San Antonio Spurs defensive principles

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Bruce Bowen was one of the best defenders in Spurs, and NBA, history.

Chances are, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you have a pretty good idea of what the San Antonio Spurs like to do, and avoid, on the defensive end of the floor.

But from time-to-time, I find it helpful to review things to keep them fresh in my head. And seeing as it’s mid-August and the NBA is on vacation, I thought we’d take a look at a couple of the bedrock principles of the Spurs’ defense.

Force guards away from the middle of the floor

It’s easy to boil it down to this: when the ball-handler gets to the middle and into the lane, bad things happen. This is because the offensive player has options. And the basic premises of defense are to limit the number of ways the offense can score and make it as hard as possible for them to do that.

When opposing guards get into the lane, they cause damage. They get good looks at the basket, find open teammates and draw fouls. A ball-handler in the middle of the lane usually has a better look at the basket than when forced towards the sideline or baseline. Additionally, he probably got past the defender guarding him en route to the lane. This means other defenders will have to rotate over to help on the ball-handler, leaving other offensive players open if the ball-handler can find them with a good pass.

In the play diagrammed below, Steve Nash got to the lane against the Spurs defense late in Game 2 of the teams’ Western Conference Semifinal series. The Suns had a eight point lead with about a minute left in the game. It’s a pretty significant advantage that late in the game, but not insurmountable. On the play, Nash used a pick at the top of the 3-point arc from Amar’e Stoudemire to get by George Hill and into the lane.

San Antonio Spurs defense: Steve Nash gets to middle

When Nash got into the lane, he had Hill on his right hip and a decent look at the basket. Almost every Spur on the floor had at least one foot in the lane and none were farther than two feet away.

San Antonio Spurs defense: Steve Nash gets to middle (2)

Nash kicked the ball out to Jason Richardson, who blew past Manu Ginobili. Manu was a step outside the lane helping on Nash’s penetration and tried to closeout on Richardson, but Richardson got by him and hit the jumper at the elbow to finish off the game.

But it wasn’t all bad defensively against the Suns. Earlier in that same game, George Hill had a great defensive possession against Nash. The Suns point guard dribbled to the left wing and looked to get the ball in the post to Stoudemire, who was fronted by DeJuan Blair. Blair did a good job fronting Stoudemire, as he’s learned to do, and Nash was unable to get the ball in the post.

San Antonio Spurs defense: Forcing guards to the baseline

After determining he couldn’t get an entry pass into Stoudemire, Nash gave George Hill a quick shoulder fake toward the middle and went baseline. Hill stayed with Nash the whole time and rode him toward the baseline without needing help defense to come and stop the ball. Nash tried to find a teammate but stepped on the baseline before he got a pass off and turned the ball over.

San Antonio Spurs defense: Force guards to the baseline

Notice in the video of the play, Hill’s footwork. His body is angled with his back to the middle to encourage Nash to go baseline.

Do not give up the corner 3-pointer, otherwise you face the wrath of Coach Pop

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s next hard-and-fast rule on defense is to prevent the opponent from getting a corner 3. Coach Pop believes that the corner 3 is one of the most effective shots in basketball, which is why the Spurs look for so many corner 3’s on offense and try to prevent all of them on defense.

Luckily for Spurs fans, but not so much for me, it’s hard to find a video clip of San Antonio rotating improperly and allowing an open corner 3. However, Eddy Rivera from Magic Basketball had a great post this week about the 2/5 (or shooting guard and center) pick and roll play that Orlando uses. In that post, he had a video where the Atlanta Hawks make a rotation that would make Coach Pop’s blood boil.

Vince Carter brought the ball up-court for Orlando and Marcin Gortat came up to set a pick on Marvin Williams, who’s guarding Carter. Carter rubbed off the pick and attacked the basket. From the corner, Joe Johnson of the Hawks rotated over to stop Carter’s progress to the basket.

Atlanta Hawks defense leaving the corner 3 open

In doing so, Johnson left Mickael Pietrus, a 38% 3-point shooter last season, open in the corner. Carter takes the shot himself – because he’s Vince Carter – and makes it, but Pietrus would’ve been a good option.

Atlanta Hawks defense leaving the corner 3 open

Had the Spurs been the defensive team on this play, there would’ve been an immediate timeout called and, chances are, the guy who left Pietrus open wouldn’t have emerged from the huddle. You may remember last year a situation in which when San Antonio played the Detroit Pistons, Tony Parker allowed a 3-pointer from Rodney Stuckey and a spat between Parker and Coach Pop occurred. Parker was taken out of the game as a punishment.

Instead, the way the Spurs defend that play is to rotate help defenenders from the other side of the floor. Johnson would stay on Pietrus, denying the pass to him, and Jamal Crawford, guarding Jameer Nelson in the opposite corner, would’ve rotated over to stop the ball. Because Nelson in the corner is still a decent pass for Carter to make, Josh Smith, guarding Rashard Lewis near the top of the key, would’ve slid down to prevent a pass to Nelson in the corner.

Lewis, a good 3-point shooter, is open near the top of the key, but for Carter to make that pass he would have to stop and turn. That would enable any defender, whether it’s Josh Smith or someone else, time to recover and prevent Lewis from getting a good shot.

How the San Antonio Spurs defense would've covered the pick-and-roll.

The video below, from Game 1 of the Spurs-Suns series, shows San Antonio denying a corner 3 opportunity. Steve Nash beats Tony Parker off the dribble and Richard Jefferson, defending Grant Hill in the corner, doesn’t flinch. As Nash drives in his direction, Jefferson inches closer to Hill. Instead, you can see the help defense come from Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Antonio McDyess fulfills his duty to cover Ginobili’s man in the opposite corner. Nash ends up dribbling the ball out of bounds.

Play Diagrams in this post were created in FastDraw. To learn more about FastDraw and to purchase it today visit their website at www.fastmodeltechnologies.com.

  • DHB

    That was great! It made a lot of sense and was helpful in thinking through the defensive schemes. Well done.

  • ThatBigGuy

    We ran 30 timed suicides one time in practice after guys helped off the shooter in the corner during some open run. I’ll never forget that you never help off a shooter. I’m sure all these Spurs players have it ingrained into their heads just as well.

  • Hobson13

    Good article. I truly believe that the Spurs defense will be considerably better this next season. Let’s face it, our offense was the best we’d had in years while averaging 101.4 ppg. It was our defense that slipped. We’ve gone from giving up 88-90 ppg a few short years ago to giving up 96 ppg this last season. The defensive end of the court provides our greatest area of opportunity.

    We have TONS of scorers on this team with the big 3, Jefferson, Hill, Blair, and maybe even a guy who can surprise everyone like Anderson or Neal. We really don’t need another 12-18ppg scorer. We need people who have experience with and can understand the defensive system. With yet another year under their belts, I see Hill, Blair, and Jefferson as much improved defenders (especially the last two). As long as this team stays healthy and continues to improve, I think we’ll have our chance at making serious noise in May and maybe even June.

  • Jim Henderson

    Hobson13
    August 25th, 2010 at 10:43 am

    “I see Hill, Blair, and Jefferson as much improved defenders (especially the last two).
    As long as this team stays healthy and continues to improve, I think we’ll have our chance at making serious noise in May and maybe even June.”

    You have to admit, that’s wishful thinking. RJ & Blair our defensive stoppers?

  • ITGuy

    At this point in time, any suggestion as to how or who will play next season is nothing but a guess or an opinion ~ no need to be negative about any post.

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • StreetBalla

    “San Antoino Spurs defensive principles”? Didn’t realize the Spurs had moved :-D…Must have been away from the NBA too long :-)

  • Hobson13

    Jim Henderson
    August 25th, 2010 at 11:05 am
    “You have to admit, that’s wishful thinking. RJ & Blair our defensive stoppers?”

    Who said anything about them being defensive aces? Is it wishful thinking to believe a rookie and 1st year Spur can improve on their first campaign in a Spurs uniform? After all, Blair was a slightly overweight 20yr old rookie last year and rumor has it that Blair was actually a bit burned out by the end of the regular season. Is it too much to believe he won’t be better on the defensive end?

    RJ’s problems were by and large mental. For large parts of the season, he seemed to float through games on both ends of the court. The Spurs have had several FA acquisitions over the years that have played better in their second year than first year (Brent Barry and Michael Finley). Do you not believe that RJ can improve on last season?

    Jim, over the past few weeks, you’ve become a pessimist with regards to this years version of the Spurs. Despite the complete lack of respect we get from the “experts” this team can be good.

  • ThatBigGuy

    @ Jim and Hobson13

    You both agree on Blair’s defense exactly, even down to the same words.

    Hobson13 wrote “I see Hill, Blair, and Jefferson as much improved defenders (especially the last two).”

    Jim, you just wrote this, today, on the previous post about team defenders: “Blair’s strength is not on the defensive end, although I expect some improvement this year.”

    You both just wrote that Blair will improve his defense. So Jim, how do you write that you expect Blair to improve, then say that Hobson13’s expectations for Blair’s defensive improvement is “wishful thinking?”

  • doggydogworld

    Very nice review. At least for those who are into that kind of thing. Now can we get back to what really matters – potential multi-team deals involving Tony Parker?

  • Jim Henderson

    Hobson13
    August 25th, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    “Is it wishful thinking to believe a rookie and 1st year Spur can improve on their first campaign in a Spurs uniform?”

    But by HOW MUCH is the important question. We were quite far from being a legitimate contender for the crown in the West last year, and our competition is not standing still.

    “Is it too much to believe he won’t be better on the defensive end?”

    Again, HOW MUCH better? Enough to make a real impact? That’s questionable, and not particularly likely.

    “RJ’s problems were by and large mental.”

    Is this problem over with? You’re not going to tell me that the Spurs system was just a mind-blower for him, are you? Or did he see a shrink in the off-season? Look, I think RJ will be better this year, but I have no idea how much better, and neither does anyone else.

    “The Spurs have had several FA acquisitions over the years that have played better in their second year than first year….”

    Most of the notable one’s were very good during their first season. In fact Barry’s play was not appreciably better in his 2nd season: 1st year per 36 mins.: 12.4 ppg., 3.7 apg.; 2nd year 12.3 ppg., 3.5 apg. His rebounds & shooting % were a bit higher in year two, but not by a big amount, and his FT% was 84% in year two versus 66% in year one. The evidence is simply not strong that RJ will make a significant improvement in year two. It’s worth hoping for, but it’s also wishful thinking to be confident about it.

    “Jim, over the past few weeks, you’ve become a pessimist with regards to this years version of the Spurs.”

    No, I have a healthy degree of realism & caution as far as what to expect out of the team this year. And my perception has clearly not changed over the past few weeks. For months I’ve been advocating for the team to take some risk by making some significant moves, but the FO has done nothing but tinker. As a result, my expectations have remained the same: minimal improvement this year in relation to the competition, but not enough to even begin to approach Laker territory. Which means it’s a crapshoot to even get a WCF appearance.

    ThatBigGuy
    August 25th, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    “You both just wrote that Blair will improve his defense. So Jim, how do you write that you expect Blair to improve, then say that Hobson13′s expectations for Blair’s defensive improvement is “wishful thinking?”

    Hobson said that he sees Blair ….. as a “much” improved defender. I said we should see “some” improvement in Blair defensively. That’s a BIG difference. In my view it is wishful thinking to believe that Blair will be a “much” improved defender this year. Defense is one of the slowest things to improve at the NBA level. Blair is only 21 years old. I don’t expect very much improvement from him defensively this year. I do expect (and hope!) for more meaningful step up from him on the offensive end. We’ll see.

  • Jim Henderson

    **CORRECTION** from previous post:

    “…and his FT% was 84% in year two versus 66% in year one.”

    This should be reversed: 84% in year one; 66% in year two.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    @StreetBalla

    Geez, I’m embarrassed. That’s what I get for posting first thing in the morning. Good catch.

  • Hobson13

    Jim Henderson
    August 25th, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    “Is this problem over with? You’re not going to tell me that the Spurs system was just a mind-blower for him, are you? Or did he see a shrink in the off-season?”

    Did you not notice how uncomfortable he looked on the court? I thought RJ’s issues (inability to adjust to the offensive system/difficulty keeping focus on defense) were well documented. Let’s not go revising history on what actually happened. And no, he doesn’t need a shrink, just adequate time in Pops system.

    “The evidence is simply not strong that RJ will make a significant improvement in year two. It’s worth hoping for, but it’s also wishful thinking to be confident about it.”

    The only other year RJ performed this poorly was during his rookie campaign. In other years, RJ was a top performer. Why would you not expect him to perform better during his second season? The only reason I can imagine is because RJ’s physical abilities have SERIOUSLY declined. However, I’ve never heard you nor anyone else on this blog make that case (mainly because it’s simply not true).

    Consider this, Jim, if you had the same position, but moved to a different company that had different standards, rules, and practices don’t you think your job performance would be better in your second year of work after you’ve adjusted to the company than in your first? This isn’t a matter of basketball knowledge, advanced statistics, or anything else. This is a matter of common sense.

    “For months I’ve been advocating for the team to take some risk by making some significant moves, but the FO has done nothing but tinker.”

    I agree this has been disappointing. I still maintain we should unload Parker before the trade deadline, but that’s another discussion all together.

    “As a result, my expectations have remained the same: minimal improvement this year in relation to the competition, but not enough to even begin to approach Laker territory.”

    I agree that we won’t be in Lakers territory without substantial internal improvement. However, we have a fundamental disagreement with regards to how much “improvement” has actually taken place in the Western Conference. I really don’t understand this movement that believes so many teams in the West have improved. No major free agents (unless you consider Hedo after his disasterous stint with the Raps) changed from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference, but major free agents who were cornerstones (Boozer/Stat)of their franchises left. Other teams simply hope their stars can recover from catastrophic injuries (Yao and Jefferson). In previous posts, it appears that you put great trust in internal growth for teams such as OKC, Portland, and even the Mavs who are an older team than the Spurs. However, you dismiss my calculations for such internal growth from the Spurs as “wishful thinking.”

    “Hobson said that he sees Blair ….. as a “much” improved defender. I said we should see “some” improvement in Blair defensively. That’s a BIG difference.”

    While I’m not a fan of relativism, I would say that is the case in this argument. What I consider “much” improvement, you may call it “some” improvement. I will say this: the three players I mentioned are 3 of our top 8 players going into next year. If 38% (3/8) of our top players just show “some” improvement, it would make a considerable difference in our overall team defense and would most definitely be the diffence in winning or losing several games.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Lenneezz

    Another great article guys!

    Andrew, fine job finding these clips that define the Spurs basic defensive philosophy. Crystal clear stuff.

    When I, as a fan, became more knowledgeable about my favorite team it was awesome. That was in about 2002 after I had discovered a firm hate for LA.

  • Two Cents

    #9, #20, & #21: ANY team would be SIGNIFICANTLY improved if any one these players were to be added to their club. As such, I think the moves the FO has made, has been enough to compete, seriously, for a championship…..

    On another note… I’m sure its only coincidental, but I’ve always found it kind of funny that those three jersey numbers = #50.

  • Two Cents

    P.S.

    Kudos to the author, on another excellent summer piece.

  • Jim Henderson

    Hobson13
    August 25th, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    “Did you not notice how uncomfortable he looked on the court? I thought RJ’s issues (inability to adjust to the offensive system/difficulty keeping focus on defense) were well documented.”

    So RJ’s just not particularly bright, is that it? (which I don’t buy – in fact, RJ appears to be a pretty intelligent guy). You’re making the assumption that his “looking uncomfortable” was the result of his inability to grasp the system at a reasonable speed. Of course it has nothing to do with him being a naturally poor fit that is not easily overcome, an attitude issue that may persist, or perhaps even some set of unknown personal problems, neither of which we could possibly know whether or not they represent temporary or more ongoing issues during this phase of his life, and perhaps issues that he’s still not adequately dealt with.

    “The only other year RJ performed this poorly was during his rookie campaign. In other years, RJ was a top performer. Why would you not expect him to perform better during his second season?”

    Well, again, if I had to guess, I do believe he’ll perform at bit better this year. But the question again is, how much better, and will it be enough to make a meaningful difference for this team? I’m hopeful, but I certainly have my doubts. Also, RJ has never played in a Spur-type system AND been a 4th option. He just may not be able to thrive under those circumstances. It’s hard to be too confident one way or the other.

    “Consider this, Jim, if you had the same position, but moved to a different company that had different standards, rules, and practices don’t you think your job performance would be better in your second year of work after you’ve adjusted to the company than in your first?”

    Again, I never said that he’s unlikely to show any improvement from last year. I have my doubts that the level of improvement will be sufficient enough to make a meaningful difference in the team’s ultimate outcome.

    “In previous posts, it appears that you put great trust in internal growth for teams such as OKC, Portland, and even the Mavs who are an older team than the Spurs. However, you dismiss my calculations for such internal growth from the Spurs as “wishful thinking.”

    The facts are, Houston, Portland, and OKC all have more experienced and/or proven YOUNG talent than do the Spurs, and many of them are likely to improve next year. The Spurs have two and three quarters (Splitter, because he’s never played a game in the NBA) players of quality young talent with some reasonable amount of NBA experience. The Rockets have five; the Blazers have five; and the Thunder have too many to count. The Mavs got two of their better players last year with just 2 months left in the season, it was their first year under coach Carlisle, and they succumbed to us in a hard fought series after finishing the regular season as a two seed (we were 7th). So I currently project the Mavs to be the 4th seed and the Spurs to be the 5th seed. Not a big difference, and of course it could go either way.

    “If 38% (3/8) of our top players just show “some” improvement, it would make a considerable difference in our overall team defense and would most definitely be the diffence in winning or losing several games.”

    Maybe, assuming the other five players also play as well or better on average (fairly safe assumption) but probably not enough to get us to the WCF’s.

  • Jim Henderson

    Two Cents
    August 25th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    #9, #20, & #21: ANY team would be SIGNIFICANTLY improved if any one these players were to be added to their club. As such, I think the moves the FO has made, has been enough to compete, seriously, for a championship…..

    It might be wise to drop the aging big three idol worship. It’s very unlikely that we’ll ever win with the big three again, certainly not with the tinkering I’ve just witnessed during this off-season. It was nice while it lasted, but it’s time to move on.

    I’ll raise you one. That’s my “three cents” worth.

  • ITGuy

    I’d rather be loyal to a team with troubles (Spurs)than a bandwagon fan on a team with success (any team).

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • StreetBalla

    @Andrew

    Great article though…Was just nitpicking…Apologies!!

    Thx

  • rob

    The article is spot on. Thanks for another great read and diagram(s).

    The main problem in the team’s defensive decline is of course not having Bruce in his prime….a younger more mobile Duncan…and the missing presense of great weak side help role players like Horry, Nesterovic (I can’t believe I said that), Oberto and Kevin Willis.

    That pretty much summed up Spurs defense. Forcing players baseline into clogatorium (new word) and sufficating perimeter close out.

    And the system has worked great as long as it had the players to execute it’s demanding level. Ever wonder why the Spurs have never been (offensively) a great close out team at the end of games? It’s because they have expended so much energy on defense throughout the entire game their legs have nothing left to make even an easy shot. It’s simple physics. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.

    But also…after this amount of time and success…ways will be found out to exploit one’s weaknesses. Coaches are finding out ways to beat the once dominant Spurs defense not only through attrition of it’s key players…but through study and finding the cracks to penetrate.

    It’s going to take very gifted, talented and youthful replacements to help bring that defensive dominance back up to championship quality. But it’s also going to take ingenuity and game time adjustments to keep it going at a high level to combat the ever present changes opposing coaches are implementing to beat the system.

    One of the reasons we are seeing the team focus on aquiring more offensive talented players than defensive talented players is because it’s probably looking to seal the penetration of teams who have somewhat figured out how to beat the defensive system with offensive prowness. One of the ways to slow down an opposing team from scoring more is forcing them to have to play defense as well.

    But if the team can revert back to it’s defensive hey day…I’d be one happy camper. But seeing a more potent offensive team would be rewarding to watch as well.

  • Two Cents

    Idol worship? No, Sir. Duncan, Parker, & Ginobilli have not declined to the point that the FO cannot still build a contender.

  • Jim Henderson

    Two Cents
    August 26th, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    “Duncan, Parker, & Ginobilli have not declined to the point that the FO cannot still build a contender.”

    I guess we’re just not looking at the same thing. Because of Duncan’s decline (still good, but he was unbelievable in his prime), our role players would have to be appreciably better than they’ve ever been to win now. I find that VERY unlikely, since we had VERY good role players (offensively, defensively & clutch) on all of our title teams.

  • Bushka

    Great article. Really interesting.

    As long as we get better at team D then i’m really happy this season.

    I think Bowen as a stopper was an anomaly for us. Pops team D principals are the make or break regression to the mean and if we get there as a team we’ll be fine. That means time in the system will actually be a benefit, as in, it is more likely that defensive rotations and methods become ingrained.

    Wont take a huge leap in man to man prowess, but rather a solid uptick in overall team skill.

    In that sense I feel that Blair & RJ especially are going to be good bets.

    However it makes me worry about Splitter. It is imperative that he gets this right off the bat. If you watch that last video Timmy just nails it timing wise his so freaking intuitive on the defensive end. Hopefully he can help Splitter absorb the schemes.

  • J2

    The Spurs should be in the mix, but just how deep they can go in the playoffs will depend on just how good T. Splitter turns out to be, and whether Parker and Jefferson can learn how to mesh on the court (unless Parker is traded, which obviously changes the equation).

    The main issue for Blair is not his defense, but his offense. He can drive and finish at the rim quite well, but he cannot hit a mid-range shot, so his defenders just play off him and react if and when he drives. If he learns to hit a mid-range jumper, then his defender has to play him tight, and he’ll get to the rim alot with great results.

    On defense, Blair does fine– he just won’t enter the game if it means guarding a player 4-5 inches taller than himself.

  • Jim Henderson

    J2
    August 26th, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    “The main issue for Blair is not his defense, but his offense.”

    Sorry, you got it backwards. Of course Blair still has some development to do on the offensive end at age 21, but he has the necessary skill & ability to make great strides in that area. He has soft hands, and good touch on his shot. All it will take is a lot of practice, and developing confidence, which is huge, but I see that happening sooner rather than later. But even so, he’s already a good scorer in other areas other than perimeter shooting. No, offense is not his weak area compared to defense. Not at all.

    “On defense, Blair does fine– he just won’t enter the game if it means guarding a player 4-5 inches taller than himself.”

    Blair is not a steady, solid defender, regardless of the size of the guy he’s guarding, and he commits way too many unnecessary fouls. Defense IS his weakness, and probably always will be to some extent, although I also expect some improvement there as well this season.

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