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.

  • Nicolas

    Being a football fan from Argentina (or soccer, however you want to call it), I’m so pleased to read such a great analysis of Spurs’ Motion Weak play and putting that togheter with the concept of Total Football created by the Netherlands in the 70s.

    There are many similarities between this team and that one who made ​​history with his style of play 40 years ago. The concept of “every player can stay in every position” is beautiful. And being able to see that same concept in the Spurs is great.

    Great work!

    Greetings from Argentina!!!

  • Shawn

    2 Thoughts:

    (1). It’s scary to consider the already efficient Spurs using a condensed playbook this year. This could mean new wrinkles during the WCF (not to mention next season). I wouldn’t want to be an opposing scout as Popovich has mastered this craft.

    (2). The total football idea seems more authentic to the Spurs system than the tired “Spurs get a player who fits a niche” narrative. Those niches typically were 3 point threat and/or defender. That was the Spurs of years past, but this team is different. There are too many guys who can play off the ball, put in on the floor, initiate the offense, spread the court, and defend multiple positions. Most teams are fortunate to have a few players with this fluidity. The Spurs seem loaded with guys who possess multiple skill sets. As Pop has displayed with his core rotation in the postseason, all 9-10 players may excel at one thing but bring a lil’ something else to the table.

  • Stijl

    One of the better pieces written. I’m sure more are to come. And agreed with the resemblances of “Total Football”.

    To me, I think it’s been a long process of development into the somewhat perfection of execution that we are now witnessing. Which may hold proof to Varner’s piece that even after the departure of Duncan the Spurs may remain competitive. We’ll see…I’m still not sold on the premise it would happen but, “Total Football” may well be alive and current in the Spurs system to warrant Varner’s thoughts coming to fruition.

    Still…great talent is needed. As well as having really good talent to back up great talent in case great talent is somehow disabled or in less than top shape.

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  • SAJKinBigD

    Wow. Great piece! Such an appropriate analogy. Wonder if Pop is knowingly using it or just came to it on his own…
    Just another reason to love our Spurs!
    Go SPURS GO!
    Oh, and for the non-American footballers: GO GUNNERS!

  • ananuri

    Great writing, and I agree that only system would not do it. Yes, you create the system that fits your players, and it seems that almost any Spur can create the shot for himself, shoot threes, and defend. But you do need stars to be great, and I’m not sure if Spurs will be great (even with the same system) after Duncan. That Dutch team was led by Johan Cruyff, the best player of that time, and he had Neeskens and Rensenbrink with him. After Cruyff retired, that team was very good, but no more great. I’d love to see Spurs win championships as long as possible, but doubt for it to happen after Duncan retires, unless we somehow replace that talent. We probably still would be a very good team, though.
    So I’m enjoying this run as much as I can, and hope Duncan and Ginobili have 2-3 more great years in them to keep Spurs contenders.

  • rowen

    there might be 5 bigs in the NBA that could play the stretch 4/5 in this system, all of whom have off-the-chart basketball IQs.

    Duncan, Garnett, Horford, Bogut, and Pau.

    i left off KLove and Diaw because i don’t they are strong enough to consistently defend centers on the low block.

  • Kenny Laurie

    Interesting read. For a while I have wondered why teams and organisations have never thought to have shooters and passers in every position. The thing defences hate the most is having to think. If every player has the same skill set then the defence thinks.
    It really is remarkable how true Pop’s words are when he says basketball is simple game.
    Great football analogy and as an Englishman I always appreciate the writers on this site (and San Antonio fans in general) have a good handle on football and its nuances.

    PS love all the writing on the site.

  • Jake

    Great article. I’ve been tossing around the idea of the Spurs as the Barca of basketball, a team based on intricate teamwork, precise crisp passing, and a couple generationally transcendent players. But I think the total football analogy is more apt.

  • NYC

    I see your point, Andrew, but I have to disagree with you on one thing.

    Our pg position is not interchangeable with the wings. This may be true when Neal, Green, Manu, even Mills are handling the ball, but the vast majority of the time it is Parker. Would you say about 70% of the time it is Parker handling the ball and initiating the offense? And Parker’s ability to run the pnr, penetrate, and collapse defenses is not duplicated by any other except Manu.

    If Parker goes down, we are screwed. No other player on this team could carry the offense through the rest of the playoffs at the 1 except for maybe Manu. And I don’t see Popovich starting Manu at the 1. He would use Neal/Mills/Green and our offense would suffer a significant drop off (as happens usually when Parker is on the bench). So in essence we are acknowledging that 1)Parker is unique on this team and not replaceable, and 2)Parker is our one true pg. (Mills is a pg too, but he is replaceable.)

    I do see your point that we have more wings who handle the ball than perhaps any other team. As mentioned, Neal (who is really an undersized 2 and better playing off the ball), Green, Manu, and Jackson all handle the ball to some degree. So in that sense, our wings can be pressed into any position 1-3. But really, Parker is the only one who can play the 1 at a high level. If we didn’t have Parker, we would go out and get another player who is especially adept at playing pg, not just press any wing player into the position. Therefore, the pg on our team is not really interchangeable if we expect to have the same degree of success.

  • Gideon

    Nice article!

    Funny is, that Rinus Michels was also a sports teacher on a school in Amsterdam. He knew the game of basketball and introduced some aspects of it in the game of soccer to create his Total Football…

    The wingplayers are like in a basketball fast break, with the striker as a trailer. The full court pressure, man to man defense, everybody playing offense and defense, even creating triangles on the pitch 😉

  • NicoRC

    NYC, I totally agree with your point, Tony Parker’s ability to penetrate and finish anywhere in the paint opens so much space for the Spurs’ shooters. With the way Tony is scoring and passing this year, I think he has a very strong argument for best PG of 2012, and should get the 1st team All-NBA, although he probably won’t.

    I like the analogy of the Spurs and Total Football, but and even better comparison is indoors football. I used to play basketball, and now that I am totally into indoors football (too old for all that jumping lol) I try apply the same concepts an principles.

    Like basketball, it has 5 players (the goalkeeper is often an integral part of the offense) in a much smaller space. All the players are involved at any point of the offensive possession, and good, clean passing is the key. You never see isolation plays in which 4 guys are standing around while the fifth goes solo. Even while dribbling, it’s crucial to surround the dribbler with two or more passing choices so you keep the defense guessing and open up space for a high percentage shoot. A good indoors football team is never static, there are constant rotations, cuttings and guys interchanging position. In short, the key is to create space through movement and, in defense, control the critical nodes of the pitch, the danger zones so to speak. Check out some indoors football tactics in youtube, you’ll see the same guiding principles that make the Spurs so successful.

  • Tess


    I agree that the thought of what Pop could do with an expanded playbook is a scary thought.

    If we can get all our key guys back next year, there’s no telling what kind of new wrinkles can be installed. We’ve only scratched the surface of plays that take advantage of Diaw’s sheer versatility, and as Leonard continues to grow, there are a lot of possibilities for him, as well. I’m enjoying this season immensely and I certainly don’t want to push the fast forward button or anything, but it should be a lot of fun.

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