It's rather difficult to completely overhaul the normative logistics of NBA X's and O's. There are only five players on the court, and only so many ways they can screen and cut. In the early 2000's, Mike D'Antoni somewhat revolutionized the basketball landscape by abandoning two-big lineups in favor of four wing players surrounding one pick-and-roll big.
The lineup change has slowly seeped its way into the rest of the NBA to the point where most teams feature at least one "small-ball" lineup, whether with starters or bench players. But in terms of straight X's and O's—which is to say, actual offensive play designs—not much has changed.
That is unless you look at the San Antonio Spurs, where Gregg Popovich has somewhat bucked convention by slightly tweaking typical NBA sets to fit the Spurs' personnel. The best coaches are often said to adapt to their personnel, but none have done it better than Popovich.
In the earlier days of Tim Duncan's career, Popovich designed an offense featuring low-post play and slower-paced offense. With one of the best post-up bigs of all time on his roster, Pop had no problem dumping it down low to Duncan play after play and letting him go to work.
As the Spurs evolved with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker taking the reigns, San Antonio sped up its tempo and began to play more of a free flowing, perimeter-oriented offense. The culmination was San Antonio's utter destruction of Miami in the Finals, artfully picking apart their defense with precise passing and beautiful cutting.
The key was Popovich putting his players in the best possible situations to succeed—a seemingly obvious tweak to any offense, but one that has always been executed best by the San Antonio coaching staff.
We can see this most obviously in one of the NBA's most typical offensive sets, known as "Floppy." You've seen it a million times from every team in the league: The point guard raises his hand over his head, bending it at the wrist from side to side.
The guards immediately dart from the wings to beneath the rim. Either one guard screens for the other, or they simply pop back to the wings off down screens from the big.
While this action occurs, the point guard dribbles at the top of the key ready to sling a pass to whichever wing frees himself from his defender. Once the wing catches the ball, he either shoots, attacks off the dribble, makes a post entry or runs a screen-and-roll with the big from the opposite block rolling in.
There are lots of options, but the initial action is always the same: guards slide in towards the hoop, guards pop out to the wings off down screens.
Here's Detroit running it against Oklahoma City in each team's last regular season game of this past season:
On this occasion, Kyle Singler is able to free himself for a corner three-pointer. But let's say Singler catches the ball and isn't open. It's often extremely difficult to get open enough for a jumper off of a Floppy action, and a non-ball-handler is left with the ball while being tightly guarded.
The Pistons don't want Singler attacking the rim or running any pick-and-roll action, so he'll most likely kick the ball back out to the point guard. In short, if Singler doesn't get open for a jumper, the play is a bust—as it is here, when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a non-threat as a ball-handler at this stage in his young career, is forced to catch the ball well above the three-point line.
Eventually the play gets bailed out with a foul, but the Pistons' initial Floppy set fails.
This is the inherent problem with Floppy, yet teams continually run the action by putting jump-shooting wing players in positions to handle the ball.
Well, everyone except for the Spurs.
The Spurs don't run your typical Floppy action most of the time (and they don't even call it Floppy—they call it "Fist"). While they certainly run Floppy, they throw in a nice wrinkle: an initial zipper cut (moving up from the block to the top of the key off of a down screen) to replace Parker as the main distributor. So why do they do this? Because now Parker is in the Floppy action as one of the players cutting to receive a pass.
And who better than Parker to make a play after catching the ball on the move? That's why you'll often see Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard zipper up to the top of the key to catch a pass from Parker on the wing. That way Parker is in prime position to cut in the Floppy action, and subsequently make a play when he receives the ball back.
Below is an example from the Finals, with Leonard zippering up and Green and Parker in the Floppy action. On one side, you have the shooter: If Green is wide open for the shot, Leonard is giving the ball to one of the deadliest three-point shooters in the game. But if he's in any way covered, he's looking the other direction to the playmaker: Parker.
In this instance he finds Parker, who runs a quick pick-and-roll with Tiago Splitter that leads to a wide open Green three-pointer. Had this been Green or Leonard making that catch, it's much less likely that they would have had the vision or skills to complete this pass to Splitter.
For most NBA teams, that's likely a guard with worse playmaking skills than the point guard. It makes sense that San Antonio wants Parker to be running the pick-and-rolls, and not Leonard or Green. While Leonard is a viable option, Parker is clearly the best option.
And that's all that simple zipper cut is: a way to transform a simple NBA set into its most effective self.
It's these types of adjustments that make a big difference over the course of a game. The six or seven times the Spurs might run Floppy in a single game have a better chance of succeeding because of the way they run it.
Maybe that equals three or four better scoring opportunities per game, which translates to one or two baskets. Stretch that across everything the Spurs are running, and you have a solid chunk of points the Spurs are gaining due to more precise play design.
This is what Popovich does. He doesn't quite rewrite the book on NBA offense, but he edits its chapters. He adapts his offense to fit his personnel, and not the other way around.
As with any offseason, we can expect the Spurs to make some slight alterations to its roster this summer. That will mean new players who have different strengths and don't know the offense.
Popovich won't change his entire playbook to accommodate the new additions, but he'll certainly add some wrinkles to best utilize their skill sets. As for what those changes will be, we'll have to see who's on the San Antonio roster next season. But that's what the Spurs do so well, and what makes Popovich great: his willingness to adapt.
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