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Spurs Quietly Building the Antidote to Golden State Warriors

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 4, 2015

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, left, talks with forward Tim Duncan (21) during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 95-70. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

Without climbing inside Gregg Popovich's head, we can't know for sure if the San Antonio Spurs' throwback reliance on size and slow pace is a personnel-fueled necessity during a transitional year or a calculated scheme to topple the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors.

But would you really want to bet against it being the second thing?

Change by Necessity?

The Spurs have been absurdly effective through the first quarter of 2015-16, riding the NBA's best defense to a start that, if not for those Warriors, would stand out as the very best in the league. And they're doing it by bucking the trend, playing larger lineups and slowing the pace as the rest of the league goes smaller and faster.

Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge start together up front, and the Spurs also feature another bulky big, David West, in reserve.

Darren Abate/Associated Press

The explanation could be simple: San Antonio had a chance at Aldridge and took it, and now it has to concoct a style that best utilizes his skills while not taking the rest of the team's best players off the floor. Aldridge, somewhat famously, doesn't want to play center, and Tim Duncan is still just too dominant on defense to bench.

So why not play them together?

It's also worth considering that this is merely a stopgap measure designed to utilize the talent on hand in the best way possible until the Kawhi Leonard-Aldridge core fully takes over next year—when the old guard may well be gone.

Transitional plan or not, it's hard to argue with how well it's worked.

New Plan, Same Results

Though San Antonio's offensive rating is down significantly from the 106.2 figure it posted a year ago, per NBA.com, that twin-tower defense has more than made up for it. With Aldridge and Duncan both adept at positioning and straight-up challenges, San Antonio is on pace to allow the fewest opponent free-throw attempts per game in league history, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

No defense allows fewer three-point attempts per game than the Spurs this year, and though not always perfect indicators, it's worth noting that the limited gambles the Spurs do make pay off. They're one of only two teams in the league to rank in the top six in total steals and blocks in 2015-16, along with the Atlanta Hawks.

They're not doing it the way they usually have, but San Antonio is dominating all the same.

"We thought probably they'd be just as good offensively, and maybe better defensively; just better in general," Atlanta Hawks head coach and longtime Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer said, per Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com. "But they're really guarding. They're doing a great job on the defensive end of the court."

That's an understatement. If the season ended today, San Antonio's defensive rating would be the best the NBA has seen in four decades.

Change by Design?

But isn't it a little naive to think the Spurs are doing all this without any consideration for how it equips them to best combat the biggest opposing threat in the league?

Certainly, San Antonio saw how the Cleveland Cavaliers gave the Warriors trouble by playing bigger lineups and dramatically slowing the pace in last year's Finals. The pace issue must have been particularly compelling.

Per Ben Dowsett of BasketballInsiders.com: "The Cavs were taking decimals short of 20 seconds before their average shot on all possessions following made shots by the Warriors. Think about that. They took their average shot with four seconds left on the shot clock any time their possession began following a make from the Dubs."

Broadly, this more nuanced view of pace, which Dowsett gets from Inpredictable.com, is important. It parses out how teams use their time with the ball and shows how much time their defenses force opponents to use.

The Spurs are nowhere near the Cavs' glacial offensive pace in the Finals, but they've trended toward longer possessions over the past three years. In 2013-14, San Antonio shot the ball more quickly on average than all but 10 teams in the league. The next year, that ranking dropped to 18th. It's now at 28th.

Clearly, San Antonio is slowing down on offense. And its defense is making opposing offenses work exceptionally hard on the other end. This is a muck-it-up recipe—one we've seen employed against Golden State before.

That San Antonio has changed is undeniable, but nobody's making it easy to figure out why.

A conclusion will mean wrestling with two competing truths about the Spurs: They do whatever they can to win, but they also outwardly eschew any notion that they gear up to beat specific foes. Popovich has said before that he doesn't watch film of other teams because he's focused on coaching his own.

And West told Wright: "Defensively, it's basically the same concepts every single night, regardless of who we are playing."

That doesn't sound like a team molding itself into a Warriors-killer, especially because beating Stephen Curry and Golden State is absolutely impossible by conventional means. Those "same concepts" West mentioned don't work against an offense like the Warriors', where shots go up from 30 feet and 6'7" do-it-all beasts like Draymond Green wreak havoc.

Maybe we should take Popovich at his word and trust in West's comments. But doing so ignores some pretty basic logic.

If the Spurs' goal is to win a championship, which it has been for the last 20 years or so, is it reasonable to believe they'd willfully overlook the biggest impediment to that goal? And these Warriors aren't just another good team, another worthy contender to worry about.

They're historically great—great in a way, thanks to Curry and Green and small ball and all the rest, we've never even seen before. The Spurs, running out of time with the Big Three and facing a defending champ of practically unprecedented strength, aren't going to make moves to compete with that?

Really?

Don't Hold Your Breath for Answers

Even if the Spurs' changes have nothing to do with the Warriors, the result is a team that has, at least, built itself into the kind of opponent that gives the Warriors some trouble. We already mentioned the Cavs, but the Utah Jazz and their hulking front line pushed the Dubs hard earlier this year. Teams know now that there is no small lineup capable of running with Golden State, leaving size and a slow pace as the best of mostly bad options.

That's a critical point, too: Playing big and slow has bothered the Warriors a bit in the past, but it hasn't ultimately beaten them. And based on the way the Warriors are rolling over the league right now, it's foolish to suggest any style is likely to work.

The question of the Spurs' intent may go unanswered for a while. San Antonio and Golden State won't meet in the regular season until Jan. 25, and if we know anything about how Popovich operates, he won't reveal his grand plans (if he has any) in a meaningless regular-season game.

Maybe he'll sleep through the second half just to prove a point.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Maybe he'll play five guards at once just to throw off the scent.

At least it looks likelier that we'll eventually get to see the Spurs-Warriors meeting we were denied last postseason. With Golden State flattening everyone and the Spurs playing nearly as well while still ironing out some kinks, the playoff collision course seems set.

And whether the Spurs crash into Golden State with size or not, the wreckage will be beautiful.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Current through games played Dec. 3.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

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