Is Emphasis on Defense a Smart Choice for the San Antonio Spurs?

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Is Emphasis on Defense a Smart Choice for the San Antonio Spurs?
Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE

During the height of their celebrated success, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs lived by the well-known aphorism, "Defense wins championships."

They grew a reputation as the epitome of defensive basketball, consistently closing out opponents despite scoring in the mid-eighties. 

And for a while, the emphasis on defense worked. Using that mindset, the Spurs formulated a dynasty, winning four titles throughout the years of 1999-2007. 

But after the team's fourth banner was hung in the rafters following their 2007 championship, the Spurs soon found themselves unable to reach the Finals, settling for regular season victories and early postseason dominance instead.

Since then, the NBA has undergone a gradual change, as the aforementioned motto soon gave way to a heavy focus on offense, with the majority of NBA teams now trusting the powers of scoring to help guide there way to victory.

The Spurs too, scrapped their once-dominant defensive play style for a new modern approach, in order to remain contenders in the high-scoring league that the NBA has become.

“You have to score a lot more points now," said superstar, Tim Duncan last year. "I don't think it's the league of old, where you can score in the 80's and defend your butt off and still win championships.”

In many ways, he's right. Using the recent NBA champions' scoring totals as a track record, the increase in offensive production is blatantly obvious. Furthermore, the new style of play almost guided the San Antonio squad to a fifth title last year, after the Spurs new emphasis resulted in 103.7 points per game, a statistic second only to the Denver Nuggets

But they fell just short of the title, as it became clear that there were more offensively-gifted teams in the league.

So this year, the Spurs turned back the clocks, showcasing a play style more similar to the one that helped them win a handful of titles back in the day.

During the preseason, Gregg Popovich stressed defense, which had slowly disintegrated last season, as offense took precedence.

The changes definitely made an impact, with the results manifested during the team's first few regular season games.

The New Orleans Hornets scored 95 points against the Spurs, but the Spurs showed brief flashes of defensive proficiency during the contest.

It wasn't until their home opener—against the Oklahoma City Thunder—that the team's defense really excelled. 

The Thunder—who ranked third last year in points scored—were limited to just 84 points by the Spurs, who edged them out by two following a buzzer-beating jumper from Tony Parker. Last year, the team relied on scoring to withstand offensively-gifted opponents such as the Thunder.

However, it was the stellar defense performed by the team that allowed the Spurs to take the victory over the team that knocked them out of the playoffs five months earlier. 

One of many great defensive sequences from the Spurs/Thunder game.

Against the Utah Jazz, the Spurs failed to execute quintessential defense throughout the entire matchup—allowing the Jazz to score 100 total points. Still, despite their second and third quarter defensive lapses, the Spurs showed signs of their new defensive emphasis, limiting the opposition to just 17 and 21 points in the first and fourth quarters, respectively.

However, with so much evidence pointing towards a score-heavy style of play, many wonder whether the Spurs' new game plan is the right choice.

Well, the team has gotten off to a hot start, winning their first three games, though that alone is not the only evidence that the Spurs have made the right choice.

The roster features several defensive-minded players, some that are fairly new to the team.

Stephen Jackson—who the Spurs acquired midseason last year—is an excellent perimeter defender, whose length and size allow him to guard players of multiple positions. Danny Green also is an excellent on ball defender, with a knack for shutting down opponents along the perimeter.

Boris Diaw—who was signed by the team late in the season—is a major upgrade over DeJuan Blair, whose lack of height made him a huge liability on the defensive end.

However, sophomore Kawhi Leonard and veteran Tim Duncan are the true reasons why the Spurs can trust their new style of play to win them games.

Kawhi Leonard has emerged as a Bruce Bowen-type defender, giving the Spurs the tenacious perimeter defense that they lacked following Bowen's retirement. His quick hands and ability to penetrate passing lanes rewarded him with five steals a piece in the Spurs' first two games, as well as several other passes broken up.

One of Kawhi Leonard's five steals, and the one that set up Parker's game winner.

With Leonard now on the roster, and the Spurs having recognized the true extent of his aptitude, the Spurs can trust him to lead the team's perimeter defense, letting Tim Duncan anchor the team in the post.

Duncan—though old—is still an elite player, and is still a defensive star. Even more so than last year, he has picked up the slack on D during these first few games, giving the team the strength down low to limit their opponent's scoring.

Because of this, the Spurs have managed to outscore every opponent this season in the paint, a major factor in the team's early success.

One of the Spurs' most valuable traits is their ability to correct their mistakes in order to achieve better in the future. Last season, their emphasis on scoring could only guide them so far, eventually succumbing to a more offensively talented team in the Thunder.

They have recognized that their window is closing, and they aren't getting anywhere trying to outscore younger, more talented opponents. 

Instead, they'll roll with the same style of play that won them four titles over the span of nine years—one that emphasizes defense.

Will it work again? We can only wait and see, but with their window for another title rapidly closing, a new approach may be just what the team needs to succeed.

After all, doesn't defense win championships?

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