SAN ANTONIO — Every coach in the NBA (and college, and high school, and youth YMCA leagues) espouses the same basic principles as Gregg Popovich on offense — move the ball, cut when you don’t have the ball, find your open teammate and trust them to make the play.
But nobody executes those things like the Spurs — they have an offensive rating of 119.2 point per 100 possessions in these Finals.
The NBA can be a copy-cat league. If coaches or scouts see something that works — for example Mike D’Antoni’s push in Phoenix to get off a shot before the defense could get set — a lot of other teams will do it. Maybe not the exact same way, but they incorporate parts. Another example, every team has a couple of triangle offense sets in the playbook.
San Antonio is on the doorstep of winning an NBA title playing “the beautiful game” of balanced team basketball — passing, cutting off the ball, swinging the ball sharply strong to weak, and being willing to give up a good shot to get their teammate a great one. It makes the Spurs offense unpredictable and hard to defend. Just ask the Heat.
“There’s nobody that’s not in play,” Ray Allen said. “For us, you have to guard a man-and-a-half, sometimes two men, in a possession.”
“Everybody’s dangerous on our team,” Boris Diaw explained. “Everybody can score at any time. It’s not like a pattern, like some times you do scouting on a team and you say ‘Who’s the head of the snake, who’s the guy who’s going to score?’ You keep them from scoring and you’re going to win the game. With us it’s a little bit different, anybody can score on any given night. You saw that during the whole regular season. One night Patty Mills is the leading scorer on our team, some times it’s Danny (Green), sometimes it’s Tony (Parker), sometimes it’s Manu (Ginobili), sometime’s it’s Tim (Duncan). It can be anyone.”
It’s a joy to watch, it makes you ask “why doesn’t every team do that?”
But is that kind of selfless team play something other teams can actually successfully emulate?
“It’s a big strategy shift from how a lot of players are brought up playing from AAU,” Matt Bonner said. “That’s give the ball to the best player and get out of the way…
“You look at teams in Europe, playing for the EuroLeague title, and their leading scorers average 13, 14 points a game probably. It’s just a team mentality, a style of play thing everybody has to buy into.”
It’s no coincidence there are a lot of European players on the Spurs, the system comes more naturally to them.
For a team that wants to do what the Spurs do on offense, it has to start with getting players not wed to that AAU style of ball. The Spurs organization focuses hard on getting guys willing to play this style, guys not concerned with numbers but rather with fitting in the team concept. For another team to emulate that would require both that team’s star player being selfless like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, then that team has to find role players to put around them who share that philosophy. Sure, San Antonio has done it, but good luck trying to follow those footsteps.
Let’s say a team did get those right guys for the system, the next ingredient is patience. It takes time to get everyone on the same page, it takes a consistency of roster.
“You don’t get it until you experience it for quite some time,” Patty Mills said. “It really took me two seasons before I really mentally understood and acknowledged what I needed to do to play a part in this team. You got to be within the group what to expect and what’s expected of you.
“There’s no textbook. You can’t pick up a textbook and read it and go and do it.”
During that time, and with the roster consistency, the Spurs also built up one other key component to making their offense click.
“I honestly think (our success) comes from the trust within each other, trusting the next person that they can make plays or they can have your back and cover you in any situation,” Mills said. “That’s a big factor that goes underestimated about the way we play.”
Would another owner be patient enough to let a GM not only find these guys but keep them together for years to work it all out? Judging from how many 50+ win coaches we’ve seen canned in the last couple years, I think not.
San Antonio is just a unique situation.
Still, should we see more of the Spurs style of play, should it be the model teams emulate?
“It should be, I think,” Mills said. “The way that we get taught how to play the game, we get told it’s the right way to play, we don’t know any other way to play and I think that’s the main thing.”