The NBA has always been referred to as a “copycat league” and a number of teams want to play faster and emulate what the Warriors are doing offensively. The Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni. Larry Bird fired Frank Vogel because he wants Indiana to play faster and score more points. The injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist forced the Hornets to pivot last season and they shot a ton of threes and made the Playoffs. The Bulls fired Tom Thibodeau and brought in Fred Hoiberg before last season with the idea that they were going to play faster. The owner of the Kings once suggested playing 4-on-5 defensively to get out in transition. Ty Lue said during last year’s NBA Finals that the Cavaliers needed to play faster. In theory it’s a nice idea and a go to buzz-phrase among regime changes. However, as Tom Ziller noted over one year ago, mimicking the Warriors style is easier said than done. With the Warriors adding Kevin Durant, that statement is more accurate than ever.
While teams will try to imitate the Warriors style of play, NBA history has shown that teams usually need to formulate a way to stop those best teams, not copy them. The Knicks of the early-mid 90’s tried to pummel Michael Jordan into submission. The Pistons built an elite defensive team with two great bigs in Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace in an effort to knock off the Lakers and the Spurs. The Boston Celtics built an elite defensive team powered by Kevin Garnett and took home one title while narrowly missing out on two more.
From the 1998-1999 season through last season, the Spurs and the Lakers each won five NBA titles. A team with LeBron James has now won three. While there are outlier teams (2006 Miami and 2011 Dallas come to mind) the best way to win an NBA Championship is to have all-time great NBA players on your team. With the Warriors building a super-team, and the Cavaliers having LeBron James and Co., those are two teams that fit the bill and are far and away the two favorites to win the NBA Championship as per Vegas.
With teams stacking talent and / or playing faster, it’s the Spurs who are quietly evolving and going against the grain.
Changing Over Time…and Always Winning
From the 1998-1999 season up until the 2009 – 2010 season, the Spurs were always in the bottom-ten in the NBA in pace and never finished below 6th in defensive rating. Consistent!
The trade for Kawhi Leonard on draft night in 2011 signaled a change for the Spurs. They went up to 8th in pace and dropped to 11th in defensive rating during 2011-2012 season
However, it was the next two seasons in San Antonio, when they faced Miami in the NBA Finals in back-to-back years, in which they really figured it out. In 2012-2013, the Spurs were 6th in pace and 3rd in defensive rating. In 2013-2014, they were 12th in pace and 4th in defensive rating. They figured out how to play faster while maintaining their excellence on the defensive end. Winning four championships with a specific style of play is one thing, but evolving to a win another title by playing differently is almost more impressive.
In 2014-2015, the Spurs dropped to 17th in the NBA in pace, while finishing 3rd in defensive rating. A 55-27 record was good enough for the…six seed in the West. Good times! They played an incredible seven-game series against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round in which L.A. narrowly escaped in Game 7.
During the 2015 offseason Aron Baynes, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph and Tiago Splitter were all on the way out. However, The Spurs landed their biggest target in free-agency in LaMarcus Aldridge and this addition signaled another pivot from San Antonio.
In terms of pace last season, the Spurs played at basically the same exact speed in 2015-2016 (95.72 possessions per 48 minutes) as they did the year prior (95.93 possessions per 48), but with the NBA being played at a faster pace as a whole, they dropped from 17th to 26th in pace. The real differentiator with the Spurs of last season and the rest of the NBA was their commitment, and success, in the mid-range game.
Led by Aldridge, the Spurs shot an average of 35 shots per game between 5-19 feet last season, including 16 attempts per game from 15-19 feet, which were both the most in the league. Shocker, they were really good at it! The Spurs shot 43.8% from 5-9 feet (2nd in the NBA), 43.7% from 10-14 feet (2nd in the NBA) and 43.2% from 15-19 feet (4th in the NBA). While basketball on all levels including the NBA is moving to a faster paced game that views mid-range jumpers and post-ups as inefficient, the Spurs are embracing the mid-range. With their acquisitions this Summer, it appear the Spurs will continue this style of play offensively.
Giving Paul Gasol a two-year deal at $15.5 million a year at age 36 may appear unusual on the surface, but he fits exactly what the Spurs want to do offensively. Out of the 12 NBA players who took at least four shots per game from 15-19 feet last season, Pau was second in field goal percentage with a 47.2% clip. His new teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, was 5th from 15-19 feet, with a 42.9% shooting percentage. The Spurs now have two of the most efficient volume shooters from that area of the floor. If you add Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker (5.5 FGA’s combined from 15-19 feet last season), Kyle Anderson’s improving “slo-mo” game and even David Lee coming off of the bench, all of the sudden the Spurs have a ton of dudes who are capable of hitting “inefficient” tough twos…all while the rest of the league is trying to defend the three-point line.
Defensively in 2015-2016, among bigs that defended more than ten shots per game on average within five feet of the rim, Tim Duncan was the best, allowing opponents to only shoot 51.7% from that area of the floor. The players that follow Duncan are names that you expect: Bogut, Henson, Gobert, Whiteside, Ed Davis, Ibaka, Aldridge, Adams and Porzingis. However, 12th on that list, allowing 55.4% shooting by opponents from within five-feet, is Pau Gasol.
While nobody is Tim Duncan, it’s clear that the Spurs are hoping that Gasol can assist them in duplicating some of Duncan’s ability as a rim protector. Add in Gasol’s mid-range prowess, international experience and reputation as a wonderful teammate, and it’s no surprise why the Spurs saw him as a wonderful fit.
Length and Athleticism
It’s almost like Jay Bilas is consulting the Spurs front office with this commitment to wingspan. San Antonio already has two of the longer wings in the NBA with Kawhi’s 7’3 wingspan and Kyle Anderson sporting a 7’2.75 wingspan. The Spurs added some more length in the offseason with Livio Jean-Charles out of France, who sports a 7’2.5 wingspan and will look to be an energy / defense guy off of the bench. Up front, they signed Dewayne Dedmon and his 7’4 wingspan. While Dedmon hasn’t carved out a consistent role yet, he started playing basketball later in life and has shown the ability to be a big who can switch on screen-and-roll. Getting him into camp Spurs can only benefit him. Dejounte Murray out of Washington is relatively raw, but super athletic and Jonothan Simmons has shown flashes on the wing of being a lockdown defender and asset in transition.
Ultimately, the Spurs are reinvesting in capable athletes with upside to defend shooters and the screen-and-roll game, or defending what most NBA teams want to do best offensively.
Patty Mills is one of the better microwave options off the bench in the NBA and his performance in the Olympics this past Summer should have the Spurs very pleased. The Spurs added some more instant offense options this offseason in Davis Bertans and David Lee. Bertans has a reputation as a shooter and some hypnotic YouTube highlights to back that reputation up. Lee is known for more of what he can’t do (defend) these days but he’s always been able to finish around the rim, and his stint with the Mavericks last season (8.5 PPG, 7 RPG, 64% FG) showed that he still has that aspect of his game.
2016-2017 and Beyond
San Antonio’s remarkable run with Tim Duncan has come to an end, but with R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich still in place, the Spurs have shown an ability to pivot once again. Look for San Antonio to play slower, shoot more mid-range jumpers, utilize post-ups and play stringent defense. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the Spurs are usually ahead of the curve.