Essay: Snoozing on the Spurs and their Defense
When we watch basketball we watch the ball. It’s naturally where the eye is drawn, so it makes sense that defensive-oriented teams are generally among the lowest rated games on television and the least talked about in the media. There’s one team that’s been a defensive juggernaut for more than a decade, and they’ve managed to win four titles in that span, despite a dearth of attention from casual fans and most media outlets. This season is no different, and while the San Antonio Spurs continue to win at historic levels, their automaton-like dominance is swept under the rug as mere commonplace, rather than shouted from the top of Mount Helicon as Popovich bottles Hippocrene water for his vineyard.
Why don’t more people care, or get excited about the San Antonio Spurs? It’s a tough question to answer without getting into hairy attempts at gleaning information based off what you think, rather than what you know. The basketball watching populace is a fickle bunch; they want points and star players, but dunks and a barrage of 3-pointers will do. Defense, in its still inchoate days of analytics, just isn’t that sexy, and it’s hard to write about without actually watching basketball. Nor is attempting to describe what the Spurs do on defense that’s allowed them to finish in the top 10 in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) every year except one–the 2010-11 season–since they drafted Tim Duncan in the summer of 1997. And that lone year they failed to crack the top third in defensive efficiency, they finished 11th (per basketball-reference).
Despite their defensive dominance and the layman basketball fan’s inability to understand or appreciate what the Spurs have done (and are doing) on that end of the court, we do know–and can easily explain–that San Antonio is again the hottest team in basketball, and they’re winning despite missing their franchise stalwart, Tim Duncan, during some of their current streak.
Like most other seasons, when basketball watchers, analysts and writers either ignore the Spurs or figure they’re finally gonna drop back to the rest of the pack in the preseason, they just continue to win, as they’ve done more than any other team since Duncan’s rookie year. In fact, in that span, they’re the only team to have a winning percentage greater than 70 percent. As mentioned, they’ve done this with defense, and despite the last couple years when Popovich has turned the offensive reigns over more to his French point guard, Tony Parker, they’re still a team composed in Pop’s image, and if you’re not rotating fast enough on defense and buying in to the Spurs’ system, you’ll be gone (just ask Richard Jefferson). Much like Tom Thibodeau forces his team to ignore the pick and roll players and stay on their men in the corners to limit opponents open 3-point opportunities in a drive and dish set, Popovich also demands that his players hold one another accountable on the defensive end.
This year, the Spurs are currently 3rd in the league in defensive efficiency, holding opponents to 98.4 points per 100 possessions (via hoopdata). They’ve limited opponents to the 9th lowest field goal percentage, and the 2nd lowest 3-point field goal percentage in the league; they’re just a tenth of a percentage point back of league leaders Indiana, in the latter case (all stats via NBA.com/stats unless otherwise stated). They’re 6th in the league in opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage from the corners, and 5th in opponents field goal percentage in the restricted area near the basket. They’re in the top 5 in opponents’ field goal percentage everywhere on the court except in the mid-range. They’re also second, behind only the Pacers, in forcing teams to take the dreaded long 2-pointers that are the least efficient shot in the league. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise opponents are shooting better from that territory against the Spurs than any team in the league; you can almost hear Popovich screaming to just let ‘em take those shots and crash the boards.
About the rebounds. They’re dead last in the league in offensive rebounding rate, but they make up for it by hardly ever fouling or giving up offensive rebounds on the defensive end. Plus, they’re second, behind only Miami, in effective field goal percentage, so they don’t really need to crash the offensive glass since they’re pretty good on that first shot. Tony Parker is the only guard in the league’s top-tier for field goal percentage and Tiago Splitter has found a role alongside a healthy Duncan as the Spurs’ go-to low post player; he also happens to shoot at a very efficient rate. With the stats explaining the Spurs’ dominance now covered, lets attempt to hook the average fan on why this is so important and exciting. Important enough to at least give the Spurs a cursory glance on League Pass most nights, and a leading role when people think about the top teams in the league. The Spurs are always a top team in the league, and that’s a big reason why some are again touting Gregg Popovich as this season’s Coach of the Year.
The Spurs’ defense isn’t flashy, like Miami’s can be when they’re actively jumping out to double the ball handler at the top of the key as he’s trying to come off a pick and forcing oodles of turnovers. But the Spurs have still managed to swipe the 3rd most steals in the league, with Miami a pedestrian 11th in that category. These Spurs are not a very dominant team in terms of blocks, though. They rank just 17th in the league in that defensive category, far behind league leaders, Oklahoma City (#Iblocka should be a thing) and Milwaukee (Lets hope Larry Sanders comes back after the lower back contusion he suffered in that wild Denver game when Dalembert went off). So, if the Spurs are not blocking the ball much, but they’re getting some steals, how are they 3rd in the league in defensive efficiency despite having the 6th fastest pace? This is where those defensive rotations come into play.
When a man gets beat off the dribble, this is when good defenses step up. This is largely because the level of athleticism at the guard position has jumped in recent years as the league has gone towards the small ball which helped the Heat beat the Thunder in last year’s NBA Finals. Guys are just too fast, and too skilled handling the ball to expect anyone to stay with their guy when they’re being bombarded with blind picks before they even cross the 3-point arc. So when Tony Parker, himself no stranger to slicing into the heart of a defense, gets beat off the dribble because of a screen, San Antonio’s big men step up to protect the basket, while their wings simultaneously limit the open looks on the wing when people rotate to cover Parker or Patty Mills’ man. That is, when the wing players are helping, they’ve always got an eye towards getting back to the shooters. Primarily though, it’s the front court players that are stepping in to block a guard’s progression, while also cutting off passing angles to their own man.
Lets look at a few different examples of this. One is from their game against Minnesota (when Duncan and Ginobili were out) The other is against–arguably–their best opponent during their current win streak, when they beat Golden State back on January 18th (before their current 5-game swoon), and I’m not counting their win at home against Memphis, since Memphis has all but assured themselves of mediocrity with that trade involving Detroit and Toronto.
In the Golden State game, Stephen Curry was out with an ankle injury, but San Antonio still had to go against a better than average point guard in Jarrett Jack. If you’re not convinced of my affixing the phrase “better-than-average” to Jack, just know that he’s ahead of Greivis Vasquez (having a quietly excellent year in New Orleans) and Brandon Jennings, in adjusted PER, via hoopdata. Against San Antonio on January 18th, he finished with 20 points and 10 assists on over 52 percent shooting with just 1 turnover. That’s an extremely efficient game, especially against San Antonio, but Jack could have actually done more damage, and even though Carl Landry and David Lee both shot over 50 percent on the game as well, Klay Thompson was held largely in check, and the Spurs got the win.
Late in the first quarter, here’s Duncan stepping out on Jack as he goes left past Patty Mills into the restricted area. Now, it’s important to notice both the angle Duncan takes and the way Boris Diaw fills in on Biedrins while Gary Neal slides in after Jack shoots the ball to box out Carl Landry.
Duncan makes sure he’s in Jack’s mug before Jack can take the final step that will allow him to get to the rim and either finish or get fouled. Instead, Jack is forced into a contested 15-foot jumper, which he’s actually pretty good at, but not so good that it’s preferable over a shot at the rim and a possible foul. Remember, the Spurs hardly ever foul, so it makes sense Duncan would want to cut Jack off before he knifes into the center of their defense.
Duncan does it again on this next possession, with help from Splitter. Splitter’s man, David Lee, actually sets a pick on Tony Parker that allows Jack to go left again into the restricted area. This might seem like a totally throwaway possession, but watch how disciplined Danny Green is by not getting drawn in to help on Jack’s drive.
David Lee sets a screen on the right-wing, and Parker fights over the screen, but it allows Jack an opening. Parker does well to get past Lee’s screen, and get on Jack’s hip, cutting off his maneuverability to the right side, but he’s still got an open lane left. That’s why Splitter jumps in front of him right inside the lane; except, Splitter–leery of Lee on the perimeter–immediately jumps back towards Lee after showing just enough to put some doubt into Jack’s mind about what to do next. Also, since Carl Landry is in the lane, Duncan gets an opportunity to swipe at Jack’s shot without leaving his man. But like mentioned before, Green has an opportunity to collapse on Jack as he’s coming around Lee’s screen, and stays with Klay Thompson instead. He trusts his big men to back up Parker on Jack’s drive, and realizes (after Popovich screamed it into his head) Thompson is the more dangerous player as he’s drifting towards that high-efficiency short corner three.
Now lets look at another game, this time without Duncan, when the Spurs faced off against Ricky Rubio and the Timberwolves on February 6th. In a lot of ways Rubio’s game is perfectly tailored for the Spurs. They love to force point guards into a mid range jump shot, and Ricky has struggled a lot with that shot since coming back from his torn ACL earlier this year; actually, he’s always struggled shooting the ball, but the Spurs make it even more difficult on him to find an opening.
Perhaps it’s a testament to Popovich and GM, R.C. Buford, that a couple of these next video clips feature Australian big man, Aron Baynes, who is in his first year in the NBA with the Spurs. He’s nothing special, but the only way he was going to get into Popovich’s rotation is adhering to his help defense principles, which are evident here.
Early in the 3rd quarter, we see Baynes at work. Nikola Pekovic sets a screen on Danny Green, which frees Rubio to the left. Notice here, that Green jumps out when Pekovic ambles over to force the screen going towards the sideline (take notes Steph Curry). This limits Rubio’s options to the near corner. Baynes is guarding Pekovic, but on the switch he follows Rubio all the way to the bucket since Pekovic isn’t a threat trailing the play as Green blocks any lane for a Rubio pass on the hesitation Pekovic follow.
During the play, Kawhi Leonard is stationed in the near corner on Mickael Gelabade. Gelabade might not be a household name, but he’s shot over 42 percent from 3 in 39 games last year and 14 this season. Leonard probably has a scouting report on Gelabade’s efficiency shooting from the outside. Instead of dropping all the way down when Rubio hesitates and then takes off towards the basket, Leonard only flashes toward Rubio when he’s certain a shot is going to be attempted. But it doesn’t matter because Baynes follows Rubio all the way to the bucket, and Rubio’s shot harmlessly bangs off the backboard, failing to hit iron.
In this next video, Baynes shows hard on a Rubio jumper, after Pekovic again screens Danny Green to free Rubio. Baynes jumps out and affects the Rubio mid-range jumper. Maybe a better shooter would have hit the shot, but like mentioned earlier, Popovich will take those contested 2-pointers from outside the restricted area any day of the week, as long as contesting the shot doesn’t mean shirking defensive rebounding responsibilities.
Also, earlier in the same possession highlighted, Derrick Williams sets a screen on Tony Parker which frees Luke Ridnour in the corner, but Pekovic’s man, Diaw, follows Ridnour into that far corner, and Tony Parker gets position in front of Derrick Williams on the block, where it would normally be a mismatch in Minnesota’s favor. Parker’s resiliency means Ridnour can’t get the ball into Williams and they go back to Rubio at the top where as I wrote already Baynes disrupts his jumper enough for him to miss. Spurs ball.
Kawhi Leonard’s defense is a large reason he’s become one of Gregg Popovich’s favorite younger players. This next sequence shows why. It came against the Atlanta Hawks on January 19, just a day after that Warriors win.
In the clip, the Hawks’ Jeff Teague comes down on a mini-transition, but the Spurs mostly get back in time, and things settle down enough that Teague’s drive near the left of the basket has been abandoned when Leonard cuts him off. Teague circles back around as Al Horford and Tiago Splitter come into the lane as a sort of mini-screen of bodies. Teague uses the obstructions to circle around and attack the right side of the hoop by going through the lame. Leonard fights through the brief impediment of Horford and Baynes, and stays with Teague all the way to the bucket, getting a block in the process. Splitter could have helped out on Teague’s drive, but that would have given Horford an easy dunk with no defensive help on that side. Fortunately, Splitter trusted Leonard enough that he could stay on Horford.
Last, lets look at last night’s last second 3-pointer by Kawhi Leonard that ended up winning the game for the Spurs, despite Cleveland’s excellent play at home.
Replays do show that Parker took an extra step (you’re only allowed two) before passing out to Kawhi on the wing, but the referees either missed it, or didn’t care. Regardless of the referee’s mistake, the thing to watch is what San Antonio would normally never allow: dropping off a shooter in the corner to collapse on the ball handler. Now it’s true that Parker has gotten really good at scoring in the lane, especially over larger defenders like Tyler Zeller who had switched on to him after Duncan set a high screen, taking Shaun Livingston out of the play. But the worst thing that could have happened for Cleveland was Parker scores and the game goes to overtime, or the Cavaliers win it on the ensuing possession (Kyrie’s 2-for-15 night dissuades this last point a bit, but you see what I’m saying). About the only thing the Cavaliers couldn’t do was give up a 3-pointer, and that’s exactly what happened. Dion Waiter, the hero the possession before when he hit a step-back jumper from just inside the 3-point arc to give the Cavaliers a 2-point lead with under 9 second remaining, bit just enough on Parker’s drive that he couldn’t get back to Leonard in the corner when Parker passed Kawhi the ball. Leonard knocked down the shot and the Spurs had their 14th victory in 15 games.
Listen, I know I’m preaching to a hard of hearing audience about this. Like an unshaven man in his boxers at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday trying to explain why Dungeon and Dragons is so awesome to ESPN’s Tony Reali. The majority of basketball fans don’t find defensive rotations and the ability of a wing defender to refrain from biting on a driving guard, to be exciting. It’s mundane minutiae they’d just assume neglect in favor of power slams and superstars knocking down bombs late in the game. But Gregg Popovich doesn’t give two shits about that sort of thing, nor do most NBA coaches. He preaches and practices the right way to play basketball (as a member of the Larry Brown coaching tree, this is no surprise), and his coaching combined with R.C Burford’s ability to target under/miss-used players both foreign (Baynes, Splitter), and domestic (S. Jackson, Kawhi Leonard) allows Popovich the privilege of resting his older stars for large stretches of the regular season. He can do this because his players listen to him and play defense as a system, rather than as individuals. The Spurs family understands of how to step out on a pick and roll, or how to stay when you’re protecting a wing player that can knock down a 3-pointer, which is how they’ve won 14 of their last 15 before the all-star break and hold the best record in the NBA at the ostensible halfway point of the season.
I didn’t actually think I’d change your mind about the Spurs, I just wanted you to think about why they’re so consistently dominant. It’s not just a byproduct of the personnel, which could include four future hall of fame inductees (including Pop), but of defensive philosophy that’s predicated on communication, trust and playing as a group rather than a single entity. Many coaches preach this philosophy to their players (because so many of them sprouted from the Larry Brown/Gregg Popovich family that inhabits most of professional and Division I basketball), but whether it’s his cantankerous way of scoffing at the superficial attributes of playing in the NBA, or his championship-laden resume with the Spurs, Popovich’s players invariably listen to him. If they don’t, he’s got the power to win any dispute with a player that’s unhappy with his tactics.
The San Antonio Spurs have won more games than any other team over the last decade and a half, practicing and preaching a cohesive defense that’s tough to go against no matter the personnel running it. If you’re a fan of James Dean & Marlon Brando; or Rimbaud & Verlaine; or William Blake reciting poetry naked in the garden with his wife; or Kant and Hegel’s ideas within the context of their own times; or Camus’ absurdity in fiction and Satre’s in polemics (before the icky communist bloc got to him); or the vagabond street urchin poetics of Rodriguez; or Hemingway only castigating writers that were his equal or better; you can appreciate Gregg Popovich. He’s a free spirit in a world where they’re increasingly becoming extinct; he does things his way regardless of the exigencies that come with coaching in the National Basketball Association. He also might be the best basketball coach in the history of the league (apologies to Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach acolytes).
Cheer for the Spurs, readers, and watch them with an eye towards rewinding your DVR multiple times a game. Genius isn’t the first listen, the first read, or watching the Spurs for the first time while your mind wanders elsewhere; it’s the subtle nuance of details everyone misses on the first glance. There’s a reason Emily Dickinson’s slant rhymes sat, un-read, in a locked chest for years after her death; no one had given them more than a cursory inspection. I’d like to think that’s how future ethnographers and anthropologists will have the foresight and time to appreciate what Popovich and the Spurs have done: succeed with process and community rather than with stars.
The Spurs’ collective teamwork is itself unorthodox and outside the pale like Dickinson’s slant rhymes, but if you can’t coalesce the seeming incongruity between lauding the group as a heterogeneous pursuit, then you’ve never really understood why irony, without biting sarcasm, is the highest form of flattery. The best the other NBA teams can do is a close approximation of what Popovich and Buford and the whole Spurs organization on down to the stadium janitors has been doing for years: winning their way.