Superstars and the Spurs system
The remarkable renaissance of Tim Duncan world-beater in these playoffs is due to equal parts offseason diligence on Duncan’s behalf, and the San Antonio Spurs tandem of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford crafting a system and roster to accommodate his remaining strengths.
In a postseason in which aged players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have had to work harder than ever to find their offense, Popovich has tweaked his offense so as to make the game easier for his aging stars, and in turn, easier for their supporting cast.
Heading into this Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the key advantage afforded the Thunder is the explosive capabilities of their younger stars. There aren’t many 35-point, 20-rebound performances left in Duncan’s knees, if any at all. The same holds true for Manu Ginobili.
But with a system built around ball movement, cutting, and shooters galore, with a roster featuring players capable of doing each of those tasks, the Spurs stand to be competitive ad infinitum so long as its stars retain functional athleticism.
In this equal opportunity offense Popovich does not ask his stars to put up gaudy numbers, only that they create a sliver of an advantage for the rest of the team to exploit.
For Ginobili it means retaining enough quickness to turn the corner on a hedging big man in order to gain the sort of four-on-three advantages his brilliant passing can exploit. For Duncan, it means being mobile enough to punish defenders for a misstep, and enough brakes and fluidity in his knees to perform a countermove once defenders try to recover.
The offense still runs through them, and Tony Parker, but in entirely different ways than the NBA is accustomed to seeing from its stars. A conference away LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have shared 40-point outbursts. Across the court, the Thunder have three players who will be relied on producing similar feats if they are to advance to the NBA Finals.
A series ago, the Spurs were handedly winning games even when their best player, Parker, hovered around the 10-point mark.
Perhaps the greatest evolution of the Spurs over the past two years has been the purging of nearly all specialists. The days of placing standstill shooters and pick and pop big men around Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker are over. Between Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, and Boris Diaw the Spurs have a multitude of shooters that can also get to the rim and make quick decisions–and passes–on the move.
Our own Andrew McNeill called it Total Basketball, and it’s a pretty accurate description.
The role of the superstar in San Antonio is not necessarily to dominate, but to initiate. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili no longer need to work their way through a mob of defenders, they only need to attract them.
Their primary goal is to break down the opposing team just enough to get the defense into their rotations. If they are able to accomplish this initial action early enough in the shot clock (and this is key), it leaves rotating defenders chasing ghosts and will ultimately end in a layup or wide open three-pointer.
It has long been accepted that elite players win NBA championships, but by blasting the championship window open around their aging stars, the Spurs are making a case it can be won with elite management.