The Spurs, the Heat, and system-smart teams


There is no doubt the Miami Heat have something the San Antonio Spurs will eventually crave. Namely, superstars in their prime.  But that day is not today, and the Spurs are just fine with their mess of old veterans, forgotten free agents and draft overlooks. In many ways, the Spurs are the antithesis of the Heat.

The Spurs’ recent glut of wins has been far less impressive than their early season triumphs. Their model for winning reduces to two simple ingredients: the Spurs execute better than anyone in basketball and they rely on tremendous depth. The execution part is well-established, and discussed in more detail in a companion post Jesse Blanchard is running this morning, but their depth is less celebrated. Game-to-game, it’s difficult to guess who will lead the team in scoring on a particular night.

The Spurs finished the Houston game with eight players in double figures.

And these two things—the ability to execute late and depth—are precisely the things the Miami Heat most sorely lack. But I think we need to make one further distinction. When it comes to execution, it’s not enough to categorize a player as intelligent or unintelligent. There are deeper levels of basketball intelligence.   There is knowledge of the game as the game, and there is the more refined knowledge associated with a particular way of playing.

After San Antonio’s March 4 win against Miami, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James showed they understand what makes San Antonio so good.

“They do a great job of forcing triggers,” LeBron James opined. “They know exactly what you’re going to do defensively. Whatever you do or whatever you try to take away, they have a counter for. You take away the roll on the pick-and-rolls and they’ll hit the guy in the corner for the three. If you try to take away the threes they hit the guy going to the rim. They’ve seen every situation and they’ve seen every defense and right now they’re just clicking on all cylinders. Everyone on their team has confidence. They all believe that when they get the ball they can make a play to help their team.”

But I want to say something more concrete about the Spurs’ particular brand of execution. What they do is not so much predicated on a high basketball IQ, it’s predicated on having a high basketball IQ within a particular system.

I like to describe the Spurs as system-smart. The Spurs’ program requires guys with a great basketball IQ, but their success requires something more. That something more is system-smarts. If a high basketball IQ is medical school, being system-smart is akin to committing oneself to the intricacies of a particular medical field. It’s knowing that one is a heart surgeon and not a brain surgeon, and, more than that, becoming the best practiced heart surgeon in the country.

System-smart teams are a slow bake. They take time to develop. The Heat aren’t there yet, even though they are running much of the same stuff Pat Riley used to run. The players have not had enough court time together. Most of their players are learning the Heat’s system for the first time this season. I don’t doubt that most of them are already smart basketball players.

System-smart teams are a collection of players with shared history—a shared history with one another, and a shared history with a system.

Wade, again from March 4, “The Spurs are the best team. They’re healthy. You’ve got guys that know the system and have been playing together for a long time.”

“In my eight years here we’ve only been close one time and that’s the time we won,” he continued after their recent loss to San Antonio. “They always come out and blitz us this way.”

LeBron James voiced a similar history going up against the Spurs’ program. “I’ve figured out throughout my years that when you go down huge on the Spurs’ home court, it’s very rare that you’re going to come back and win the game.”

Eight years is a long time. But, amazingly, what San Antonio does predates Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.

For all the genius of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, their commitment to doing the same thing over and over and over and over is under-appreciated.

I’m not Larry Brown. I don’t believe there is one right way to play. San Antonio’s commitment to their program and the cultivation of system-smarts is not a Holy Grail scenario. They haven’t discovered the one true path to basketball immortality. Their brilliance is a faithful commitment to a system that works.

The Spurs are like an old grizzled bluesman who only knows three guitar chords.  He’s limited by what he knows, but he knows what he knows so well that when he plays those three chords, he plays something everyone in the room can feel. The Heat are like a collection of Juilliard standouts whom, masters they may be, have never actually played guitar. It’s not as easy as handing them a new instrument and saying, “Here you go, it’s E, B, and A.”

So when the Spurs rotate the ball tonight and find Matt Bonner open for a corner three, remember that someone has been filling that corner for longer than most guys have been in the league. Of San Antonio’s 54 victories this season, how many has that longevity accounted for?

Note: After publishing this post, I noticed that the Heat Index’s Michael Wallace beat me to the punch by, I don’t know, 45 minutes or so. Great minds, and all.

  • Colin

    Good piece. Well written.

  • Alix Babaie

    More of the naysayers should read this, understand this and take heed in your words.

    The Spurs are pacing themselves right now, 54 wins and closing in on HCA throughout, without getting anyone gassed or hurt.

    Once the playoffs commence, watch this team tighten up the D and run the O to perfection.

    This is a team of destiny, LA can kiss my ass.

  • SpurINhouston

    The Heat Index @ ESPN wrote another article about how the Heat admire the Spurs’ quiet dynasty vs. their “Heatles Hoopla”. Check it out here:

  • ThatBigGuy

    E, A, B chords are for worship songs: sounds nice, easy to play, but ultimately forgettable. The Spurs are E7, A7, B7: gritty, meaningful, deep. That’s the difference between the Spurs (perhaps the Lakers too) and the rest of the league. You can make nice music with the same basic shords, but pull one finger off one string, and you start feeding the soul.

    The thrill isn’t gone yet.

  • Mike T

    On the local broadcasts, Sean Elliott jokes that Bonner, Hill, Jefferson, etc. owe him royalties whenever they hit a corner three. The Spurs system really has been in place a long time. However, it is also amazing how the Spurs have tweaked the system this year in order to find success in different ways than in the past. Same system, different emphasis (looking for quicker, easier buckets).

  • Peter

    Nice piece, like the specialization analogy, because having basketball smarts is only the first step in the Spurs’ system.

    And who doesn’t love a good B7?

  • Chris

    The only team that played the tune better was the Stockton-Malone-(Sloan) Utah Jazz. Man, as much as I hated them, they would slice you to death with their execution.

  • NYC

    @ Tim

    So it’s been a few years since I took Harmony and Counterpoint in college, and I never advanced too deep into it, but E-B-A strikes me as being very strange.

    That would be a I-V-IV progression, which seems to violate tonal resolution in my limited understanding. The I-IV-V, however, is very common. Did you mean E-A-B, as ThatBigGuy references, or did you have a specific blues ditty in mind? Please share, as you have piqued my interest, and I would like to further investigate.


    Um… so to bring it back to Spurs basketball: yes, I agree our Spurs have been playing a tried-and-true I-IV-V tune for some time now.

    – Tim Duncan is the tonic, because he is the tonal center upon which the team is built. He’s nicknamed the Big Fundamental, for Pete’s sake; it can’t be any more obvious.

    – Tony Parker is the subdominant, because he is the motor that drives the team for much of the game, setting it up for the dominant…

    – …who is Manu Ginobili, the closer.

    My question to all of you is, Where do Jefferson, Bonner, Hill, Blair, etc. fit into this musical soup? Who’s the blue note?

  • Timothy Varner

    Oh, I know nothing about music. I just chose those chords randomly.

    Sorry. Have I pissed on my own analogy? I do that a lot.

  • NYC

    ^ Just say that you meant to type EBA and you’re good.

  • NYC

    * EAB

    D’oh. Nothing like screwing up your own point, eh?

  • DorieStreet

    @NYC, Tim

    A twist on the musical analogy:

    During his latter years (decades) of touring, Chuck Berry had no regular band with him. His agent and/or inner circle would assemble local blues artists on his scheduled stops in advance. If they knew Berry’s music inside out, they became his band for that night’s performance.

    Tim, Tony & Manu= Chuck Berry; every player on the roster from 2004 on=the assembled band members selected to produce the “hits” (champioships) that the ‘Core 3’ started.

    Jefferson, etc are the current “band”; the “blue” note could be any of them–depending on who’s “listening”. Some say it’s Blair; TD=Best EVER states that it’s IndyG (lost his defensive lockdown game).
    If this does not make sense, that’s ok–no music in my background.

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  • ThatBigGuy

    I’d like to see Lakers’ fans discuss the parallels between their team and music theory.

    “Kobe = Tupac! Lolz, haterz gonna hate!”

  • NYC


    Makes sense to me. As for the blue note, I was thinking more along the lines of augmented 2nd/diminished 3rd, but your take is interesting.

  • ITGuy

    Well I agree with one thig: “LA can kiss my ass.”

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • Titletown99030507d

    @Mike T,

    Elliot went home broke today.