I have coached it at the high school level for the last three years. And one thing I have learned is that with just four hours of weekly practice time followed by four games every weekend, if you don’t have definitive, well-drilled schemes on both offense and defense, you have no chance to compete.
However, if you have a group that is committed to a specific style of play on both ends of the floor, you can consistently compete with, and even beat teams that are bigger, stronger, quicker and more talented than yours.
Gregg Popovich has the San Antonio Spurs committed to a system. At its roots, that system is grounded in the fundamentals that are preached – and often ignored – at every level of basketball, from AAU to NBA. On defense, pressure the ballhandler to make things difficult. Commit to playing defense as individuals and as a team. Box out and don’t allow second shots.
On offense, get the ball quickly upcourt and look for early offense. In the halfcourt, set solid picks and make hard cuts. Trust your scheme and your teammates. Give up a good shot to get a great shot.
These are the basics of the game. And right now, with these basics as their foundation, Popovich and the Spurs are making the NBA look like an AAU tournament.
“It does help to have the 14 years that they have of this,” noted Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, who was a part of “this” for several years. “They have a nice foundation. They have a nice culture in place.”
You want fundamentals on defense? The Spurs are 28th in offensive rebound percentage (.206), second in points allowed (89.8), fifth in opponents’ shooting (.428), first in fewest fouls (17.7) and first in defensive rebound percentage (.778). In short, they get back in transition, set their defense, contest shots without fouling and box out.
You want fundamentals on offense? The Spurs are 14th in fast break points (12.2), fourth in assists (24.6), fifth in fewest turnovers (14.2), first in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.739), sixth in 3-point shooting (.405), second in overall shooting (.488), fourth in effective shooting (.537) and sixth in points per possession (1.045). In short, they look to run, move the ball smartly, get good shots from everywhere on the floor … and make them.
When you are that good on offense andon defense, it produces scary numbers. Like 10 straight wins. Like a scoring margin of 11.5 points, two points better than anyone else. Like no one playing over 30 minutes but 10 guys playing at least 12. Like nine players averaging at least seven points. Like five regulars shooting better than 53 percent.
The Spurs have no one in the top 20 in scoring, top 30 in rebounding or top 15 in assists. They have no one in the top 40 in free throw attempts or top 80 in minutes. They have four double-doubles as a team.
What they have is opponents in utter awe.
Brown felt it firsthand Saturday, when no Spurs starter played more than 21 minutes but all 13 players saw at least 11 minutes and scored at least six points. They made 16-of-24 from the arc, had 30 assists against 15 turnovers and dropped a buck and a quarter and a penny on the Cavaliers, who have spent the first month of the season arguing with each other.
“It was definitely a good thing for our guys to see and to feel it because I know they felt it,” Brown said. “Hopefully it lasts and it has an imprint on them.”
The Spurs also are doing it with Ginobili’s production as low as it has been since he was a rookie. With Tim Duncan shooting less than 40 percent and off to the worst start of his career. With the anticipated explosion from Kawhi Leonard sounding more like a popgun. And with Tony Parker’s numbers down from a season ago.
“Their bench is really good and very, very underrated,” said Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whose young team actually acquitted itself pretty well in a 104-93 loss to the Spurs last week. “When you talk about those guys coming in and passing and moving the ball, they are good players. They all know how to play and they’re all very skilled.”
“We don’t really play individual basketball,” said Matt Bonner, one of those bench players. “No one is trying to get their stats. It’s about doing the best job we can on each possession.”
The key is unselfishness, a rare commodity among NBA teams with players caught up in minutes, shots, paychecks, highlights and grudges.
“They’re a tough team to play because any given night anyone could go off,” Celtics forward Jared Sullinger said. “They move the ball, could care less about scoring. They play together as a team. … They also have go-to players but they hardly ever use them because they move the ball so well. It’s hard to guard them.”
“They’ve been around for a while, so they have good team chemistry,” Cavs forward Tony Bennett said. “They share the ball a lot. They don’t really worry about who scores or who gets the rebounds or assists. They just go out there and play hard every possession.”
Most NBA teams that view themselves as title contenders have two goals – the short-term goal of winning the next game and the long-term goal of winning the championship. However, Popovich – while maintaining a grasp on those two goals – has a third: Get better as the season progresses and be playing your best entering the postseason.
Given that thought process, there are two ways to look at San Antonio’s current level of play. One is that the Spurs may be peaking too early in a long season. They have always tended to peak in late March and early April.
The other is that the Spurs have more than four months to work on their craft and get even better.
And that is a frightening thought.
TRIVIA: Only three active players have led the league in steals per game, but two are on the same team. Who are the teammates? Answer at the bottom of Page 2.