On the Spurs, the 2011 NBA Draft, and solving for pattern

by

At the outset of the Spurs’ offseason, Gregg Popovich said the Spurs had two goals for the summer:

  1. to find a power forward to start next to Tim Duncan
  2. 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 pattern 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.

  • Bob

    I really think Tiago can be like Tyson Chandler for the Spurs. They both have good pick and roll defense, give great defensive effort, and are able to draw fouls at a high rate. They also roll well to the basket in pick and rolls. Just by starting Tiago the Spurs would improve defensively.

    But the Spurs also need another big to cut into possible minutes for Blair/Bonner. That big would ideally be a 5 who can defend also defend 4’s. He would have to be defensively better than Blair/Bonner. Pop has said the reason he plays them is because those are the only bigs he has.

  • Tim in Surrey

    I was looking at some evaluations of how teams did with the draft and, like some of the early posters here, the were a little lukewarm. I think a part of that is because people who DON’T watch the Spurs very much are likely to overrate George Hill a bit. Many writers still think he can be a starting point guard for a good team, while we know he can’t. But I was still surprised.

    Then I thought of something: I’ll be that if the Spurs had drafted Bertrans with the 29th pick and Joseph in the middle of the second round–in other words, if they had drafted the same group of players but in a slightly different order–they would’ve been more heavily praised. Think about it. A lot of the criticism of the team was for taking Joseph too early. But everybody forgets that they still managed to get Bertrans too late. If you agree with me, think about what that says about draft “analysts”.

  • Sam

    Exactly what I was thinking. The Spurs would be rated in the top 3 in biggest steal, most succesful draft etc. if the took Bertans #29 and Corey Joseph #42.

  • DorieStreet

    lol
    I wondered if he’s cleaned up his act.

  • DorieStreet

    Correct.
    .http://www.indystar.com/article/20110625/SPORTS04/106250323/Bird-sought-deal-Hill-some-time?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CIndyStar.com%7Cs

    Pacers team president Larry Bird has been seeking Hill since he came into the league.

  • DorieStreet

    Bertrans isn’t coming over until 2014 at the earliest –none of the other draft & stash picks have arrived earlier than 3 seasons after they were drafted (except Ian Mahinmi–drafted 2005, came over in 2007).
    Except for the $$$ on the contract angle (1st round vs 2nd round),  it’s sort  of a moot point IMO.

    Nice to read the overnight draft grades (as we do in football too) based on their physical attributes, basketball skills and play in college/overseas. But the true concrete grade of the player comes at least 1, maybe 2-3 NBA seasons later.

    BTW–the writers are wrong if they think Hll is goin to play pure PG. Pacers will want him to be the scoring machine he was during his Indiana high school and college career. His role will be more like OKC.s Russell Westbrooke.

  • DorieStreet

    Yeah–I weighed in earlier that the Paker+RJ trade was plan A, then Hlll was plan B.
    A better sense of what happend is that trade 1 was Hll to IND, proposed a while back but put on the backburner until SA determined that this was the right time.
    FO put out the word that Parker “is not being shopped–but we are taking calls.”  I guess that was a lure so that a package deal of Tony with RJ is what the Spurs were seeking.

  • Lalo

    It it totally out of the question that Splitter is that PF?  

  • Lalo

    It it totally out of the question that Splitter is that PF?  

  • Patrick

    great piece man…very enlightening…appreciate it!

  • Patrick

    I am positive that once the new CBA is ironed out, and Pop and RC can really focus on the task at hand… they will still make trades (or at least try). The only difference I think is it would involve multiple teams this time. It’s true that there are not a lot of Bigs available on the open market, that’s why trading for some “out of place” 4 and 5 would be a great way to address the holes in the front court. I am particularly looking at the jazz which is currently rebuilding their roster, there’s a big possibility that one of their bigs will be moved in the off season. Kaman of the clippers is another possible scenario, I also like Mozgov of the Nuggets, Glen Davis can be had also.

  • Len

    Varejo, Nene, McRoberts, Collins, Humphries, Gray & Turiaf are some players that will be looked at by RC.  I have little doubt that a big will be signed/traded for.   

  • Titletown99030507d

    Nene, and Turiaf are getting up there in age. So is this for 1 or two years? Because after that its like Timmy and his limited minutes all over again with those two guys. I like Mozgov or Koufos, maybe even Jason Thompson if the can swing it and you can expect youthful play for a good while with the three after mentioned.At this point I wouldn’t try to put a band-aid on this team they are beyond that. They need to get the big help that will stick around for a good while. I’m not really not keen on the end of someones career a la McDyess. Rather have them post Timmy as well.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Make that “not keen”.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Who you going to get that the FO is going to spring for that’s better than Splitter at that salary? And not 100 years old either.

  • Gpain

    Over analyzation

  • Gpain

    Over analyzation

  • Tim in Surrey

    Good post, DS. That’s Hill’s best role and, frankly, it’s something that Indiana needed. If you compare him to the 2s available in the middle of this draft–guys like Marshon Brooks, for instance–he’s not only a proven commodity, he’s a better talent period. Leonard would’ve been a poorer fit for them, as they’ve already got Danny Granger at SF. This way they’ve got a nice three-guard rotation of Collison, George, and Hill, which I think will work against a lot of teams, and they gained a sure hand with a good deal of playoff experience. It makes a lot of sense from Indiana’s point of view.

    Obviously I agree about the true worth of a player. The draft projections can get so weird sometimes and they seem to linger in people’s minds for years and years. Just a few months ago there were calls on this site for us to add Joe Alexander, who has never been anything but terrible in his entire career. Why? Because he had a few nice workouts a couple of years ago and then was projected as (and became) a lottery pick. Madness.

    With respect to Bertans (sorry but I’ve been misspelling his last name, which only has one r), I do wish they had reversed the two picks. Frankly, he’s the better prospect, so you’d rather have him as the one restricted by the first round contract. Unless Joseph is a completely worthless player (Joe Alexander, who I believe is still the only lottery pick not to have his first option picked up, which is part of why Milwaukee is unpopular with agents) we’re tied to him for at least three years, good or bad. Second round contracts are much more limited, by contrast. So if Bertans turns out to be a real contributor he’ll be harder to keep. And if he was a first-rounder, he wouldn’t have any sort of a cap hold until he actually came over (which is part of why the draft-and-stash policy is so popular with teams that already have full rosters). That said, while you’re quite right about some of the recent Euro d&s players, we might see Davis come over a little sooner than you’re suggesting. He’s a MUCH bigger talent than most of the other Euro d&s players with the exceptions of Tiago and Scola, who both had rather lucrative contracts that required big buy-outs. Bertans isn’t in the same situation and, as a second-rounder, the sooner he comes over here the sooner he can get a big contract (assuming he really is the player we hope he’ll be). We’ll see…

  • Tim in Surrey

    First of all, Nene and Turiaf are both 28, so they’re not exactly being wheeled onto court by their nurses just yet. They probably have about three years at their current level and then a decline over 2-3 years until they’re done. Turiaf might have a little longer, as his game isn’t really based on quickness (good thing, since he doesn’t have any). So I think Nene would be fabulous… in whatever dreamworld or alternate universe that may be in which the Spurs have a chance of signing him. In this universe, we should move on. There’s nothing to see here.

    I doubt there’s any way we’re prying Mozgov away from the Nuggets. They like him and they can easily outbid us. But Koufos? Why would we want him? What has he ever done on an actual basketball court during regulation that would help the Spurs? He’s a terrible, terrible defensive player and won’t solve our front court problems AT ALL. We’d be better off on defense with Bonner. Turiaf… I can see him being helpful on defense. But not really. We need a big man with quickness and athleticism more than one like Turiaf with length and strength. We’ve already got better versions of Turiaf in Duncan and Splitter.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Sorry, I’m violating my policy of criticising someone else’s contribution without offering my own. What about Kenyon Martin? I know he is a bit weathered and brittle (I vote we nickname him “Mr. Glass”), but he’s still quick, strong, tough, smart and a solid defender. He’s not the best fit in the locker room, but he has mellowed an awful lot over the years. And, more important, he’d be a good fit on the court. Anyway, if not Kenyon himself, that’s the kind of guy we should be looking for. A PF with quickness and a bit of a nasty attitude on defense.

  • Len

    The only two ways the Spurs sign Nene are if either Timmy restructures his current contract or if Nene agrees to a contract where his pay is heavily backloaded.  It’s a longshot but RC has pulled bigger rabbits out of his hat.   

  • Len

    Jason Thompson is under contract and the Kings don’t look to be dealing with SA.  

  • Len

    Humphries and McRoberts are two interesting PF’s.  Personally, I don’t think McRoberts is a great fit.  He tends to get lost/distracted and seems to always be going for the big slam or alley oop.  But, maybe Pop wants a project.  Who knows for sure.

    Humphries is a real grinder.  I could definitely see him in SA.  He crashes the glass well and has good hops.  I’d be careful that he had a career year, looks to get paid and then loses some of his effort.  Just a hunch but they’d know better than me after an interview.  

    Gray might be an interesting pick up.  He played his best basketball ever in the playoffs against the Lakers.  Conditioning issues might be a factor.  Again, goes to the interviews.  

  • Titletown99030507d

    Well that ends that.

  • Titletown99030507d

    He’s still quick at his age?

  • DorieStreet

    Thanks for the explantion. Started to reading about the international players on RealGM and DraftExpress–getting more understanding how this “draft connection overseas” works.
    I see on both ESPN and wikipedia the 3 draft picks are listed on the Spurs roster–joining the 15 players that were under contract at the end of our playoffs season.
    I guess Ryan Richards joins Nano de Colo on the “draft rights squad”, along with Erazum Lorzek (traded from the Pacer’s “drs.”

    Breaking news: David West opts out of final contract year,

  • Titletown99030507d

    Way wrong Koufos a better shot blocker than Bonner and can score without having to ask for privacy or space to do it.

  • DorieStreet

    Take a chance on David West/gets further recovery/rehab time with lockout.

  • Titletown99030507d

    None of those guys we picked with the exception of Leonard has the chance of seeing the light of day on a championship team. 

  • Titletown99030507d

    What this organization needs to do is pull a Cleveland twice in order to get back on the Championship road. Let’s be realistic the window has shut its time for lottery picks the next two years. Goodbye Timmy, goodbye Manu We’ve enjoyed you.

  • Titletown99030507d

    What this organization needs to do is pull a Cleveland twice in order to get back on the Championship road. Let’s be realistic the window has shut its time for lottery picks the next two years. Goodbye Timmy, goodbye Manu We’ve enjoyed you.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Just in time to take over for Timmy.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Just in time to take over for Timmy.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Just in time to take over for Timmy.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Proceed with caution.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Well now that everybody else is playing that game we’re not special anymore. Looks like RC and Pop are going to have to troll the YMCA’s. What else do we do?

  • Sam

    I just saw that. I would love to do a sign and trade with NO because there’s no way that SA can sign him but what pieces can we offer to NO?

  • tejasjack

    ^^^^

  • Sam

    Question: Would you rather A.) Sign Carl Landry B.)Sign and trade for David West, or C.) Neither                                                                                                      

  • TD BestEVER

    Carl Landry is a cheaper/younger version of David West…… So him……. Spurs don’t have the 10 million or so that David is looking for……..

  • badger

    That is certainly not encouraging information.

  • Hassan

    That’s exactly why they went after Kawahi to play SF instead of Neal, GH or Manu..

  • Tim in Surrey

    Yeah, fair enough. It’s a pretty cold, hard approach but it’s probably the most straightforward way to get another championship. But it still requires quite a lot of luck. It’s not just a matter of getting in the lottery once or twice. You need to get lucky, like Cleveland did this year, AND draft well once you do, AND have your players stay healthy and develop well (just ask Portland!). So maybe it’s not so straightforward after all.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Yeah, this is the thing. It’s nice to talk about guys like David West or Nene. But they’re not coming here because we don’t have the cap room for them–unless we use a star in a sign-and-trade. But that just fills one hole by opening up another one somewhere else. Like it or not, I think Tiago and Tim are our big men next year.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Surprisingly, yes. At least from what I’ve seen. But he’s brittle as hell and, well, he has never been a Spurs kind of guy. I just thought I would mention him as a possible backup.

  • cescpistol

    I’m not sure if the salaries would have matched, but I would’ve preferred a Hill-for-Batum trade.

  • titletown99030507d

    Every time I saw the Nuggets play last season I never saw Martin on the floor. HMMM.

  • titletown99030507d

    Sources say Tim isn’t opting out. Does this mean he won’t restructure? Not clear on that. Any help somebody?

  • DorieStreet

    I’m not sure. My guess is  a long lockout/no resolution this year–therefore no season at all.
    His final season of play under his current agreement might not be until 2012-13.
    Might seem selfish to some fans (he restuctured before though), but if this is the end, just make it one more season and hang ‘em up.

  • titletown99030507d

    Just read he will not opt out and it looks like he’s done after this season being short if there is one. Nice $21 Mil there Timmy. And so the farewell tour begins if there’s one.