By Adam Spinella
Undoubtedly, the basketball community feels robbed. Robbed of seeing the two great Western powers in a showdown. Robbed of the grizzled and battle-tested brilliance of Popovich going against the ball movement prowess of a suddenly Kerr-less but talented Golden State squad.
Durant against Kawhi, the old guard versus the new; the 2017 Western Conference Finals could and should have been all these things. But injuries this spring rendered the Spurs’ roster inert, causing a one-sided series and a quiet and disappointing dismissal for the NBA’s most stable and successful franchise.
Such an unceremonious defeat at the hands of a clearly stacked opponent will undoubtedly bring the naysayers to their feet. Three straight seasons without an NBA Finals appearance for the Spurs, giving way to the Warriors and their core of superstars. The recent or impending retirements of some of their most beloved superstars and a team recently built with stop-gap veterans to remain in the hunt all can lead to the conclusion that the Spurs might finally be on the downward slope. How can they get past the Warriors? What do the Spurs do now to keep their roster sustainable and successful into the future?
To write the Spurs off now, after an admittedly one-sided and painful series against the new top dog in the West, would be short-sighted and far-fetched. It was just two weeks ago that the Spurs lost Tony Parker to a season-ending knee injury. Some called their season dead in its tracks then. A few days later and Kawhi Leonard goes down with an injury, missing the entire overtime period against the Houston Rockets. The Spurs win, yet even more skeptics predicted a Houston Game Six victory. San Antonio won by 39.
With Popovich in charge and R.C. Buford continuing to fuel the organization with skilled high-quality individuals, the Spurs will take this defeat the way they always do. It will motivate the holdovers for next year, challenge the architects to build smarter and leave the Spurs in familiar territory: an overlooked group written off as “too old” and unable to contend as their former champions age.
In fact, it would make perfect sense to view this roster in a pessimistic long-term fashion this summer based on what we saw over the last few weeks. Tony Parker’s knee injury could be the nail in his proverbial coffin. David Lee’s patella tendon injury the same. Patty Mills is a free agent, as is up-and-comer Jonathon Simmons. Pau Gasol will be 37 before next season begins and has proven to be a poor pick-and-roll defender at this stage of his career. Even LaMarcus Aldridge struggled throughout the postseason. Looking at this roster, there’s logically more of a cause for concern than ever before. Still, to do so would be to overlook Popovich, Buford and the illuminating star power of Kawhi Leonard.
The roster will change and the bumps in the road might be more obvious as a result. But Popovich has, in the slightest and most subtle forms, already begun to tweak San Antonio’s style of play to fit in a next generation team built around the strengths of their best young pieces. The Spurs will continue to adapt and, as always, weather any storm thrown their way.
Watching the Dubs put up 113, 136, 120 and 129 points on the Spurs in the opening of the series inevitably draws ire to the Spurs defensive efforts and attributes. The second-half collapse in Game One proved just how vulnerable the Spurs around Kawhi are, and simply how valuable Leonard is on both ends of the court. Ignoring the painstakingly obvious short-handed nature of San Antonio throughout the series for a moment, there are clear issues with the way their roster is built at full strength when it comes to countering the speed and aggressiveness that so many teams employ right now. No issue flashed more frequently this postseason than the efforts of LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge might be on the verge of becoming “the new Kevin Love”, so to speak; the super talented player whose usage, offensive acumen and defensive liabilities cause him to become less impactful with his desired style of play. Aldridge is a 6’11” power forward, tried and true. He’s got a bevy of skilled mid-range isolations and post moves, hits some of the most difficult turnaround jumpers in the league and is a skilled operator in the pick-and-pop to 18 feet. A long time lethal scorer, Aldridge has resisted the urge to play center for long stretches of time throughout his career. He’s not a vertical rim protector and doesn’t want to take the bang of defending on the blocks as much as he would need to at center. Aldridge has discussed his desire to play alongside other big men in the past.
Like Love in Cleveland, Aldridge now appears caught between positions as the small ball revolution appears in full effect. His footspeed and perimeter play on defense isn’t ideal when matching with some of the West elite’s options at the four, like Golden State’s Draymond Green or Houston’s Ryan Anderson. His aversion to playing center, and Popovich’s avoidance of placing him there full-time, keeps the Spurs a step slower than several opponents. In Game One against the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals, Aldridge was a minus-36 on the night, the worst playoff plus-minus rating of any player to play under Pop.
Let’s not pretend that means this is the end of the world for San Antonio. Popovich’s entire offense for decades has been built around a two-post approach, and it’s continued to work despite the changes taking place around the league. Culturally, Aldridge is a great fit with the Spurs and has received praise from his coaches and teammates. Even on defense, Popovich uses tactful matchups and schemes to cover for Aldridge at times. He’ll mark a guy like Andre Iguodala or Patrick McCaw against Golden State, allowing him to avoid the Draymond playmaking and help off a non-shooter in the corner.
These measures are all adjustable, meaning that opposing coaches will find a way to combat this style and exploit Aldridge, much like teams in the East try to do to Kevin Love. The onus lies on Aldridge to work on improving his game’s versatility and remaining engaged when placed in new situations (like guarding a wing in the corner). Too many times in the Warriors series was Aldridge providing minimal effort and losing track of a box out on one of the wings he’s designed to help off of.
Still, Aldridge will be 32 before next season tips off, and his long-term trajectory as a defender in San Antonio doesn’t provide much optimism. He’s not quite to the net-negative category yet either, as his offensive output still outweighs his lackluster defense. As he gets older it will likely get worse, and the Spurs are locked in to two more pricey years of LMA.
As long as the Kevin Love comparisons are on the table, the defensive versatility of the flanking superstar is the ultimate requisite for importance. Just as LeBron works hard to aid Kevin Love, Kawhi Leonard works to do the same for the Spurs. He’ll guard different players in various matchups, rotate in a unique fashion to save the scramble for the slow-footed forward or simply be active in as many areas as he can to create chaos and keep the opponent on their toes.
Leonard is one of the premier defenders in the league due to his skills, instincts and the constant refinement of his tools. This will be Leonard’s third-straight year on the All-NBA First-Defensive Team while just finishing his sixth season in the league. His defense is a weapon that the Spurs can build around just as much as his offense.
Using a defensive weapon can be done as an aggressive move (to apply pressure to an opponent and take them out of their rhythm) or a cerebral one (to mask a deficiency or create an advantage elsewhere, almost daring an opponent to try something different than their game plan). As long as Leonard plays with bigs that struggle in the pick-and-roll and a point guard that can get bullied by physical guards, his versatility will be more cerebral than aggressive. Regardless of his skill, the way the Spurs gently reshape their roster could allow Kawhi to be a heat-seeking missile with greater frequency.
Again, calling San Antonio’s system broken would be a gross miscategorization of their struggles. San Antonio was the best defensive group in the league during the regular season, number one in defensive rating and top five in field goal and three point field goal defense. This all comes while playing Aldridge at the four and big men like David Lee and Pau Gasol with him. Popovich is a defensive wizard that has one puzzle he’s yet to solve. Refining Aldridge, unleashing Leonard and retooling their role players ever so slightly might be the only ingredients left crack that code. Popovich would gladly trade in this scheme and the league’s number-one defense for a lesser regular season result and a team more apt to counter the Warriors. The only thing that matters right now is chasing the next ring, and so long as the Warriors are the main obstacle in their path to the Finals a more proactive approach to countering that series will be crucial.
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For the first time since the 2010-2011 season, the San Antonio Spurs finished the 82-game gauntlet outside the top five in the NBA in assists. Still a top-10 passing team, the Spurs have made a seismic shift to putting the ball in Kawhi Leonard’s hands in isolations, ball screens and personnel/matchup-driven scoring opportunities more than with any perimeter player in Popovich’s tenure. It didn’t disrupt the flow of San Antonio’s offense to the point where their motion was unrecognizable, but it did show some wrinkles in Popovich’s system that show his adaptability.
Kawhi’s usage as a physical wing this season saw a large uptick in the amount of isolation sets and plays called for a number-one option under Popovich. Leonard, this season, worked out of isolations roughly 13 percent of the time, according to NBA.com stats. Scoring in the 72nd percentile with 0.94 points for possession is respectable from Kawhi, showing some merit to deserving the isolation prowess. While the Spurs were still in the bottom five in the league with isolations in only 5.9 percent of all possessions, they ran nearly 100 more this season than last. Statistics on isolations aren’t readily available prior to last season, but no one player in the Popovich era has been as dominant of a scorer in isolations as Leonard is proving to be.
Six percent of all plays go to this output, a still relatively low amount when comparing to how other teams in the NBA feature one-on-one play. More eye-popping though is the timing with which Popovich will dial up these plays. Instead of putting the ball in Kawhi’s hands late in the shot clock and saying “make something happen one-on-one,” the Spurs will call an early offense post-up (usually off a flex screen) to get Kawhi an isolation or post touch before 10 seconds come off the clock.
With any of these flex actions beyond early offense (they run one prevalent set out of a Horns formation) Kawhi is still the centerpiece of the play, looking to either get a post touch off a flex screen or free himself up in the mid-range for a catch-and-shoot opportunity. It’s an example of Kawhi’s post ability and isolation scoring being a weapon to get his teammates quality looks or get his jump shot more space when he comes off a screen. In order to accomplish those tasks, Pop must call those isolations for Leonard with a high enough frequency that defenses will key into it as part of their defensive game plan.
Beyond Kawhi’s newfound ability to be a go-to scorer at any place on the court, Popovich changed up some of the team’s offensive sets in the half-court this year to leverage the strengths of his role players. After all, with a superstar like Kawhi able to score anywhere on the floor, the design of more sets could be made to put the rest of the team in positions where they are most comfortable. Any team would pay enough attention to Leonard to take him away no matter what set was signaled from the bench.
Pau Gasol as a passer and playmaker out of the high post was a skill somewhat forgotten from his time in Chicago. Pau was an elite passer in his days in the Triangle offense in Los Angeles, showing a knack for throwing the hi-lo pass (which made him an ideal tandem with LaMarcus Aldridge) and for hitting cutters in stride on backdoors (great for a system predicated on player movement the way San Antonio’s is). Thus, Popovich would frequently play through Gasol and backup David Lee (another gifted passer) in a high post series that allowed them to pick apart defenses as a passer.
Gasol and Lee have been around the game long enough to understand how to make these reads in tight areas and at high speeds, while also not putting any of their teammates in a position where they can’t be immediately successful upon catching the basketball. It may not be a concept brand new to the Popovich playbook, but the frequency with which the Spurs ran actions revolving around an early high post touch to a playmaker saw an increase from years past.
The conscious decision Popovich has always made to rest his elder statesmen throughout the regular season led to a hefty minutes increase for backup point guard Patty Mills. Mills is an Energizer Bunny-type point guard, injecting energy into the lineup as soon as he checks in. His go-go pace and ability to swerve through openings in the open floor meant that Mills’ best skills might be constrained in San Antonio’s ball movement-heavy offense. Without sacrificing their identity for accommodation, a steady diet of mid ball screens for Mills to dance with was added as the season progressed.
Mills is one of the best in the league at transitioning from sprint dribble to shooting motion quickly, so he needs only the slightest of openings off a ball screen to load up. Double Drag (the common coaching lingo for two staggered ball screens set in semi-transition) gave Mills the best of both worlds: space to operate with his speed, easy reads to find open players and enough structure around him so that the offense wouldn’t stagnate once he gave up the ball.
Popovich isn’t and has never been averse to the ball screen as a method of scoring; in fact, Tony Parker has long populated the list of point guard frequency from the pick-and-roll and was the centerpiece of San Antonio’s scheme less than a decade ago before they changed their format. But Popovich rarely would run middle ball screens without false movement beforehand or that occurred within the flow of their motion offenses. A commitment to Double Drag this season saw a change in the flavor of ball screen that Pop ordered.
All these tweaks probably combine for about 10 percent fluctuation in the type of play-calling or style that the Spurs ran this season — minuscule in the grand scheme of their offense. That 10 percent does have a large impact in how the Spurs are scouted and where their offensive threats originate. We’re now seeing the origins of yet another drastic change in the way the Spurs try to score the basketball. Five years ago, it was a shift away from the Tony Parker PNR prowess to a more fluid type of ball movement all the time. Aldridge came last season and the Spurs pounded the ball inside frequently. This year, we’re starting to see the next changes take place, revolving around Kawhi Leonard touches and the leveraging of other players in unique sets designed for them.
The cast of characters will change in San Antonio, it always does. Twenty-eight-year-old Patty Mills is an unrestricted free agent and could command quite a salary elsewhere as several teams around the league look for a do-over at the lead guard spot. After next season, Pau, Parker, Manu and David Lee could all be retired or moved on. In trying to topple the Western Conference foes now, Popovich was wise enough to start the offensive restructuring around Kawhi while those pieces for adequate support were still in place. Now, for those paying close attention to the details of the scaffolding holding up their attack, there is high confidence that the success won’t fall by the wayside once the old guard officially moves on.
San Antonio’s offense operates on the delicate push-pull dynamic of the unique brilliance that Popovich exudes. Like any innovator, the revolutionary work that Pop has put into the Spurs offense has made them the standard that many around the league have attempted to duplicate. But as the rest of the league finds other innovations, the task falls on Popovich’s desk to continue to tinker with and change with the times or to stick with the system that brought them to prominence. A life-long learner and a liberal thinker, he possesses a mind never satisfied with what it has already figured out.
Herein lies the true aura that makes coaches like myself hold Popovich in the highest of esteems. A savant play-caller, leader of men, motivator, innovator and beacon of respect, Popovich has a mastery not just of what buttons to push, but when to push them. As the league sees an unprecedented upward trajectory of use of the three-point shot, there lie the contrarian Spurs bucking the trend and shooting the fifth-fewest three-pointers in the league. But Pop takes the lessons applied from shooting threes — added perimeter spacing for drives, the threat of the shot to open up the lane, the corner three as the highest efficiency shot outside of the rim — and warped them into his offense. The Spurs lead the league in three point percentage this season.
And while Kawhi Leonard stands alone in the Popovich playbook in terms of individual usage across so many types of situation, his volume in comparison to other stars in this league remains low. How ridiculously amazing must Gregg Popovich be if this most transcendent individual scorer, after 20 years as the most successful coach in the NBA, is held back in MVP conversations because he plays for this one coach and his system? The ascent of Kawhi to the coronation of best player in San Antonio continues, and as he ascends higher, Popovich will give him greater responsibilities.
Still, the MVP discussion and success of the Spurs dynasty is a painful reminder of what Pop would resent the most to hear: this is his team. It always has been, and as long as he’s their coach it will continue to be. No one individual associated with an organization that does not wear a jersey has been more impactful or important to their team’s success than Gregg Popovich.
The rest of the league tries to steal one ingredient at a time from the Spurs’ special recipe, looking to create their own batch of success. So many front office leaders and head coaches around the league get one opportunity after another thanks to having the silver and black letterhead on their resume. Some find success, others flounder, but the conclusion is the same. There is no recipe for success to takeaway from Pop, or from the Spurs. There is no secret, there is no certain path to winning year in and year out. All that exists is a league so tantalized by one man and his championship-caliber longevity that they’ll continue to try anything they can to emulate.
No matter how large the current Golden State road block appears, Pop and the Spurs will never stop trying to hurdle it. They’ll tinker with their roster and their system slightly, they’ll continue to innovate and renovate at a faster and more effective pace than anyone around. Most importantly, Popovich will endure whatever is necessary to get back on top of that mountain again. No team has the internal infrastructure of San Antonio, and frankly few teams even come close to rivaling their culture. In the end, it’s hard to bet against Pop, R.C. and Kawhi as they fight to reclaim their throne atop the Western Conference.