Of balanced offenses and other mythical monsters

by

Maybe the most difficult thing for a fan is to pick himself up after a close, hard-fought, all-out game like today’s. I imagine it is easier for the players, who can actually influence the game directly. We are left with words, analysis and rationalizations – crumbs, grains of sand.

Fortunately, playoffs are not a one-and-done tournament. We have six more games to prod the law of averages into action, six games for the toast to fall on the unbuttered side. Let us not focus on the one game in which Manu Ginobili, arguably our best player this season, was wearing a sports coat behind the bench.

Instead, let us lean back, take a deep breath, tie up our shoelaces, put on some music. If it’s a game of averages, why don’t we look at them?

The importance of the little men

Living where I live, well away from that multi-faceted monster that’s the NBA, my experiences with the league were sadly limited to vertiginous one-hour shows, a few playoffs games, and the brilliant NBA Jam. The Bulls-Jazz Finals marked my youth, and Jordan was The Game, all of it. I learnt to love basketball at a distance, by proxy.

I was deprived, people. As a person who enjoys reading, you would imagine that I could at least have found a basketball book or ten to read during the long, gameless evenings, but it was not to be – and even if I had been able to get my hands on a copy of David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game”, the idea of also finding a Spanish translation is laughable, and my English was embryonic at the time. Nope, basketball books were something you read about online, years later, a vague but promising concept.

Then last year, at long last, decades too late, I set foot on the United States – and I attacked. The overweight luggage charge I paid for on the way back barely registered through my literary bliss. “They Call Me Coach”, “The Breaks…”, “The Last Shot”, even the FreeDarko books, they were all right within reach. Yet maybe as a nod to my youth, the first book I picked was one called “The Jordan Rules”, by Sam Smith, a controversial chronicle of the Bulls’ first championship season that would not be out of place from the yellowest of tabloids. Smith sold controversy in each page, mixing true inside information with suspect pseudo-psychoanalytical insights into the real-life characters of his novel. However, beyond the villains and the heroes and the author’s opinions-turned-into-truth by the all-powerful hand of the author, there was the story of Jordan and his team, and the growth of the player who lost a few points per game to win a championship.

I believe in The Secret to winning, The Secret Darryl Howerton talked about in his latest, wonderful article. I believe that star players are needed to win, but also that they are not enough without a team for them to fall back on. Miami might disprove this in less than 10 weeks, but for the moment I believe. I know that Phil Jackson’s true genius lies not in his zen teachings but on his unmatched ability to ride the waves of star players’ tsunami-like egos, to find commitment to team excellence where there is only them and the hoop and five enemies between the two. Like him, I am aware of the confidence that role players require to contribute in a playoff game, when the pressure can be felt through the TV screen, and that said confidence can only be achieved outside the bench. I remember John Paxson and Steve Kerr, and Steve Kerr again but in black and white, and a big-nosed rookie with a timely steal and a dunk. They needed the minutes, the touches and the rhythm to do what they did, and smart teams know that.

After all, they are not all called Robert Horry.

Tap-dancing stats

Scott Sereday can make statistics sing to his tune. He can make them pirouette and tango – he can teach them to cha-cha. Scott seeks the end of the thread that forms the Gordian knot of basketball metrics, so that he can pull from it and unravel what we can only hope to cut. Me, I hammer stats into funny shapes. Scott is an artist, I’m a shameless utilitarian. And yet, the truth is simple: stats help me cope. When I’m at the peak of my uncertainty (and few things push me to the precipice like the start of the playoffs), I turn to the comfort of a spreadsheet to seek confirmation that my eyes did not lie – the Spurs are actually good, they are still good, despite, in spite of.

Thesis: a) The Spurs enter the playoffs with their starters rested and playing efficiently, and their role players primed for the postseason challenge; b) The Spurs achieved the second best record in the regular season through an offense that went deeper than any other team; c) The playoffs lend themselves to star-centric offenses, and this will benefit the Spurs more than any other team.

Let’s see numbers:

What you see here is the evolution of the Spurs’ offense through the years, starting in Manu’s second season (in which the Big Three consolidated into the dominant three-man unit of this team, and thus established its identity as we know it today) and finishing in the current regular season. The red curve indicates the percentage of the Spurs’ total points that were scored by the team’s 6 highest scorers that season; the blue curves indicates the percentage scored by the 3 highest – in the Spurs’s case, for the seasons shown, the Big Three of Tim, Tony and Manu.

From seasons 2003-04 to 2006-07, the curves follow a roughly horizontal path, and extension of the metronome-like precision of the Spurs teams since Duncan’s rookie year. The Spurs’ last championship season was also the last truly excellent lineup both in defense and in offense, with an offense that relied heavily on the Big Three but had serviceable backup scorers on Brent Barry and Michael Finley. Then, 2007-08 happened.

An aging Finley and Bowen combo and a series of absolute scoring zeros on the bench created a subpar offensive team, forcing the Big Three to shoulder a bigger proportion of the scoring load than ever before and leading to a Western Conference Finals loss against the Lakers. The trend continued the following year, but Roger Mason’s appearance and several injuries made the team go 6-deep for the entire season. This, combined with Bowen’s limited minutes and the inclusion of matador-defense-stalwart Drew Gooden, led to an ever-so-painful first round exit against the Mavericks. The team was fading fast and lost a big portion of its very soul when Bruce Bowen stopped playing. Something had to be done.

In 2009-10, the help we needed came in the way of Richard Jefferson, a developing George Hill and Blair’s chaotic entrance in this ACL-driven league. The stifling defense that had marked the Spurs for a decade had left, never to return, and the Suns exposed its weaknesses during their second round. Coach Popovich was committed to a change in pace, and this season you can see in the graphs that the offense has never been as balanced. Less than 47% of the points scored came from the Big Three – and the Spurs are a better team for it. The Spurs enter these playoffs with what is possibly its deepest team of all time, people. It’s a brave new world.

The following graph complements the explanation given, showing total points instead of percentages.

The Spurs’ quest from offensive ineptitude in 2007-08 to the second highest scoring average in the league during the current season is clearly seen in the red curve, with its meteoric ascent and rapid metamorphosis into a jumpshooting team. However, even as the team learned to break 100 points on a day-to-day basis, the involvement of the Big Three in the offense as scorers has never been lower, while their assist rates per 36 minutes are all at or close to their career highs.

Someone told me that Gary Neal has made more triples than Ray Allen in his rookie season, while shooting higher percentages. I close my eyes and I see Tony driving to the basket and kicking to him – or Bonner, or Hill in the corner. It has happened all season, and it will happen again now. This is what they do, what they’ve learnt to do, what Pop has spent an entire regular season drilling into them.

I would like to look now into the composition and scoring responsibilities of some of those 6-teams graphed above:

San Antonio’s 2006-07 squad relied heavily on our three best players – not a bad strategy when those players are Manu, Tim and Tony, I know. But after Manu, the Spurs were left with journeymen and former semi-stars, which allowed defenses to focus on stopping them. This team won mainly through defense, but win they did. 2008-09 shows the nadir of our team depth, with the Spurs relying heaving on Mason’s initial scoring explosion, Finley’s swan song and Bonner’s dubitative outside shooting, a formula for disaster.

Now, in 2010-11, younger, more versatile players have joined our roster, allowing the Big Three to rest and Coach Pop to play Tim Duncan for the fewest minutes of his career. Whoever thinks that Tim couldn’t put up 18 points per game in this season under a less careful coach is simply in denial.

Tim Duncan is our golf handicap. He showed as much today, in the first half when we looked for him.

One more graph before I overstate my welcome. This one shows the percentage of points scored by a team’s best 3 and best 6 players, for the teams I arbitrarily considered to be contenders – and Memphis.

The difference in approaches is clear. No one has asked its 7-12 players to do more, do it as often or consistently. The experienced stars have been the bow more than the arrow, while retaining their own lethality. What else will the Miami Bosh-LeBron-Wade Cerberus do in the playoffs that they haven’t done in the regular season? Where’s their extra gear, their ace in the hole? They can only play those three players for 48 minutes, they can only take every shot available. Which of its role players will be in rhythm when the ball swings to him? Who’s their Steve Kerr?

It’s a balance. Older teams rest their star players because they have to, because the regular season is too long and too demanding for the physique of most 30-somethings. But if they’re still able to shoulder the scoring load, if they still have it in them, then it means that we haven’t seen all their team can do.

In the playoffs, starters play more minutes and the rotation tightens. There’s a jump forward in quality because surer, more veteran hands take care of the ball. I believe that no jump will be larger than the Spurs, despite their age, because of their age.

Despite our traditional game 1 loss against the Grizzlies. The same game 1 loss we’ve soldiered through in the last three championship seasons.

There is no Hercules

The Hydra was a mythological serpentine water monster which had many heads, all of them dangerous, capable of vomiting poisonous fumes that could quickly kill any mortal. Fighting the Hydra was an exercise in futility, because for each head cut off by any upstart hero, it grew two more. Looking for images to describe the Spurs, this one, maybe obvious, came to my mind.

More than ever before, San Antonio will rely on its myriad of weapons to climb to the top, and when Manu misses a game, two players will have to take his place, not as good as the original but just as fierce. Bonner will make his triples like he did today, and next time the opponent will stay down. Neal will do crazy Neal things. Hill will learn how to throw his floater over Randolph and Gasol.

There’s a basic rule in basketball: it’s easier to contain one player than to contain two, and it’s easier to contain two than three. I wonder if anyone will be up to the task of containing all the heads in this Spurs monster for seven long games, I really do. And yes, I know, you don’t have to say it: Hercules kills the Hydra in the story.

Time to write our own.

  • DorieStreet

    I guess in NBA terms, 9 players in rotation is deep; that is how the Spurs go. (Dismiss Splitter’s 60 games–too much deviation/disparity in when he appeared in games during the season along with minutes per game). Bonner, Blair, Hill & Neal augument the starting 5.
    In today’s game Bonner & Blair pretty much hit their averages -Bonner @ 24 minutes vs 22 reg. season; Blair @ 22 minutes vs 21 reg. season. Some of their minutes will go to McDyess (horrible game) only 13 minutes logged. Can he and Duncan go 33-36 minutes each game this series and be effective enough to win?
    Our reserves are going to have to produce big time on the road in addition to rebounding Wednesday @ the AT&T Center.

  • Titletown99030507d

    No they can’t go that many minutes that’s why they need to give Splitter some run while they sit. Put him in their with Blair or Bonner for about 10 minutes at least is all I’m asking for. What can’t Splitter do what Bonner and Blair do. He’ll get his rebounds, put the body on the big to make him shoot over him without clear view, slow them down some and even draw the all important fouls- (the intangible that he brings) to put their guys in penalty and allowing our guys to finish strong at the rim with confidence. And lastly he can get you 6-8pts in the time span. Hell Blair got 9 in 22 minutes. In 10 minutes Splitter can go to the rim and get a combined 6-8 points from buckets and free throws. Yes he can. We have nothing to lose but another game if they don’t try.

  • Rad E. Cool

    Excellent piece, good to have you writing for this great site. I also love graphs as much as you seem to do, so I’m liking it even more.

    In regards to the theory of the Spurs going deeper than 6 and thus being better, I’m not sure if that will necessarily be the case. I mean, it is good we have dependable guys down the line, as this “top 6″ can shift from series to series depending on the match-ups. [On a side note, I thought some Splitter would be good to combat the size of the Grizzlies – have him guard Gasol as their Spanish league and FIBA-ball background may mean he can contain him a bit better.]

    I’ve read a really interesting study that suggests that when it comes to the playoffs, the performance of the top 6 is all that matters and the rest of the rotation do not contribute to wins. It makes sense as if it weren’t for fatigue, teams would play their starting 5 the whole game, maybe with another guy to give them a different look from time to time, with the others just there to spell the starters if they’re in foul trouble and hopefully not make too many mistakes. Anyway, this study is also interesting in that it provides, based on analysis of all past champions and runner-ups, the make up of the team that is required to win. The conditions are as follows:

    1) Win 52 or more games (with ’95 Rockets the outlier)
    2) Have at least one “superstar”, or two “stars” – the more the better, in the top 6.
    3) Have at least one above average big in your top 6 (to rule out the Nash Suns).

    Now this analysis uses “Wins Produced” as its definition of superstar, star, and above average big, but I think that this would apply if you had some other metric or even a “gut” feel, if you had reservations about wins produced. Anyway, I think whatever your determination of players’ worth, you could put these Spurs as contenders. However, this would also diminish the idea that our depth is our strength.

    The study I refer to is done by Arturo Galletti, with a good introduction to these concepts and links to the determination of the core concepts here: http://arturogalletti.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/the-nba-playoff-preview-and-the-picks-part-1-just-the-facts/

  • http://twitter.com/PolterChrist Manu Ginobili

    Spot on. When Pop plays Blair over 20 minutes on Tuesday, I’m going to be pissed.

    He was a major factor in the loss. He had over half of the blocked attempts taken by the Spurs, and I think they might have missed one or two. He didn’t play team ball, as evidenced by his multitude of stupid shots at the rim against multiple memphis defenders.

    But what’s worse than the fact that he got blocked so often is the fact that he didn’t realize it and adjust. There was one play in particular, maybe in the third quarter, where he had the ball just below the FT line, and as the ENTIRE FUCKING GRIZZ TEAM collapsed on the paint, he just took a step forward and tried a floater, only to have it slapped down by Gasol or Allen.

    Splitter might not have the same offensive game that Blair supposedly has, but he won’t WASTE possessions trying to put up points. He gets that if the defense is collapsing, you throw it out to the three point line or to a cutter, just like the Spurs have done all season.

    Finally, outside of Mcdyess (who took good, Mcdyessian-shots, but missed them) he had the worst PPP of any Spur, plus 5 fouls. And he didn’t add anything that Splitter couldn’t: 6 rebounds (5 offensive, mostly from two bobble-sessions, AND ONLY 1 defensive board), no assists, no blocks.

    I know that when he’s playing well it looks great, because he’s fast and he does have a nice touch, but he vastly overrates his chances on every single possession, even if the evidence shows he can’t get it done. That’s team poison, and if he keeps logging minutes over Splitter, I might stop saying that Pop’s a better coach than Phil. Given what we’ve seen, it is absolutely insane to let Blair play.

  • Peter

    Nice piece, looking forward to more like it. Feels weird to puff up the team after a loss, but I’m in.

    And to drive your point home that the Spurs have both stars and depth:
    Only 21 players in the playoffs have a PER above 20 (the “all-star level” I guess, though its pretty much offense only);
    Only five teams have more than one of those guys;
    Only the Spurs and Lakers have 3.

    Now just got to get out of the first round . . .

  • http://profiles.google.com/dmenendez David Menéndez

    Pretty interesting, Rad, thanks for the link. I’ll read it later.

    I don’t have much to add to your points, since I agree with most of them, but I think that for a team like the Spurs, with three players that clearly take care of the ball-handling and passing ability, the most important skill for the deep-bench role players (and this is partly true for every team) is to knock down the open jumpers others create for them. However, there can be no sharpshooters without experience and confidence – which is why we always ask Pop to play Tiago, by the way, because even if he’s not ready now, we want him to be ready soon, eventually, someday.

    Player number 7 might not contribute to games – until he’s open beyond the arc, with the ball on his hands and the clock ticking down.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dmenendez David Menéndez

    Hm. On the one hand, yes, Tiago should’ve seen some minutes, especially when Blair and Dyess both had 4 fouls, and everybody knew that the 5th was coming soon with those referees.

    On the other, I don’t think that Blair had such a bad game. His initial awful turnaround and blocked shots probably gave everyone a bad impression, but to me he was clearly a positive influence. We actually went on a 12-4 run to start the second quarter with him and Bonner while Gasol rested, and that’s all I ask of him. I would’ve definitely chosen him for to close the quarter until he got the 6th, in fact, over McDyess’ awful shooting night.

    Oh, and if you think Tiago can make points on _free throws_ of all things… :)

  • NYC

    Wow. That’s a pretty good analysis there.

  • NYC

    I had to look up the word “vertiginous.” Good job. If your command of English is this impressive, I shutter to think what obscure words you’re dropping in Spanish.