The Spurs as Total Basketball
Last week after Game 1 of the Spurs’ series with the Clippers, I joined fellow Texas State Bobcat alum Brant Freeman on his New Braunfels radio podcast. On the show I mentioned something about the flexibility of the Spurs and the players’ abilities to fulfill multiple roles. This got me thinking about a post from Tom Ziller and Bethlehem Shoals on AOL Fanhouse from a couple of summers ago about the postional revolution in basketball and the Dutch Total Football teams.
What exactly is Total Football? Well, here’s the Wikipedia description, because I wasn’t born in the 70s.
“Total Football” is the label given to an influential tactical theory of association football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. It was pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax from 1969 to 1973, and further used by the Netherlands National Football Team in the 1974 FIFA World Cup. It was invented by Rinus Michels, a famous Dutch football trainer/coach (who was the coach of both Ajax and the Netherlands national team at the time). In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team’s intended organisational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in a nominal position is the goalkeeper.
I’ve thought about this Total Football characteristic off and on over the last couple of years and how it relates to the Spurs. The San Antonio offense has three designations for players: points guards, wings and bigs. And really, the difference between point guards and wings is pretty small. Essentially they’re the same thing. One simply brings the ball up and initiates the offense, but they usually fulfill the same roles on the floor.
All three of the wing positions are interchangeable, as are the two big man positions. For a player like Kawhi Leonard, a wing who plays small ball 4 from time to time, he must learn the entire offense, positions 1-5. This is an underrated aspect of Kawhi’s rookie season, that he’s picked up all of this from the offense despite having having a very limited training camp. It’s also a significant reason Richard Jefferson struggled so much in his first year with the team. He had to learn every position in the offense in a season where the Spurs used the full playbook (they’ve scaled down some this season because of the limited preparation and practice time).
With the addition of Boris Diaw, this Total Basketball thing has really taken shape. The have always prided themselves on being a very flexible team and Bobo takes that one step further. His passing skills, which might be better than most of the wings on the team, and ability to stretch the floor with his jumper has created a team in which players can essentially move and replace each other. When teams trap Tony Parker on the pick-and-roll and he gets it to Diaw near the top of the key, helps the Spurs retain their structure while effectively taking two defenders out of the play.
Total Football, in its purest form, was pro-active, not reactive, based on the interchange of position and hard pressing. The idea was that the pitch should be made as big as possible when in possession, and as small as possible when out of possession, squeezed by a high offside line.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Spurs use the court like Native Americans killing buffalo when when they have the ball. Leave nothing unused. San Antonio’s offense stretches the defense until it’s busting at the seams trying to create as much space as possible for cutters to find driving and passing lanes and to allow shooters every possible split second to get a 3-pointer off. The Spurs will initiate the high pick-and-roll several steps away from the top of the key, just give Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker multiple angles and a full head of steam.
Defensively, the Spurs pride themselves on making entire sections of the court unusable. Usually those sections are near the rim and 3-point line. They say to the opposing team, you can have everything here between nine feet and the 3-point line. Everything else is property of Spurs basketball. It’s why the Spurs have a capable defense despite have a lot of defenders who are limited athletically.
Total Football was a structuralist mode of play, players deriving their meaning, their significance, from their interrelationship with other players. Nothing was fixed; everything was fluid, to be negotiated on the pitch.
This is the main argument we have when someone calls the Spurs boring. The San Antonio offense is the epitome of fluidity, just check out Kevin Arnovitz’s post from last week about the Spurs’ “Motion Weak” play. Everything about that play is a movement followed by read-and-react. The Spurs rely on every single players having a sharp basketball IQ and the ability to execute, more so than athleticism and explosiveness.
The last two or three seasons have seen a fundamental shift in the way the Spurs do business. From a stifling defensive team to an open style that should be beautiful for any person with even a passing basketball knowledge to appreciate. Some have compared it to Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less offense in Phoenix Suns’ heyday, but that’s only a part of it. There’s something more. It’s something Total.