On the Spurs, the 2011 NBA Draft, and solving for pattern
At the outset of the Spurs’ offseason, Gregg Popovich said the Spurs had two goals for the summer:
- to find a power forward to start next to Tim Duncan
- to re-become an elite defensive team next season
Hold onto that for a moment.
One of Wendell Berry’s seminal essays is called Solving for Pattern. Everyone should read it. It’s one of those deeply true because it exudes such plain common sense reads that would benefit just about any person. If you’re a snob, you won’t like it because it’s too obvious. If you’re a pragmatist, you won’t like it because it’s too demanding. But everyone else should love it, and they should read it twice.
Back when Isiah Thomas was ruining the Knicks, I secretly fantasized about a mob of angry New Yorkers belting him upside the head with rolled copies of Solving for Pattern, clinching it tightly in their fists, pleading for front office sanity with each wallop to the back of his head. Or, perhaps, paper air planing loose leafs of Solving for Pattern from the cheap seats into the coach’s huddle during timeouts. New Yorker’s are connoisseurs of every exotic variety of tough love. They could have pulled it off.
Solving for Pattern is about pig farming.
The essay makes this argument: solutions are not really solutions unless they positively impact every aspect of the whole. The point of solutions, rightly understood, are to promote the health of the system. Good solutions are rare, and bad solutions are entirely too common. Bad solutions typically take one of two forms.
The first kind of bad solution is bad because it introduces new problems elsewhere. That is, while a solution may work for its immediate fix, it creates new problem(s) in a different part of the complex.
The second kind of bad solution is bad because it immediately worsens the thing it’s trying to improve.
These two types of solutions often work together. Think of Isiah Thomas fixing his roster of unproductive, overpaid players by surrounding them with more unproductive, overpaid players.
Bad solutions never really solve anything. Bad solutions only compound problems.
Here’s the skinny on good and bad solutions, straight from Berry:
A bad solution is bad, then, because it acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained. It acts destructively upon those patterns, most likely, because it is formed in ignorance or disregard of them. A bad solution solves for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. And it is typical of such solutions that they achieve stupendous increases in production at exorbitant biological and social costs.
A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns and this harmony will, I think, be found to have a nature of analogy. A bad solution acts within the larger pattern the way a disease or addiction acts within the body. A good solution acts within the larger patternÂ the way a healthy organ acts within the body…The health of organ and organism is the same, just as the health of organism and ecosystem is the same. And these structures of organ, organism, and ecosystem — as John Todd has so ably understood — belong to a series of analogical integrities that begins with the organelle and ends with the biosphere.
Smart thinkers solve for pattern. Smart thinkers intuitively understand the relationship between all the parts. Basketball teams can be thought of in terms of organ, organism, and ecosystem. Great general managers are always about the business of solving for pattern, of relating player to team and team to franchise. Solving for pattern is what a coach does when he finally determines his team’s best rotations. And so forth and so on.
I spend entirely too much time thinking about what makes the San Antonio Spurs so consistently brilliant. I think about their court performance. I think about their front office performance. I think about how indistinguishable those two parts of their system (“the program”) are from one another. The Spurs are always already thinking in terms of the health of the organ, organism, and the ecosystem. Think of the Spurs’ insistence that their players fit a certain culture. That they be “Spurs”. The Spurs, in other words, think analogically in terms of organ and ecosystem, they relate player to culture.
But they make mistakes. And when they make mistakes, the entire system feels it.
The biggest mistake the Spurs have made is trading for Richard Jefferson. And the theme of their offseason, to this point, is to creatively fix many of the problems he’s introduced.
The Spurs spent the days leading up to the draft looking at Tony Parker trade offers. But make no mistake. The Spurs weren’t trying to trade Tony Parker so much as they were exploring whether Tony Parker was the necessary trade piece to move Richard Jefferson out of town. Mike Monroe saw the situation for exactly what it was:
Reports that the Spurs were discussing deals involving the three-time All-Star and MVP of the 2007 NBA Finals weren’t fiction. But the talks were initiated by teams that had a sense the Spurs were in a mood to blow up their core after the disappointment of the first-round elimination in Memphis.
According to insiders from a team that inquired, each team that called heard the same message from general manager R.C. Buford: Make your best offer, but understand we won’t consider a deal unless Richard Jefferson is part of it.
The talks usually ended there, and when draft night ended Thursday, Parker remained a Spur.
Richard Jefferson is a problem. He’s overpaid. He under-performs. His contract threatens to cripple the Spurs under a more restrictive, cap-tight CBA. Jefferson is a mediocre defender but the Spurs need a wing stopper — the only thing RJ’s defense has put a stop to is Gregg Popovich’s long suffering, patient, and tender disposition.
RJ is, in hindsight, a bad solution. He didn’t improve the thing he was meant to fix: wing production; Bruce Bowen was 10x the basketball player RJ is, box scores be damned! — and his presence has created new problems that didn’t exist prior to his arrival. He’s an organ that is polluting the organism.
Yesterday the Spurs traded George Hill. At first, I didn’t see what R.C. Buford was up to. George Hill was, after all, San Antonio’s best perimeter defender. Why move him when the team has made it a goal to improve defensively? But after a night’s reflection, it’s easy to see that Buford’s design is to solve for pattern.
John Hollinger did a fantastic job explaining the (good) solutions the George Hill trade introduces to the Spurs’ system:
In a stellar trade that showed how they’re always a step ahead of everyone else, the Spurs sent guard George Hill to Indiana for the rights to the 15th pick (Kawhi Leonard), the rights to the 42nd pick (Davis Bertans), and the rights to European Erazem Lorbek.
On paper, trading an established rotation player for the 15th pick in a weak draft seems like a reckless gamble, but there’s a key difference between George Hill and Kawhi Leonard: their paychecks.
Hill will be a restricted free agent after the coming season, and the Spurs looked at their books and made a decision that they couldn’t pay two point guards (Hill and the equally widely shopped Tony Parker) — especially while they were also paying Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Richard Jefferson and looking at a more restrictive post-lockout salary cap environment.
Leonard, meanwhile, will be on a rookie contract for the next four years, providing the Spurs with a very reasonably paid but (likely) productive player to offset the millions they’re paying declining assets like Duncan.
So Hill goes now, before the Spurs have any drama over whether to extend him or risk losing him in restricted free agency next summer. San Antonio keeps its cap situation somewhat under control, and can plug James Anderson, Gary Neal, rookie Cory Joseph and whatever veteran backup point guard they sign into Hill’s former minutes without losing much in the backcourt.
Meanwhile, Leonard fills a more glaring need — a combo forward who can help them match up when opponents go small. This has been an Achilles heel of the Spurs for years, and presuming Leonard can play, he solves the problem.
The Spurs have plenty of work ahead of them. For example, they need find that power forward Gregg Popovich wants, and it won’t be easy. But last night’s trade made them better. It introduced a pattern of improving health to San Antonio immediate and long term future.