A Beginner's Guide to the San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs are only boring in the most foolishly self-evident sense. Their uniforms are plain, their on-camera interview presence plainer, and in a sporting world still driven by canned highlights of athletic brilliance, the Spurs often fail to register. Thus they are said to be boring, and having not seen Tim Duncan on SportsCenter for far too long, the most casual of fans—enamored by Rajon Rondo's ball fakes, LeBron James' raw power or Kevin Durant's indomitable lank—nod in agreement.
But those who have taken the time to watch the Spurs consistently over the last few seasons know otherwise. Not only is this San Antonio team as dynamic as any in the league, but they've forsaken the laborious style that had once come to define their championship-worthy successes. Gregg Popovich still manages to hide his team's defensive holes rather well, but San Antonio's consistent emphasis on ball movement and cutting makes them a worthy investment of your time and basketball-watching energy.
The Spurs play such an easily enjoyable brand of ball that you should be able to pick up on some of the nuances of their play in a few games (if not a few minutes), but here are a few items to look for if you consider yourself among the uninitiated:
Tony Parker at a Standstill
Parker's most characteristic attribute is his longitudinal speed; although Parker may seem out-quicked by the league's new breed of speedy guards, he's still a handful in any open-court situation, and a tough driver in the Spurs' half-court offense. A single screen can give Parker all the space he needs to dash to the hoop, leaving defenses scrambling and his teammates wide open.
Yet, over the course of his career, it's amazing how much Parker's patience has improved, and more importantly, that his capacity to create at a standstill has improved. The Spurs' All-Star guard is still plenty capable of executing by beating his defender off the dribble, but the hesitation moves, the surprisingly crafty finishes after picking up his dribble in the paint, and the slow curls he makes to the elbow have given Parker's game a particularly vivid counterpunch. Potent drives are now only part of the equation; by rounding out his capacity to wreak havoc, Parker has given the Spurs an incredible, multi-faceted mechanism of initiation.
Working Off the Post
This is hardly new, but still good for points on a regular basis. Many pro teams mishandle their guards after establishing their big men in the post. Once the post entry pass is completed, often a perimeter player will maintain their position for what they think to be good placement on a spot-up three-pointer. Rarely is that the case; by holding their position on the perimeter, the entry passer only makes it that much easier for opponents to cheat down into a quick double team, all without sacrificing position to disrupt the kick-out pass.
Yet, when the Spurs give the ball to Duncan on the block, the entry passer immediately triggers a baseline brush cut off of Duncan. By slashing baseline right alongside Duncan, the Spurs can run a basic give-and-go set in this scenario or, if the cutter is defended effectively, can let Duncan operate against single coverage in the post. Again, this is nothing new in the Spurs offense, but coupled with all of the other movement San Antonio has incorporated into its offense, these basic baseline cuts give the Spurs a nice boost.
Manu Ginobili in the Pick-and-Roll
Manu Ginobili's game is astoundingly fun, but nowhere is he more fantastic than in executing the pick-and-roll. In that offensive staple, Ginobili is able to show off his misleading handle, his jaw-dropping passing, his beautiful step-back jumper and his highly efficient driving ability. You haven't lived until you've seen Manu thread a no-look bounce pass through traffic; he may not be quite on the same playmaking level as the Chris Pauls and Steve Nashes of the world, but it's amazing how functional Ginobili could—and in some cases, can—be as his team's primary playmaker.
A Master Class in Placement
San Antonio doesn't run a fully prescribed set every time down the floor, but often the Spurs' spacing and action indicates otherwise. That's because from top of the roster to bottom, Gregg Popovich has his club trained in where they need to be in order for the offense to function correctly.
Danny Green waits in the corner but cuts down the baseline when his defender turns his head. Stephen Jackson waits at the three-point line above the break but wheels to the top of the key when a teammate gets stuck with the ball in the lane. Kawhi Leonard finds a bit of open space but darts toward the rim to scoop up an offensive rebound.
It's not just Parker, Ginobili and Duncan with an intuitive understanding of how the offense functions, but even the relative newcomers; Boris Diaw has been in a Spur uniform for a month, and yet he already knows not only when and how to move within the offense but where his teammates should be situated when he does.
Adjustment Through Depth
The Spurs are guaranteed to play beautiful basketball virtually regardless of which five players they throw on the floor, which makes it all the easier for Popovich to turn to specific counters for particular opponents. If the opponent has a lumbering big man, Pop might turn to Matt Bonner to make that big man stretch his defense out to the three-point line or employ Tiago Splitter to make an opponent chase him in the pick-and-roll. If the opposing team has problems with size, Duncan can share the floor with Splitter or DeJuan Blair.
If the opposition can't keep up with small-ball squads, Pop can turn to Leonard and Green as makeshift bigs. If an opponent has a guard who can't defend the post, a stretchy big with no interior, a point guard with a tentative handle, a lackluster offensive rebounding core or a lack of effective perimeter defenders, Popovich has not only the savvy and experience to counter but the personnel to fit any situation.
The Spurs' depth makes every bit of their approach balanced, but it also gives Pop the freedom he needs to tech against any opponent imaginable.
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