Tiago.

  • ThatBigGuy

    The Good News: Pistons won a ring in 2004 with a team-centric approach (and reached the Finals again in 2005).

    The Bad News: 5 Pistons averaged 35 mpg or more during the playoffs in 2004 (only one Spur did that this last postseason).

    I just don’t see us being able to keep our best players well rested and available to play championship winning basketball in games 5/6/7 in rounds 3 and 4. The only possible way is if our bench kills the other bench so badly that Pop can rest Tim and Manu in the middle two quarters in order to be able to give them all the crunch time minutes.

    We shall soon find out if the bench is up to the task.

  • Ryan McShane

    I know the Lakers and Thunder can have their best lineup on the floor longer than the Spurs, but I don’t think that’s the case for the Lakers. Consider their ages:
    Nash 38, Bryant 34, Gasol 32, Artest 32, Howard 26
    Duncan 36, Ginobili 35, Diaw 30, Parker 30, Leonard 21

    That’s pretty much a draw. And it took all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to put Steve Nash back together again during his games in Phoenix.

  • Bob

    Danny Green’s offense fell off. But there is no reason he couldn’t have continued to have been aggressive on defense. In fact alot of times the best way to jump start a bad offense is by digging in on defense. Starting decisions shouldn’t be made with regard to offense they should be made to bolster the defense of the starting lineup so you can start games with a defensive tone.

  • JustinFL

    Reasons for losing in WCF: Bonner no show, Ginobili put into starting lineup which added to Green’s struggles, Duncan’s hesitation on shooting his jumper, not utilizing Blair until too late, and I’m sure there’s more just my assessment. Derek Fisher’s mojo is somehow to blame too. I can’t prove it, but I know he had something to do with us losing just because he was on their team.

    It’s important to note that beside the big 3, this team has not grinded through a 7 game series. They’ve never won a game 7 or a closeout game 6. Until we do, we are unproven.

    Just a thought, I wonder how it would work starting S. Jax and letting Kawhi experiment with his playmaking with the second unit. Kawhi would add rebounding, athleticism, and defense to the second unit. Also he’s a great cutter and finisher at the hoop and would be a great target for Splitter or Ginobili to hit out of double teams and the post.

  • Leben

    Yes but its kinda of one in the same. Without the expected contributions from the role players, the onus on the big three to produce and make-up for the lost production did affect them negatively.

  • Leben

    You meant Heat and Thunder, yes. But, you are correct the Lakers are going to have the same dilemma and since they don’t have a bench (like the Spurs do) they’re gonna be dependent on the starters for heavier minutes, which will affect ’em down the road.

  • Graham

    we don’t have a bench?! Our bench is light years ahead of the Lakers and pretty damn effective, even in the playoffs (except for the OKC collapse)

  • Graham

    Honestly, the big difference was that horrifically flukey game 5 from the Thunder Bigs. Hard to win when those guys shoot 18 for 20 from the floor.

  • Len

    The officiating in game 6 was beyond reprehensible. It is too painful to hash out all the calls but let’s not forget the fact that the zebras played a major part in the closeout game.

  • Ryan McShane

    Haha yes, I meant the Heat and Thunder.

    I agree. Their best bench players (Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison) are backing up the youngest starters. Mike Brown is going to run Kobe and Nash into the ground.

  • Bob

    Good points. People forget Duncan started hesitating on jumper for no reason.

  • Leben

    No, I meant Lakers don’t have a bench whereas the Spurs do.

  • sam

    i think our problem is defense, we lack a defender of bowen’s quality, hopefully leonard and green improve this season. and another weakness is no big man depth on the roaster, (outside of duncan , tiago ) the other 3 guys are undersized and can’t block shots and keep guards away from the basket. (in the past we had nazr mohammad, nesterovic, robert horrey etc ) even though those guys were bad offensively, they did a very good job on the defensive end, they blocked shots , they grabbed the defensive rebounds.

    now when duncan is away from the basket , all guards have easy baskets around the basket. ibaka had his career nights against us last preseason (open mid range jumpers) just because duncan had to help against driving guards. and we r talking about a big guy who can only score from jumpers , no inside game.

    I think we need to get another big guy, and cut minutes given to bonner, and blair ( they didn’t play during preseason for a reason)

  • Matt

    Honestly, I think we are overanalyzing this whole situation. We won 20 straight last year. Alright, to say that we have a potent team that is automatically going to win is a lie, but to say that we don’t have a chance is also one. I think we are going to win 55+ games and be a threat in the playoffs. Who says we can’t be this years Mavericks. It might be 1 in 50 chance, but I am ok with that. With the excellence these Spurs have turned out over the last 15 years, a 1 in 50 chance with two 35 year olds is great. I am not complacent, I am realistic and absolutely enjoying the remaining years we have of this core. Who knows what will happen when TD and Manu go.

    Go Spurs Go.

  • Tyler

    Correct – the Big 3 for the Spurs probably performed close to their “limit” and probably can’t perform too much above that. But my point was that their play wasn’t the “make-or-break” aspect of the series – it was the supporting cast.

  • Ryan McShane

    Derek Fisher’s mojo! AH! I remember he SUCCESSFULLY guarded Duncan on a play (by virtue of Duncan fouling him in the post).

    I would like to see Kawhi on the 2nd unit as well, but TP made it sound like SJax was (going to be) the new de facto playmaker on the second unit in his Sunday Practice Report.