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.