The San Antonio Spurs have done it—they’ve won their fifth NBA championship since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997. And the Houston Rockets, along with the rest of the league, will continue to study their eminent success for helpful takeaways.
A player-coach combo like Duncan and Gregg Popovich is not exactly replicable. As Duncan's former Spurs teammate David Robinson said of him to USA Today: "I don't know that you can put anybody in his category for sustained excellence. It's unbelievable. It was a progression."
To an extent, you have to get extremely lucky—like the Spurs did—and simply have singular, Hall of Fame talent like theirs fall in your lap. But plenty else that the champs have done to get to this point is definitely worth looking at in Houston.
Duncan and Popovich have been together for 17 years. But Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have also been in tow for over a decade, and Parker and Boris Diaw have been playing together since they were high schoolers in France.
Those years add up. The Rockets might not be as fortunate as the Spurs with the talent that’s come their way, but they can certainly aspire to be as consistent. The benefits of San Antonio’s core having such tenure with each other was palpable in this series. Each of these members knows the other’s strengths and weakenesses, their rhythm and their personalities.
The Spurs know how to complete each other. One of the Rockets’ more glaring deficiencies this past season was the inverse of that: They didn’t know each other. Dwight Howard and James Harden struggled to consistently utilize what should’ve been one of the league’s very best pick-and-roll attacks.
But if they get the kind of time together that the Spurs have had, there’s no telling how many ways this uber-talented crew can find to beat you. Overreactions to the Rockets’ early playoff exit should all come with the caveat of time—which can’t be overvalued in the NBA. The Rockets' greatest strategy could be to just give these guys more reps together.
Depth and Adaptability
The Spurs made their way to the top with a large variety of looks. When they were on the ropes after two straight blowout losses to Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, they reminded us of their versatility.
Serge Ibaka had been destroying the Spurs on both ends, dominating at the rim on defense and giving OKC's offense a dose of athleticism. So Popovich made an unlikely adjustment and started Matt Bonner. Bonner stretched the Thunder’s defense with his three-point accuracy, and the Spurs instituted a style that all but erased Ibaka’s impact.
The Spurs always spend their regular season training to implement such uncommon strategies. Resting various members of their roster throughout the campaign, they tinker and toy all year, always knowing exactly how many cards they still have up their sleeve.
The Rockets, to the contrary, were caught somewhat blindsided by the excellence of the Portland Trail Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge in the first round of the playoffs. When they realized they had to start Omer Asik and play him alongside Dwight Howard, they were committing to a lineup that they had given up on very early in the season. They weren’t used to it.
If coach Kevin McHale was less rigid and more experimental with his rotation, perhaps Houston would have taken the series against Portland. Asik was on the trading block for a time, but even after it was clear he was staying, McHale was stubborn about reintegrating him. They could have found many more ways to work with the Asik-Howard combo, on both sides of the ball. Next year, Rockets fans should hope that their squad is more fluid, and more ready with its depth.
No team passes better than the Spurs. And you can count the Rockets well below them on the list.
The trust that comes with so much time spent together is a big part of San Antonio’s ease moving the ball, but they’ve also set a tone that newer arrivals like Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter can fall right into. From Bleacher Report's Howard Beck:
The ball kept moving... a beautiful, brilliant display of selflessness and discipline. You could practically see the Heat's resolve crumbling under the pressure of all of those pretty passes: from Boris Diaw to Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard to Patty Mills, and Mills to Tiago Splitter.
The Rockets need to share the ball with a symbiosis that can even inch toward that of the Spurs. They spent too much of the past season handing the ball off to each other and watching. In the playoffs, their offense seemed to boil down to "give the ball to Howard, or give the ball to Harden." Since Houston is jammed with scoring talent, this strategy was actually quite effective in the regular season.
But against a smart-scouting playoff opponent with the luxury of seeing you several games in a row, you’ve got to have more than that. The Rockets need to be better than the sum of their parts and, as five, become one.