Gambling from within 20 feet
Gregg Popovich has never been much of a risk taker. Granted, with Tim Duncan as a centerpiece, Pop never really had reason to take a risk. He was gonna be able to trot out a top five roster every season, and the star at the top of that roster would always behave, listen, and produce.
Pop has always been an innovative coach, but he prefers to build off the progress of others. Evolutionary innovation, not revolutionary innovation. Teams have run twin tower sets before, but Pop ran those sets to perfection. Other teams played iso bog ball, but Pop did it with a two-way legend at the helm. Some teams whip the ball around a pace-and-space motion offense, but Pop did it with two of the best passers that we’ve ever seen at their respective positions.
Now, though, Popovich is on his own. The league is going one way, following the pace-and-space example that he personally helped set only a few short years ago, while Pop has cast himself onto an island in the opposite direction. The island? A post-apocalyptic wasteland occupied only by nostalgic retirees and disillusioned players of an era long gone. Coach Popovich is building his team in the long-forgotten No Man’s Land of 21st-century basketball: the mid range.
Each of the Spurs’ top five projected scorers this year do their best work shooting the ball from within 20 feet. As far as my toilet research tells me, they’re the only team with even three such guys in the top five.
Theoretically, it actually makes a ton of sense. For now, anyway. Current NBA defenses are built to eagerly direct offenses to the mid range, to the least mathematically efficient shots in the game. The Spurs won’t exclusively live there, obviously, but every single player on that roster will gleefully hit a free 18 footer, and they’ll make it often enough that defenses will have to adjust in unfamiliar ways.
And that’s the genius of it. When defenses do adjust, this Spurs roster is perfectly capable of switching back into Beautiful Game mode, where they’ll hit a ton of open threes and layups and not even break a sweat. And, to top it all off, the whole team is more than smart enough to be able to autonomously switch back and forth between play styles. The Spurs have six (!) guys who have averaged more than 18 points per game at some point during their careers. They all know how to get buckets, and most can still do it in their aged-up forms.
No plan is flawless, however, and this gameplan is no exception. Teams that zag where the league zigs have always struggled mightily in the playoffs. It’s no coincidence that many of the league’s recent truly revolutionary coaches, like Mike D’Antoni, Donnie Nelson, and George Karl, never won rings while courtside. Often, when defenses finally get that chance in April to sit down and study a unique offense, that offense starts to fall apart at the seams. The same advantages that carry you through the regular season start to bite you in the ass, and gravity starts to finally pull on that roster that overperformed all year.
See, that’s the problem with unique teams. They’re unique for a reason. They’re unique because they don’t have the talent to truly contend in any other way. And, in the playoffs, where talent becomes more important than ever, things start to come apart. An example would be the Atlanta Hawks team from a couple years ago with four “all stars”. Or the Andre Iguodala-led Denver Nuggets that unwittingly kicked off this Warriors bioweapon that we all hate so much. I love the Spurs, so it pains me to say it, but San Antonio will be vulnerable as well.
Most of those teams fell because they didn’t have a go-to superstar, and the Spurs actually do have a guy like that. Kawhi is fucking bonkers in a way that nobody expected, and he could carry any number of teams into contention. But these Spurs aren’t built around Kawhi.
A Kawhi-lead team would have a loping, physical point guard, a bouncy rim protector, and shooters galore. The Spurs, because of their commitment to their guys of yesteryear, could never have a team like that. So they built this squad around Parker and Ginobili because they are the guys who need the most help to perform adequately.
This isn’t some uncommon phenomenon either. Teams build around their second or third options all the time. The old Thunder offense was designed around Russell Westbrook, even when Durant was in town, simply because Russ could not star in a secondary off-ball role. The Grit n’ Grind Grizzlies ran the ball through Marc Gasol, despite Zach Randolph and Mike Conley both being better scoring options, because that was the only way the team could mesh. Good teams work with what they’ve got, and that’s what the Spurs have done.
So, come playoff time, the system will probably break down, and it’ll be Kawhi and LMA against the world again. And, hell, I don’t exactly hate those odds. Regardless, most Spurs fans wouldn’t trade it for the world. San Antonio sports fans will never have to worry about seeing Tony Parker suit up for the Suns or have to look at a bunch of frat bros rocking Tim Duncan Magic jerseys. There was a time, before Kawhi really broke out, that the San Antonio faithful were perfectly content struggling for a few years post-Duncan because it was just the cost of winning so much for so long. The fact that this team even stands a chance is just icing on that glorious cake.
Gregg Popovich is the greatest basketball coach that I’ve ever seen and he’ll get the most out of this team, whether that be a second-round exit or a championship banner. Somehow, the old adage always prevails and even the most confident of Warriors fan should be at least a little nervous.
After all, there are only three truths in life. Death, taxes, and 50 wins for the Spurs.