Why are the Spurs so Good--and so Underrated?Now that the "Melo-drama" is over (and Carmelo Anthony has hardly turned the New York Knicks into a superpower, though his departure seems to have revitalized the Denver Nuggets), it would be refreshing if basketball media members turned their attention to the most underreported story of the season: the unexpected dominance of the San Antonio Spurs.
It is obvious--though ultimately not justifiable--why the Spurs have been largely ignored this season. The Spurs do not have any players who are currently among the top 10 in the league (i.e., All-NBA First or Second Team caliber) and the Spurs are not flashy or self promoting.
The Spurs are generally dismissed as boring but--whether or not you accept that criticism or even consider it a valid reason to ignore a highly successful team--there are several reasons that they deserve more attention than they are getting:
1) The Spurs are the second most successful franchise of the post-Michael Jordan era, winning four championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007); only the L.A. Lakers have captured more NBA titles during this period (2000-2002, 2009-2010). The only other teams to win at least four NBA titles in nine seasons or less are the George Mikan Lakers, the Bill Russell Celtics, the Showtime Lakers and the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls.
2) Although many people wrongly assumed prior to this season that the Spurs would no longer contend for championships, the Spurs were on pace for 70 wins more than halfway through the season and are still on pace for 67 wins.
3) The Spurs have made significant changes to their previously successful playing style yet are seemingly better than ever (though that remains to be proven in the playoffs).
If the New York Yankees won four titles in less than a decade, seemed to be declining and then reemerged with the best record in baseball while playing a completely different style this would be headline news across all sports media platforms. Yet it seems like the only time we hear about the Spurs is when TNT's Charles Barkley repeatedly insists that the Dallas Mavericks are the best team in Texas. Something is very wrong with this picture and the only way to correct it is to look at what exactly the Spurs have been doing while seemingly no one was paying attention and how this compares to what great teams from previous seasons have done.
Why are the Spurs so Good?
The Spurs won their first two championships using Tim Duncan and David Robinson as "Twin Towers" who made it virtually impossible for opposing teams to score in the paint. As Hank Egan--an assistant coach on the 1999 championship team--explained to me in an exclusive interview, the Spurs used a more sophisticated version of the "sideline" defensive scheme that dates back to Ben Carnevale's 1950's Navy teams and was also adapted by Dean Smith and various "branches" of Smith's coaching tree (including Larry Brown, who led the Detroit Pistons to the 2004 championship). The Spurs funneled ballhandlers to the baseline and then forced the ballhandler to shoot/pass over at least one of the "Twin Towers." Egan told me that the key defensive statistic that San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich looked at is defensive field goal percentage; Egan added that the Spurs rarely forced turnovers because instead of pressuring in the backcourt they retreated quickly in order to set up their stifling half court defense. The Spurs ranked in the top five in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage every season from 1999-2008, leading the league in 1999 and 2004.
Robinson retired after the 2003 championship season and the Spurs replaced him with a succession of journeyman seven footers who did not possess Robinson's all-around skills but managed to be adequate at filling the role of a large presence in the paint supporting Duncan, who was a deceptively agile and mobile shotblocker during his prime. The Spurs won two more titles with Duncan as the anchor. However, in 2009 and 2010 some cracks began to show in the Spurs' defense, as their ranking in defensive field goal percentage dropped to ninth and 12th respectively. Duncan began to lose some of his mobility, much like Robinson had a decade earlier--but while Robinson gracefully eased into a supporting role behind a young Duncan the Spurs do not have a young, multifaceted seven footer to ease Duncan's burden. The Spurs were still a very good regular season team but without their stifling defense it seemed like their days as a championship contender were numbered.
Then Coach Popovich made a very interesting decision prior to the 2010-11 season; since the Spurs could no longer thrive solely as a defensive-minded team due to Duncan's decline and the lack of a credible seven footer playing alongside of him, Popovich elected to play at a faster pace offensively but without sacrificing efficiency; the Spurs increased their own scoring to compensate for the fact that they could no longer rely on completely clamping down defensively. The 2007 NBA Champion Spurs ranked 14th (out of 30 teams) in the NBA in points per game (98.5), the 2008 Spurs ranked 27th (95.4 ppg), the 2009 Spurs ranked 23rd (97.0 ppg) and the 2010 Spurs ranked 15th (101.4 ppg)--but the 2011 Spurs currently rank sixth (103.4 ppg). The Spurs have not improved their defensive field goal percentage since last season--they again rank 12th in that category--but the combination of greatly improving their offense while preventing any further defensive slippage has proven to be very successful.
Duncan used to be the focal point of the Spurs' offense but now they feature a multi-pronged, equal opportunity offense; Manu Ginobili (17.8 ppg) and Tony Parker (17.5 ppg) are the two leading scorers but they play very differently: Parker is a slasher who finishes remarkably well in the paint for such a small guard, while Ginobili also can slash to the hoop but he fires off more than 40% of his shot attempts from behind the three point arc. Duncan is third on the team in scoring with a career-low 13.4 ppg but a significant reason that his scoring average has declined is that he is playing a career-low 28.7 mpg, a number that figures to increase in the postseason when teams no longer play games on consecutive days. Two other Spurs are averaging at least 11 ppg.
The Spurs are no longer the NBA's best defensive team, nor have they become the league's best offensive team, but their increased offensive productivity paired with a still solid defense has proved to be a formidable combination.
The (Invisible) Chase for 70 Wins
Many commentators--most famously Jeff Van Gundy--declared that the newly formed Miami Heat would win at least 70 games this season. The Heat stumbled out of the gates and quickly torpedoed any thoughts about 70 wins but with the media seemingly so interested in that magic number it is odd that no one made much mention of the fact that the Spurs started out 13-1 and were on pace for 70 wins until a February 1 loss dropped them to 40-8. Few NBA teams have kept up a 70 win pace for that long.
One of my all-time favorite Sports Illustrated cover stories is The Sixers are Going for Seventy. The article included a chart listing the best 53 game starts in NBA history, including the 1967 76ers (47-6 en route to a then-record mark of 68-13) and the 1972 Lakers (46-7 en route to a 69-13 mark that stood as the standard until the 1996 Bulls went 72-10). Though their success has not attracted much attention, the Spurs got off to a very similar 53 game start (44-9). The Moses Malone-Julius Erving 76ers (the primary subject of that SI cover story) started out 46-7 in 1982-83 but went 15-10 down the stretch as Malone and Erving missed games due to various injuries; the Sixers had lost in the Finals three times in the previous six seasons and were understandably disinclined to pursue 70 regular season victories at the expense of being fully healthy for the playoffs: many people have probably forgotten just how concerned some Sixers' insiders were at that time about Malone's aching knees--three days before the playoffs began the Philadelphia Daily News ran a story headlined "Will Moses be Able to Play?"--but after sitting out the final four regular season games Malone teamed with Erving to lead the Sixers on one of the most dominant runs in NBA postseason history, a 12-1 mark that was not surpassed until the 2000 Lakers went 15-1 (the NBA added an extra round to the playoffs in 1984).
The juxtaposition between the massive coverage devoted to the Heat--who were never "going for seventy," to borrow SI's phrase--and the paltry coverage devoted to the Spurs is striking. I cannot recall a team that so seriously threatened the 70 win mark flying more under the radar than these Spurs. The 1996 Bulls attracted enormous media coverage as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the newly acquired Dennis Rodman authored the greatest regular season in league history; the Bulls won 10 of their first 12 and then sandwiched winning streaks of 13 and 18 games around one loss to produce an astounding 41-3 record after 44 games, bettering the 40-4 mark posted by the 1967 Sixers and the 1972 Lakers. Then the Bulls lost two games in a row in the midst of a six game road trip--their only back to back losses of the regular season. The Bulls were 48-5 at the 53 game mark and their 72-10 final record will be very difficult to break; there is a huge difference between 65, 66 or 67 wins and 72 wins, because those "extra" five to seven victories are road wins after playing four games in five nights or wins when nothing seems to be going right but one guy (i.e., Michael Jordan) finds a way to will the team to victory. What many people seem to have forgotten is that the Bulls went 69-13--tying the previous record--the next season even though key players Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley each missed at least 25 games due to injury. Even if some team wins 72 games it is extremely unlikely that they will win 69 games the next season.
It is unimaginable that the 1996 Bulls would have been ignored the way that the Spurs have been ignored; the Bulls won three titles earlier in the 1990s but had morphed from an athletic team to a slower, veteran team--much like the current Spurs won several titles a few years ago before undergoing their own stylistic changes. You might argue that the Bulls were unique because Michael Jordan was already a global icon and Dennis Rodman was a notorious attention seeker but even the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks received much more coverage than this season's Spurs; in 2006-07, NBA.com featured a Chase for 70 page that compared the Mavs' game by game record with the game by game record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. I have yet to see any "Chase for 70" style coverage of the Spurs, nor any in depth stories comparing them to great teams of the past.
Are the Spurs the Top Contender to Win the 2011 Championship?
The Spurs are on pace to post one of the best regular season records in NBA history (67-15)--and most teams that have been that dominant for an entire season at least advanced to the NBA Finals, with the most notable exception being the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, who went 68-14 but lost in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek--a member of the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team that year--suffered a serious shoulder injury. It is one thing to be skeptical of a team that annually wins a lot of regular season games before falling short in the playoffs but the Spurs are a franchise with a championship pedigree, so it is strange that so many people are reflexively dismissing them as a legitimate title contender.
The Spurs have slipped ever so slightly since their great start, going 12-4 in the past 16 games, including blowout losses to the two-time defending champion Lakers and the Heat--but those setbacks do not change the fact that the Spurs have lapped the field so far, amassing six more wins than their nearest competitor. Even the 1995-96 Bulls had one clunker--a 104-72 loss to the New York Knicks on March 10--but the Bulls won the six games before that defeat and then had a six game winning streak afterward; the 1967 76ers lost three games in a row at one point, culminating in a 137-120 defeat at the hands of the San Francisco Warriors. Imagine the headlines such a losing streak would gather today: "Defenseless, Unfocused 76ers Hardly Look Championship Worthy." The Spurs won five of their six games before getting crushed by the Lakers and they won five of their next six games, so there is hardly much reason to assume that the wheels are falling off.
Duncan had 22 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots as the Spurs defeated Dallas 97-91 on Friday to essentially clinch the top seed in the West. Duncan then sat out San Antonio's 109-98 win over Charlotte, the second game of a back to back set for the Spurs; the injury report said that Duncan's condition is "trop vieux," which is French for "too old" and Coach Popovich's way of tweaking the media's apparent belief that the Spurs are more ready to be put out to pasture than to be sized up for championship rings.
I don't see the Spurs having much trouble in the first round with whichever team settles into the eighth seed. A potential second round matchup with the young Oklahoma City Thunder could be interesting--particularly now that the Thunder have added some size in the form of Kendrick Perkins and ex-Spur Nazr Mohammed--but with homecourt advantage plus three veteran playoff performers the Spurs should best the Thunder, a promising team that has yet to win a playoff series under Kevin Durant's leadership.
If form holds, the Spurs would face the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Most commentators say that the Lakers' big edge--literally and figuratively--is the Lakers' size but I don't think that the Spurs would be that afraid of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum if they didn't have to worry about Kobe Bryant; Bryant is the one Laker the Spurs simply cannot match up with, which means that Gasol and/or Bynum get to play one on one (or sometimes one on none) in the post. If Bryant is reasonably healthy then I expect the Lakers to beat the Spurs but that series promises to be a classic that will likely extend to at least six games. If Bryant is unable to average at least 25 ppg while shooting around .450 from the field then I would expect the Spurs to defeat the Lakers and most likely go on to win the championship; the Lakers are the favorites due to Bryant's ability to elevate his game in the postseason but the Spurs are far more dangerous than most people seem to think: now that the Celtics have dealt Perkins, the Spurs may be the number one threat that the Lakers will face in the 2011 playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:01 AM