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Old 04-27-12, 12:05 AM
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Popovich, Buford, and the Spurs Dynasty

This is going to be a very long post. It's an "essay", if you will, that I've been working on for the last few weeks.

A bit of personal info: I have college degrees in electrical engineering and materials science, I've studied quite a bit of statistics, mathematics, computer programming, and quantum physics,
and I currently work as an electrical engineer. I only say this to hopefully lend credibility to my discussion of statistics.

I believe that the San Antonio Spurs are a true dynasty, and that it is due to the genius of Greg Popovich and RC Buford, and their system of building a basketball team.

And here's why.

In physics and mathematics there's a very important principle called the Law of Large Numbers. Those of you who have studied economics probably are aware of it also.
In simple terms, it states that the laws of averages only have significance, or are only truly revealed, in very large sample sizes.

A lot of practical physics and engineering takes advantage of this principle. For example, there's a thing called a quantum tunneling junction, that makes up semiconductor components that
are part of flat screen TVs and other devices. In this, there is a 1 in 1-billion chance that an electron can travel past the junction, to complete an electrical circuit.
This might seem totally useless, until we decide to send trillions of electrons per second at this junction. Then the law of large numbers kicks in, and suddenly we have millions of electrons per second,
each with a tiny individual chance of working, actually completing an electrical circuit, and our TV works!

Let's use a basketball example. I've seen Ben Gordon on many occasions hit 5 three-pointers in a row. If you watched him shoot 10 3's, you might guess he's about a 50% 3point shooter.
But he's like a 33% three point shooter. For every time he hits 5 three pointers in a row, he has 5 sequences of 5 attempts where he only hits one of 5 three pointers.
The more he shoots 3 pointers, the more likely you are to notice that over a large sample size, he hits about 30%. In fact, you might NEVER see a sequence of shots where Gordon shoots exactly 30%. But on average, he does.

Now I want to expand this number phenomenon to an entire team. The Spurs. There is one number about the Spurs that is the most important number in all of American sports.
The Spurs have the highest winning percentage in all of proffessional sports in the last 15 years, about 70%. As Spurs fans we're all familiar with this number.
However, I don't believe that people truly appreciate how absolutely astounding, and how statistically significant this is.

The sample size of 15 years, in basketball terms, is huge. And the Law of Large Numbers kicks in. It tells us that there's something about the Spurs, that makes them, on average, the best proffessional sports team in America.
This is an absolutely amazing feat, this is what makes the Spurs a dynasty, and is deserving of a serious investigation into "HOW"?

Now, because the start of this incredible run coincides with the Spurs' acquisition of Tim Duncan, you, like the majority of so-called "experts", might call Duncan the reason for the Spurs success.
I'm going to tell you that this is impossible. There is no way that a single player, even one as good as Timmy, can have enough of an impact on a team that they will have the highest winning percentage among over 100 proffessional sports teams
over a sample size as large as 15 years. (You might ask me: Then how did Michael Jordan win, effectively, 6 titles in a row? I'll get to that). Duncan is only the second most influential factor in how the Spurs are a dynasty.

The real secret is Popovich and Buford's team building philosophy and playing system. Somehow, maybe through pure genius, or totally unwittingly, they figured out how to build a team to take advantage of how the law of averages reveals itself over large sample sizes.
I never fully understood it until this year, when the entire basketall world was blindsided by the apparent inexplicable way the Spurs morphed from the most dominant defensive team to the most dominant offensive team in less than 2 seasons.
But it actually makes perfect sense.

The Spurs philosophy over the last 15 years actually hasn't changed much.
The principle is this: They play in such a way, that the chances for them to score points based on the abilities of their roster is greater than the chances for the opponents to score based on the abilities of their's.
When the Spurs had Bruce Bowen, they took advantage of his ability to keep his feet and body in front of the opposing team's best perimeter player, that along with the Twin Towers and a very disciplined system of rotation,
they caused the opposing team to take, on average, lower percentage shots than they usually took.
The Spurs slowed the game to fewer possessions, to limit the impact of a possible higher average shooting percentage of the opponent.
The Spurs took very few 3 pointers or long jumpers, to minimize the chances that opponents could play in transition on long rebounds.

But without Bruce Bowen, and other defensive players, the Spurs defense is no longer as effective at lowering the opponent's offensive percentages as it used to be.

So, brilliantly, the Spurs, with apparently no effort, switched to a tactic where they play in such a way that they now attempt to maximize their own chances to score on any given possession.
Now we fling 3s as frequently as anyone ever has, we shoot early in the shot clock, and we run in transition, conceding higher percentage chances to the opponent,
but knowing that our average chance of success is increasing more than their's.


How does it work? And if this system is so good, why don't the Spurs win the title every year?

First of all, the Spurs system takes an incredible amount of discipline. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. You have to have players that are not only good at basketball,
but that are smart enough and disciplined enough to see how the system works, and play within it. You hear Popovich talking about this all the time.

Once clue that you'll see that links the Spurs' past defensive prowess and current offensive prowess to the same system is this: The Spurs always are near the bottom of the league in fouls committed.
They correctly understand that almost every shot has a lower percent chance over a large sample size to yield 2 points to the opponent than 2 free throws do.
No matter how good or bad our defense has been, that trend has been totally systemic.

This system is how the Spurs can take someone like Danny Green, a journeyman who nobody has heard of, and turn him into a 40% 3-point shooter.
The Spurs system demands that you work to create the 2 most effective high percentage shots available in the game: the open 3-pointer and the layup (I include Parker's teardrop in this category).
A 40% 3-point shot average is equivalent to a 60% 2-point shot average.
Danny Green is gonna hit a higher percentage of open threes than Kobe or LeBron will hit on contested fadeaway 3s or an equivalent number of contested fadeaway 2s ALL DAY LONG.
The difference is that the Spurs only take open 3s, and not contested fadeaways. (And by only, I mean usually).
Therefore, we don't need LeBron and Kobe to shoot those shots for us, all we need is people like Patty Mills or Danny Green who are smart enough and disclipled enough to get open for those other shots.
And the way we get all these easy shots? We run the simplest play in basketball: the pick and roll. The only difference is that the Spurs have more discipline to run it correctly, than you have to defend it correctly. On average, we win.

The Spurs take advantage of the fact that other teams' ways of playing don't demand the discpline or intelligence that ours does. We simply out-smart and out-execute them.
Somehow, the Spurs are able to keep getting players that are willing to exert themselves on the level of discipline and intelligence that the system demands.

Now, the system itself is no guarantee of success. You can't just throw it at any group of players and win titles.
You have to have players that fit it, that fit together, and you still have to have all-star caliber players.
You have to have good players who run the offense in such a way they increase their scoring chances more than the opponents.
As soon as you accomplish this, the law of averages over a large sample size will dictate that you end up winning a large percentage of games.


Now look, the more skilled the players you have in the system, the better you are going to do. It's not magic, it's still basketball.
If Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, Carmello Anthony, and Zach Randolph were playing together and ran the Spurs' system with the level of discipline that Popovich demands, they would be ridiculously unstoppable.
The system is only as good as the players that are executing it. Fortunately, the Spurs have had guys like Manu, TP and Duncan to run it.

But the system is still greater than any one player. If Tim Duncan had been drafted by the Boston Celtics instead of the San Antonio Spurs, several things would have happened in my opinion.
Timmy would have the same career stats. Timmy would be a perrenial all-star, and a hall-of-famer. Timmy would be the best power forward of all time. Timmy would probably have even won a couple titles.
But there is no way he would have 4 rings, and no way, absolutely no way, that the Celtics would have had the best record on all of sports over the entire span of Duncan's career.

So...how did Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls pull off two 3-peats, and how do Kobe's Lakers have more titles in the Ducan era than the Spurs do? Well, I know that many Spurs fans will hate to hear this,
but I have come to firmly believe that it is due to: Phil Jackson. A lot of people say that Phil Jackson wasn't really that good of a coach, he just lucked into MJ and Kobe/Shaq.
But as I said, I don't believe that any one player, even the greatest player of all time in MJ, can single-handedly beat the law of large numbers.
Phil Jackson was smart enough to develop a system that used the strengths of his players in a way that increased their chances of scoring to be greater than the opponent.
He always had top notch defenses, and ran an offense that yeilded high percentage shots. Then he had hall of fame players to execute it.
There's no way that MJ plays on another team and wins 6 titles in a row. And there's no way that the Lakers win 5 titles in the Duncan/Kobe era without Phil Jackson and his system. Absolutely no way.

So why has the Spurs' "superior" system not resulted in 15 consecutive titles? Lots of reasons.
People aren't perfect. RC Buford and Pop aren't perfect. They sometimes get players who don't fit quite right. Sometimes they make bad decisions.
Sometimes they can't bring the right players (Scola maybe?), or fail to keep the right players. Sometimes the Spurs players fail to perform and execute consistently over the course of a season.
Sometimes the players just aren't as good as they need to be.
Sometimes its bad luck with the law of averages. It's really, really hard to be the best team in any one year, much less many years in a row. Injuries, 0.4 seconds, a single Manu foul....

Also, statistics have a say. The playoffs are a small sample size, and it's totally statistically normal to have an isolated group of games where you don't maintain a 70% win percentage, and that might very well come in the playoffs.
But it would have been statistically unusual for the Spurs to never win a title...which they didn't. They won 4.
Also, when you consider the average level of talent that the Spurs put on the court each year, compared with some of the other teams in the NBA, and especially when you consider the very excellent Laker teams in this same era,
it would have been statistically unusual for the Spurs to win more than 5 or 6 titles, which they didn't.

Think about it on a small scale. Sometimes you'll lose a game because you miss a lot of open shots and the opponent makes a lot of contested shots. You have Matt Bonner missing easy shots and LeBron hitting hard shots.
Sometimes you'll loose a couple of games in a row like that. But if you have the discipline to keep playing games that way, the averages will catch up.
Over a lot of games, you'll eventually find that you end up winning more than you lose....if you manage to run the system that allows you to create those kind of averages.
And over 15 years, the consequences of those averages will be revealed. This is what the Spurs do.

Now before you start calling me John Hollinger Jr, think about the ultimate brilliance of the system, and what an unbelievable accomplishment it is that it works like it does.
It just so happens, that if you could genetically engineer a player to be the perfect foundation for a system that could bring success to almost any group of pro basketball players that were willing execute it with the requisite discipline,
his name would be Tim Duncan. Now I don't know how it happened, if Popvich and Buford figured out that they could build this around Duncan, or if they had this idea and just lucked into getting the perfect player for it;
But don't get it wrong: Tim Duncan doesn't make the system work. He just happens to work within it more perfectly than almost any player alive.

So in the end, the Spurs, on average, outscore their opponent per possession more often than any other team and it results in more wins than any other team.
Here's where the one John Hollinger metric that I believe in shows up: that point differential is a stronger indicator of team success than amost any other team stat. Something that, incidentally, the Spurs also lead in over the last 15 years.
A team that wins 2 games by 10 and loses 1 game by 2 is better than a team that wins 3 games by 3 each. Over a larger sample size, the team that scores more than its opponents on a per-possession basis will end up out scoring its opponents more on a per-game basis more regularly.
This equals more wins in the long run. You can't beat the law of large numbers.

This is how the Spurs can put together different groups of role players year after year, over and over and over, and end up winning over and over and over.
It doesn't always result in titles, but the Spurs system gives any group of players that execute it correctly a better statistical chance of winning games than any other system in the NBA does.
This translates into giving them a better statistical chance of winning championships than any other team.

This is why the Spurs are a real dynasty, this is how the Spurs have the best winning percentage in all of American Pro Sports, and this is why Greg Popovich and RC Buford are brilliant.

Not only because they believe in the Spurs system, but they somehow make it work.

$
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Last edited by Money4Nothing; 05-01-12 at 08:31 AM.
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Old 04-27-12, 12:06 AM
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sorry didn't read but... I think I agree
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Old 04-27-12, 01:35 AM
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I actually agree that Tim Duncan is one of the biggest reasons. Never underestimate Tim Duncan..He is such a consistent NBA players for so many years. And he does it in so many different ways. His game was built to last that is just how smart this TD is.

If Tim Duncan was a flashy player, whether in a small market or in a large market he would have had the entire world cheering for him and his team. But Tim does it quietly leaving the numbers SPEAK for himself. His numbers are most importantly STEADY. And this is how Spurs system had been steadily winning.

Pop's system had always been built around Tim Duncan is the second reason this system won that many games. And I know Pop does a whole lot of Trial and Error all the time to come up with the perfect compliment to work with this complicated system which no doubt is one of the most successful ones in Professional Sports for decades.

RC and the FO creative ways to continue the great Hunting for talents that fit the budget and the complicated Pop system had been the other part of the puzzle. Well Done with few mistakes for a long time too.

Everything has to happen at the same time. All those parts complements each other. No way you can clone this system and build a similar one. This is because it is all done by putting together the pieces to the puzzle just like Ginobili does his game with no way to clone Manu, it just happens like that. Everything needs to click at the right time.

Those things that create team chemistry are things accumulated by playing the right combination of players who share Great will power and determination. That is how Dynasty is!
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Old 04-27-12, 07:42 AM
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Old 04-27-12, 08:11 AM
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Personally loved it! Great read ......Don't know how you took the words outta my mouth by you did. It's all about a system of perfection for Coach Pop. You had a great explination of how do the Spurs maximize their efficiency to the fullest.

In lamens terms for us stupid people......lol.....as of right now, the Spurs basically have perfected a system to get the best possible shot offensively at all times! And in years past, the Spurs found a way to maxamize their efficiency on the defensive side by limiting opponents to the worst possible scenario.
Again, great read.
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Old 04-27-12, 08:52 AM
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I read it, and re-read it again. Actually, it articulates what I have been thinking about for several months. The Spurs Pop / Duncan era should be considered the best, most successful, combination ever. Statistically, regular season, championship rings, you name it. Combine that with class, and it really is something to behold.

It sort of reminds me a bit of Moneyball - maybe Pop is that "stats geek" guy, that figured out the math along time ago, and with his whole CIA background, managed to keep it to himself? Sort of shrug his shoulders and tells the reports, sometimes the ball goes in, and sometimes it don't. Yeah, true... but he knows how to play the odds. And apparently, the evens too.
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Old 04-27-12, 09:37 AM
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This is one GREAT read! Thank you for taking the time to write this and post it up.

Whilst reading, I can see that most Spurs plays end up as open 3's, pick and roll lay ups, or pick and roll shots at the elbow. We drop the occassional low post play in there too, which can also lead to open 3's.

The thing I got out of it most was that shooting 40% 3's was as good as 60% 2's. The types of players that get 60% 2's are big men that consistently dunk (eg Chandler), or get garbage shots (put backs). This is a great analogy.

I also believe that the "system" adapts to the role players as well. This year we are the leading offensive team in the league. I think it took a good 2 years of them changing the personnel to fit this playing style, and getting the players to play within the system. When we had the twin towers, we shot less 3's which meant that we defended the fast break very well.
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Old 04-27-12, 10:30 AM
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Great read, $-4-0.

40% from 3 = 60% from 2. Excellent.

In other words:

(1) The SPURS do their best to turn the game into a computer simulation, where our system, on the average, wins out. And we have Manu when we need to go off script!

(2) The SPURS just keep pounding the rock.
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Old 04-27-12, 10:44 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rodny21a View Post
sorry didn't read but... I think I agree
Please ...go back to ********* if you don't like real posts by real Spurs fans
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Old 04-27-12, 10:50 AM
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Money - thanks for your efforts and the post - I did read thru a third and then abandoned and of course agree generally with you!
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Old 04-27-12, 10:54 AM
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Great post, m4n. The Spurs success truly is a SYSTEM achievement. Think about it: If we win again this year, the "holdovers" from last championship are the big three. That's it. From '99? Timmy. In other words: it ain't because of the persistence of super-talented players that we're perennially in the hunt.

It's the stabilizing influence of Pop. You're spot on in your analysis of his influence on the team culture--and the ultimate team success. Without someone behind the scenes making sure we get the right guys in place to play the right way, the Spurs fizzle and fade into lottery obscurity long before this latest incarnation.
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Last edited by WhiteChocolateJr; 04-27-12 at 10:57 AM. Reason: typo fixin
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Old 04-27-12, 12:20 PM
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great post...thanks!

"But without Bruce Bowen, and other defensive players, the Spurs defense is no longer as effective at lowering the opponent's offensive percentages as it used to be."


i think that other reason to morph the system was the change in rules... (hand check, etc) coupled with the reasons you explain...
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Old 04-27-12, 09:14 PM
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Agree mostly (didn't read all, too long). But i think TD is the main reason because he allowed everything to fall in place as Pop wanted it to be. After all, it is a player's league and he bought into the system.
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Old 04-28-12, 12:33 PM
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Great post.

The one thing that doesn't compute is how the Team is having great success this season with Tim playing a diminished role. I think we have better talent that people think. Our average talent has increased more than Tim Duncan's talent has decreased due to age.
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Old 04-29-12, 10:01 AM
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Outstanding!
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Old 04-29-12, 10:59 AM
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Finally read the entire post. I commend $ for writing it. I think it takes special leaders to make such a system to work. First you have RC and Pop making it work from an organizational standpoint, but then you have Tim Duncan setting the prime example to his peers who take the court with him. When you have you're best player to ever play for the franchise take criticism from his coach as if he were a benchwarmer, it sets an example to the rest of the team and most importantly let's it be known that no player, even Timmy, is above the team. That says more than anything. That coupled with finding adequate players who fit the system sets Rc and Pops plan in motion. Of course the system Is not flawless but it is the most consistent in all of sports. Every year we see that there are interchangeable parts, but the gm, coach and duncan have remained intact. Of course it helps to have two all stars in Manu and tp at alongside timmy helping to preserve spurs culture. No other sports franchise today can state that such integral parts have remained intact over such a long period of time. This franchise prides itself on filling its roster with adequate fitting pieces who are honorable and respectable to the team and most importantly, want to win within the system. There is no room for individuality in this franchise and having players like the big 3 help preserve it and keep players 1-13 in line makes it easier to keep such a culture going. The roster today is deeper than ever before and the fact that it occurred during such economic hardship when organizations are being frugal with spending speaks volume about our front office. The fact that our FO is able to do it today is such a hard feat and deserve all the recognition they get. Yes players role within the team change to a certain degree (like td), but the culture stays the same and when consistency as far as who leads team is concerned on all levels, similar results can be expected
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Old 04-29-12, 11:04 AM
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We are truly lucky to be fans of the greatest nba franchise since MJ left the league
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Old 05-01-12, 08:20 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by choppsboy View Post
Great post.

The one thing that doesn't compute is how the Team is having great success this season with Tim playing a diminished role. I think we have better talent that people think. Our average talent has increased more than Tim Duncan's talent has decreased due to age.
The greatness of the Spurs is that we have the greatness of Tim Duncan combined with the greatness of Greg Popovich, not because we have either one, but both.

"Tim Duncan doesn't make the system work. He just happens to work within it more perfectly than almost any player alive."

This is why the Spurs would still do well with Duncan playing a diminished role. If you put guys in there who will play "Spurs Basketball", they don't have to be as awesome as Tim to be successful.

Also, you could put Duncan into, say, the Golden State Warrior's system, and he would still be personally successful. I just doubt that they'd be as good as the Spurs.

You hear Popovich tell his team in huddles "do your work early". He means, if you work hard to get easy shots, you'll do better than a team that works easy to take hard shots.

Case in point: The Miami Heat work hard on defense and early in the shot clock, and get LeBron, Wade, Battier, Chalmers, a lot of easy shots. Then the Knicks come down and Anthony and Stoudamire stand around then throw up tough fadeaway jumpers with 3 seconds on the shot clock, and predictably miss about 65% of them.



$
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Old 05-01-12, 10:10 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by choppsboy View Post
Great post.

The one thing that doesn't compute is how the Team is having great success this season with Tim playing a diminished role. I think we have better talent that people think. Our average talent has increased more than Tim Duncan's talent has decreased due to age.
I think this is the point. The system is bigger then the individual.
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Old 05-02-12, 11:30 AM
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Dollar sign-cuatro-nada, your treatise was fantastic. As writer bill simmons has written, the Spurs have had to implement their system without the benefit of lottery picks save (And I know its a HUGE SAVE, Admiral and Merlin), "Trapped at the top of the standings, they've been forced to rely on others' failed lottery picks (traded pick Leonard-NO WAY A FAILURE but worth less to Indy than getting Hill. Dejuan Blair- a projected lottery pick before discovering he has no ACLs), foreign rookies (Tiago Splitter who is world's better this year than last, Patty Mills, okay a foreign star, but not a rookie), journeymen (Matt Bonner, Danny Green)and head cases with baggage (Diaw,SJax). His best teammates have been David Robinson (who turned 33 in Duncan's rookie year), Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker .

Just eyeballing the Spurs, it reminds of when the Spurs ran into the lakers in 01 and 02 when they were running four down. If I remember it correctly, the lakers had defended in a way that limited what options the four down could do. It was after Mike Budenholzer came in that the Spurs came up with counter options that didn't exist before and implemented during their title run in '03 taking down the lakers on their way.

The point that I am trying to make is that the Spurs have adapted to whatever the league was trending and put themselves in a position to get ahead of the trend.

I remember SR members were killing Pop for going small ball in '06 when a silly Manu foul keeps the Spurs from winning a threepeat. But small ball is NOW the trend. Credit Pop for realizing that the wing and guard play would be the future back then and loading this team to the makeup we see today, Power forwards who can play on the perimeter, and post men who are adroit and both the pick and roll AND Pick and pop, wingmen who can handle the rock and pass, shoot from three point range and can get to the basket. That is not even mentioning the point guards in this league, quality throughout the league, and the Spurs have arguably the best one right now based on what Parker has done this entire season. The way that he can now be deadly shooting from the outside and allowing him to shoot because defenses fear more his penetration in the lane. Le Blur makes himself a triple threat because he now is passing to teammates with better looks at the basket more than he has ever done before.

And that is why the Spurs offense is so efficient and high scoring.
Some worry about the defense, though no longer the defensive juggernaut key in past championships, the Spurs play JUST ENOUGH defense in key stretches to win games because their offensive output cannot be matched by their opponents.
Throw the fact that the Spurs take a look at lebron, durant, kobe, wade, and are able to throw a Leonard, a Green, a Jackson, and infrequently a Ginobili at them. All those opponents are superstars that have to carry their teams offensively. Not so the guys mentioned from the Spurs, save Manu.
The Spurs wings can key in defensively and only have to take advantage of the few opportunities that they get offensively because everyone on the Spurs team makes sacrifices willingly for a championship... If you think about how the Spurs bench is counted on to continue a performance level to the starters, think about what happens when they are head to head against the other bench... Mismatch. Advantage Spurs....
GAME, SET, MATCH.... SPURS..
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Old 05-03-12, 08:31 AM
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Join Date: Oct 2002
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Did you notice Kenny Smith's comments last night after the Spurs' game? Talking about the Spurs system, and how it seems to easily allow anyone to be plugged in and be successful. Barkley disagreed with him, talking about how it's the superstars on the team that matter more than the coach. But in reality, they are both right.

Either one would be good, but when you put superstars into a great system, you get the 15 year dominance of the San Antonio Spurs.

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