Gregg Popovich and the SSOL Suns


Fifteen years into this run, the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan appear to have outlived yet another longtime rival.

The Phoenix Suns have been a shell of their former selves for some time, but with Steve Nash becoming a free agent this summer, it could officially end an era in Phoenix.

If last night truly was Steve Nash’s final bow in a Suns uniform, one wishes it had happened under circumstances that would have required the attendance of Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Gregg Popovich.

But if imitation can be deemed a form of flattery, Phoenix Suns fans must be torn between delight and disgust at the performance the San Antonio Spurs put on display in their 110-106 victory in Phoenix.

In the pantheon of elite pick and roll offenses, San Antonio Spurs simply doesn’t have the same ring to it as the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. But then, when it comes to rings, discussing the Suns generally stops with their catchy moniker.

After all, defense wins championships, so goes the cliché. And for most of the decade it was a cliché that Duncan, Popovich and the Spurs helped perpetuate; often at the expense of the Suns.

But for a second consecutive season the Spurs enter the playoffs as what the Suns were, an offensive juggernaut seeking to dispel notions of winning playoff styles. A fifth Spurs championship, to those associated with those Suns, would represent a validation of their playing style wrought by the very team that so often denied it.

The SSOL Suns were certainly more explosive, as the numbers can attest to:

But if any team can breakthrough in the revolutionary style fashioned by Nash and Mike D’Antoni, it stands to reason it would be one helmed by Popovich, who has dissected so many offensive behemoths before him and knows, through numerous autopsies performed, how each failed.

More Balanced than Explosive

In both teams’ cases their offense begins with their point guards, with Tony Parker and Steve Nash operating at the position’s highest levels, albeit in stylistically different ways. Steve Nash was the MVP, Parker a candidate for one of the three All-NBA teams.

With the Suns, however, the beginning was often also the ending. Everything flowed through Nash, and with the exception of some Amare Stoudemire isolations sprinkled in, the bulk of their production was tied exclusively to his abilities to push the ball and create off the pick and roll in the half court.

The Spurs, while lacking in the overall explosion and pace the SSOL Suns offered, are a deeper and far more balanced team.

After comparing some of the statistics from both teams, I enlisted the aid of Eric Maroun from Hardwood Paroxysm to reproduce the brilliant Usage vs. PER charts he created, this time comparing the 2011-12 Spurs and the 2004-05 Phoenix Suns:


It’s interesting to note in the upper right quadrant, which houses players with above league average efficiency and usage, the Suns have only three players, with Steve Nash as the playmaker and his two primary pick and roll options in Stoudemire and Marion.

Beyond that Joe Johnson provided some playmaking in a pinch at league average efficiency, while Quintin Richardson and Leandro Barbosa offered outlets on the pick and roll and in transition, with little much else behind them.

The Spurs meanwhile feature six regular rotation players (for the purpose of this comparison I’m excluding Patty Mills who currently sports inflated numbers through small sample sizes) with a usage rating of 20 percent or higher.

Five of those players (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Splitters, and Blair) use those possessions at a higher-than-league-average efficiency. The sixth, Gary Neal, falls just below it while pressed into duty as a backup point guard.

Among that group the Spurs have three primary ball-handlers (Parker, Ginobili, and Neal) and three finishers—Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Tim Duncan, who moonlights as a part-time shot creator and playmaker.

Behind that group the Spurs have two young starters (Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green) that operate as defensive specialists with enough room for growth to maintain or improve their league average efficiency as they gain more offensive responsibilities in the future.

Bringing up the rear are a 3-point shooting, floor spacing specialist (Matt Bonner) and a versatile forward whose overall floor game fails to produce statistics but nonetheless is proving to offer positive value.

In short, while the Spurs are not as explosive as the Suns, they have more options from which to initiate the pick and roll (with Parker and Ginobili operating at elite levels), finishing the pick and rolls (Blair and Splitter) and an inside presence capable of providing a steadying changeup with a few isolations.

This could have ramifications in the playoffs, where the SSOL Suns had to continue to inflate the pace so as not to burn out its primary source of shot creation (Nash) in half court settings, the Spurs offense has endless combinations of pick and rolls and cuts from which to attack a defense.

The SSOL Suns True Problem

With few exceptions the path to an NBA championship has been paved or blocked by a dominant big man. The D’Antoni and Nash Suns were a revolutionary attempt at solving an age old problem:

With so few elite big men around, how do you construct a winning team without one?

Outside of unfortunate injuries and untimely suspensions, the Phoenix Suns biggest obstacle was Tim Duncan. Other than that, Phoenix was absolutely a title contender during their peak.

But as age has slowed him down, that Duncan no longer exists in this NBA. And as much as that fact has hurt the Spurs the past few seasons, it could prove the sole reason the team has a chance at surpassing the SSOL Suns in their revamped approach.

Looking through the Western Conference playoff bracket there are quality big men, but no obstacle on par with the one those Suns faced.

Duncan and Popovich may not have been on hand to see Steve Nash off as a member of the Phoenix Suns, but over the next few weeks they very well could pay a final tribute—or parting shot—at their old foe by taking their past failings and showing them how it’s supposed to be done.

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  • Stijl

    It’s amazing (and glorious) how the Spurs have managed to year in and out present a team that has a chance to win the championship. Not many teams in this league have done as good or better a job than this owner, management, coach staff and player personnel to achieving the ultimate. Yes there may be a couple of glitches that come to mind that makes one think “if only” and the Spurs would already have 5 titles. But one cannot be disappointed in the longevity, professionalism and experience this team has brought to this sport and its fans.

    Dynasty doesn’t have to always be about winning the whole thing every time…and I can’t think of any team in recent history that provided an honest hope to doing so year after year over the past 10 years than the Spurs.

  • lvmainman

    Interesting, thought provoking article and analysis. That Suns team couldn’t overcome Duncan without a defensive player in the middle. That type of Suns team would be more effective in today’s NBA due to fewer, effective back to the basket type, mobile big men. Witness Garnett at center and Carmelo at power forward.

    I actually would like to see a comparison between this year’s Spurs and last year’s Mavericks. Mavs off rtg 109.7, def rtg 105, pace 91.3, 3pm 7.86, APG 23.8

    This year’s Spurs reminds me of last year’s Mavs in the 4/5 positions, but maybe not as overall effective. Chandler was the best 5 role player in his defensive shot-blocking and offensive rebounding capabilities and Nowitzki at the 4 was an unstoppable offensive force making 3pt, FT, and drawing fouls. Can Duncan/Splitter at the 5 be like Chandler, less effective defensively, but more effectively offensively? Can a Diaw/Bonner at the 4 be like Nowitzki, less effective offensively, but more effective defensively?

    Of the teams that looked most like last year’s CHAMPION, don’t the Spurs fit that mold the best this year?

    Parker with the Barea penetration, Neal/Ginobili/Jackson with the Terry/Stojakovic deadeye/clutch off the bench shooting, Leonard with the Marion role of primary defender, Green with the Stevenson/Kidd role of the starting 2 guard as a defender/3 pt shooter, are good fits for what the Mavs accomplished.

    The questions are in the 4/5 roles. Can the Spurs by tandems in Duncan/Splitter and Diaw/Bonner be as effective as Chandler/Nowitzki? We’ll see. I still have huge doubts about Bonner’s ability to make shots in the playoffs. Can Bonner pull a Stojakovic and make 6 in a game like he did for the Mavs vs the Lakers, or pull a Finley who made 8 in a road game in Denver, or a Kerr in Dallas? Bonner did have a good game in OKC in the regular season, will it happen in the playoffs?

    Go Spurs Go.

  • Bob

    As impressive as the 50 win seasons have been. I think the Spurs would be regarded higher by the casual fans if they had repeated or triple-peated.

    I agree the Spurs are looking like more of a complete team this season just like the Mavs last season.

  • Easy B

    I like O’Neals assessment : spurs to sweep jazz. The main thing is to hold court and steal a roadie, but if we can retain the current form, our backcourt has way too much stuff for the jazz. Even at 5 games, we would likel get 4 days rest because grizzlies/ clips series should go 6 or more.
    I would be happy if spurs kept existing lineup, or if we insert Tiago into the starting for the early minutes to bang with utahs big lineup. Then Blair and Diaw can run with ginobili in the second unit.
    Any thoughts on what the best rotations will be against the jazz?

  • CafeCalva

    Great read Jesse. I may ask for a lot, but I would find really interesting to add the Sacramento Kings circa 2000-2003 in the comparison. Could it be possible that the 2012 Spurs are a mix between these 2?

  • DorieStreet

    Jesse — the Nash-D’Antoni pairing was a 4-year run; where are the usage vs. PER stats for the ’06-07-08 seasons- especially since there were significant roster changes for the Suns during that time -Joe Johnson leaving after ’05, Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas, Boris Diaw added for ’06, Shaquille O’Neal added midway in the ’08 season.

    In the end, though, the advanced stat comparisons of the SSOL Suns to this year’s Spurs are moot to all Suns fans/most NBA followers due to the playoff injuries Phoenix suffered in 3 of the 4 seasons- Joe Johnson in ’05 WCF, Amare Stoudemire missing the ’06 season, Raja Bell in the ’06 WCF – and the circumstances surrounding the ’07 WC semis.

  • nikd

    One of the best articles I’ve read in a while. The title though is confusing. Anyway, I saw somewhere in a comments section that this Spurs team match the Webber/Stojakovic Kings more than the D’Antoni Suns. Specifically I think that we aren’t completely abandoning defense like the Suns did. What do you think?