2013 Offseason

The San Antonio Spurs and maximizing player talents


Model and process.

The San Antonio Spurs are the model franchise for those places that have trouble attracting free agents to move their families to a less than desirable location. When I say less desirable, it’s in relative terms. It’s hard to equate our lives to those of an NBA player, whose lifestyle will always be a different world to us. When you have the opportunity to live in a lively city that also has complementary amazing weather or unmatched nightlife, that’s going to be more desirable for you as an NBA player. When you don’t have those luxuries, you have to have a core set of values that never get compromised. You have to possess a process to believe in.

This is how the San Antonio Spurs are and it makes me insanely jealous. It’s not even that they’re successful. Sure, it would be awesome if the Wolves had four championships or even one championship to look up at in the rafters of the Target Center, but what I’m envious of is the process for how they look to accomplish their goals for success.

Sometimes I wonder how much of their success comes from the ability to push the media away from what they’re doing.

We can all look at the action on the court, the moves off the court, the development of certain players, and the philosophies the Spurs have around their team. Those are all tangible things you can glean from trying to figure out what makes them tick. You can see they have stars that are willing to be self-effacing. You can witness the level of respect and trust the organization has in Gregg Popovich. You can measure just how effective their schemes are and how certain players work within them.

But they’ve built a wall around the organization to try and keep out the threat of distraction from the process of what they do. There is both good and bad, but it requires a steady hand and a confidence in the process to execute this way of running things. In reading the incomparable Kevin Arnovitz and his stellar work on the San Antonio Spurs’ deflection of attention, I came across a paragraph that made my heart flutter and my envy seethe (I’ll be quoting this post a few times):

Upon those cornerstones, they created the culture they have now, particularly from ’97 forward, with an almost-new coach in Popovich and a super-efficient low-post weapon in Duncan. For more than 15 years, they’ve stayed true to their core philosophies, as the best organizations do, even as they’ve innovated to remain competitive. For the Spurs, stability and serenity emerged as the organization’s defining qualities from the top down, so they were adopted as edicts in the team’s manifesto.

It’s impractical to believe the Wolves can find this level of stability and serenity as currently constructed. Rick Adelman, our greatest hope for being a Gregg Popovich-ian type of leader, is already 67 years old. While Popovich holds Adelman in the highest regard and sings his praises in lieu of his typically mercurial interactions when asked about the Wolves’ coach, to believe Adelman will be with this organization past this current contract or deeply into a possible follow-up contract seems naive at best. Pop was around 45 years old when he started to take over the Spurs and has used nearly 20 years of vision and standards to build the Spurs’ culture to what it is today — a model franchise for all of the “little guys” out there.

More (or less) realistically, that puts the onus on Flip Saunders (58 years old but seasoned with this organization as you all know) as the potential Popovich-ian protagonist in this adventure. I’m not beginning to say that Flip Saunders is or could be the next Gregg Popovich as he builds the Wolves back up to a postseason resident; what I’m saying is it’s far more likely that the President of Basketball Operations and part-owner nearly 10 years the junior of the team’s head coach will be the one that sets the culture with the Timberwolves.

Self-knowledge isn’t easy to come by. If a franchise is fortunate enough to have it, that team should do everything it can to preserve it, even if that means building a fortress.

“From a team-building perspective, we should know who we are and what we believe to be successful in our environment,” general manager R.C. Buford says. “This has allowed us to build processes and to make decisions that we hope to be sustainable.”

Who are the Timberwolves?

What is the identity of this team? Is it the grizzled and no nonsense nature of their coach? Is it the stat-stuffing, hungry leader in the unique weapon that is Kevin Love? Is it the lovable Spanish point guard who drops jaws as he’s dropping dimes?

You may have an answer to that question right now, and I am not sure I would argue with it. I know the answer from my end on that question is:

“I don’t know what the identity of this team is.”

In trying to figure out what this team identity is or should be, I look to the Spurs and wonder how they knew or when they knew or if they knew before it was actually set. How did they know that Popovich was their identity? How did they know that R.C. Buford and Peter Holt were the gatekeepers of what has become sacred amongst basketball channels? How did they know that Tim Duncan was going to buy in or Tony Parker was the one to keep around or Manu Ginobili would show a lack of ego when he went from being one of the biggest stars in Europe to being a celebrated Sixth Man in the NBA?

That’s probably the biggest key when it comes to building up a franchise. Find an identity. The Memphis Grizzlies found one. The Boston Celtics found one in 2007 (you’re welcome). The Miami Heat found it, reshaped it, and then rolled with it. The Chicago Bulls certainly seem to understand what their identity is, much like the Detroit Pistons of the mid-aughts figured it out and turned it into championship belts.

Rubio would love the Spurs’ model of never feeling the need to give morsels to the media. Whether it’s a language barrier or a focus on winning above talking, he seems perfect for the lips-sealed culture of what the Spurs like to do. I bet after the last two years, Love would adjust quite nicely to the Spurs’ environment of keeping the nice things to yourself. Sure, Love has been one to mouth off, but channeling his desperation for winning and acceptance amongst the elite (I mean this as a compliment because that’s what stars are need) in a different way would probably work out better for him.

But does simply cutting out the white noise often provided out of implied obligations to anxiously waiting digital recorders or whatever the hell that thing Sid Hartman is lugging around mean you have created a culture conducive to winning? Or is it simply a small part of a masterful system dedicated to maximizing the positives and subduing the negatives within a player’s role on a professional basketball team?

This is what you’re good at; do what you’re good at.

Over the last couple years, I’ve really been getting my foot in the door with covering the NBA. I ran an NBA chat for ESPN.com for two years and this past season, I was able to have a full-time job as an NBA writer for CBSSports.com. During this time, I’ve been peppered on chat platforms and on Twitter with a lot of takes on the game of basketball, what players are capable of doing, and why certain guys suck and will never be good. I don’t say this as a complaint, but merely as a chance to provide the background that I’ve entertained a lot of freaking opinions about the NBA in a very small amount of time.

During this time, I’ve noticed that I’m starting to see things in the eye of the Spurs system, rather than trying to find 12 complete players for the Wolves’ active roster. I think it started when I saw how much backlash Carmelo Anthony was taking a few years ago (back in the Denver days) for not being LeBron James. I get that LeBron James is the standard for the NBA’s elite and I agree that he should be. I also don’t know that I believe players are either rounding into LeBron clones or failures. I’ve started to make a concerted effort to look for the positives in players, acknowledge the flaws, and trust that the team’s schematic designs on the court will make up for whatever shortcomings exist.

This sounds very pie in the sky, and really it kind of is. But that seems to be the way the Spurs approach their role players. They find roles for them based on their best skills. They rarely ask them to step outside of those roles to do more. They ask them to accept and execute the basic principles of the team’s system. Then they hammer away at the same principles, over and over, as outside viewers seemingly yawn at the repetitive nature of it all.

That’s where I’m at with the Wolves and its current roster. Granted, it’s not even close to being finalized as the roster heading into next season. Assuming the first round picks sign their deals, this team’s roster currently looks like:

Point Guards: Ricky Rubio, Luke Ridnour, J.J. Barea

Wings: Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Alexey Shved, Shabazz Muhammad

Big Men: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic (I’m assuming again), Dante Cunningham, Derrick Williams, Gorgui Dieng, Chris Johnson

If Rick Adelman is going to continue to be the coach for next season and the season after that, I think it’s time to start viewing these setup of the team as three positions instead of five. There are point guards, there are wings, and there are big men. For the most part, the ideology of Adelman’s free-flowing offense is interchangeable parts that can find a way to defend on the other end of the floor. Wings will handle the ball and cut from the corner. Big men will be in the low post and the high post, always looking for the next scoring opportunity for themselves or their teammates. Point guards will find ways to get the ball into the middle of the floor so that the floor-spacers are utilized to space the floor.

It’s brilliant in its simplicity when run correctly.

This is where the idea of maximizing a role player’s skill set comes into play so prominently. Rick Adelman’s system isn’t too far away from what Gregg Popovich likes to run with the Spurs. The idea is to keep the ball moving and to create good shots for teammates. Get the ball into the middle of the half court set to force the defense to collapse, which allows offensive players off the ball to find the open real estate and make them pay for leaving their defensive land.

When you look at Danny Green, he was rarely asked to create for himself. Kawhi Leonard was rarely asked to run the pick-and-roll. Matt Bonner was told to shoot or swing the ball. Tiago Splitter was asked to defend the pick-and-roll and catch passes inside and not much else. The Spurs aren’t trying to turn Gary Neal into the next Tony Parker because they know that’s a fruitless venture.

When I see Chase Budinger or Kevin Martin or Shabazz Muhammad or Gorgui Dieng or Derrick Williams, I think about how great it would be for them to be all around players, but I also recognize how insane that notion is. These players are role players. They should have a role, be asked to stick to it, and expected to excel in it.

Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger should have three goals: 1) knock down jumpers, 2) move without the ball to attack the defense, and 3) be in position on defense. Shabazz Muhammad should eventually have the same role, but will probably need to earn the playing time before relied upon to execute those duties. Gorgui Dieng’s role should be to defend, rebound, and not hold the ball or turn it over on offense. Derrick Williams’ role should be to play as an athlete, be in position on defense, and dunk the ball through the throats of opposing players.

That’s all that should be required of these guys. Does this team have Andrei Kirilenko to be brilliant? No. Does this team have a lockdown wing defender to make up for the saloon door defensive stylings of Chase and Mini-Mart? Absolutely not. Are these issues? Sort of.

I think the Wolves will bring in another wing defender. I also think the Wolves need to focus more on team defense than worrying about who is going to check LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony four nights out of the year. Successful teams defend as teams. They rotate, they get in the way, and they follow a defensive philosophy. There needs to be individual, on-ball defense to help execute that, but the design and effort go hand in hand here. No, the Wolves don’t have typical defensive players outside of guys like Ricky Rubio, Dante Cunningham, and Gorgui Dieng.

But when you watch how the best wing scorers in the NBA are defended in this league in today’s game, you see a primary defender and when you look behind him, there are usually two defenders ready to be in position just beyond the primary defender. The wing scorer has the option to either dribble into a crowd, swing the ball, or take contested jumpers. That will be the goal of the Wolves’ role players this year: force the contested jumper and if it hits, it hits.

The Spurs wouldn’t look at this roster and throw their hands up at the lack of defense. The Spurs would devise a plan to maximize the shot-making and off-ball abilities of Budinger and Martin. The Spurs would try to find ways to improve their defensive understanding and turn in a game plan that figures out how to get everybody to defend as a team. I’d rather figure out a way to maximize the positives on this team than dwell on the negatives, because I feel like that’s how winning teams are made.

What are you good at doing? How do you benefit a team when you’re on the court? How do we adjust what we do to fit you into a successful game plan? I believe Rick Adelman is capable of doing this with a relatively healthy team, but ideally, he’ll do it to the degree that we’ve seen with the Spurs.

Regardless of how this shakes out, the Wolves need a culture to hang their hat on. The Wolves need an identity that begins this offseason (or perhaps last offseason) to build toward the future. The days of new strategies after a couple of years have to end. This team needs a process and they need a model. They need look at the NBA in Spurs’ colored lenses and not look at how they fit into the culture of the NBA but how they can take advantage of the culture of the NBA, much like we see San Antonio do every night.

To the extent the Spurs mount a defense of being boring, this is their line of thinking. The NBA is a diverse ecosystem. It needs species like the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks. But the Spurs make it a healthier, saner world.

“There should be an appreciation of differences,” Popovich says. “In players, in teams, in organizations, in how things are done.”

When you’re a team, an organization, or a city at a disadvantage, creating a culture of serenity and stability are the keys to figuring out how you fit into this NBA world on the successful end of the spectrum. I appreciate the difference between the Spurs and the rest of the league. And I hope the Wolves can be boring enough to pull off copying that model in a multitude of ways.

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0 thoughts on “The San Antonio Spurs and maximizing player talents

  1. Well said. I hope the TWolves can match the Spurs’ consistency and ability to play as a team. Yes, they have Love and Rubio who can overmatch their opponent, but team’s win championships.

  2. It was about 8 years ago, when the Wolves had gone from conference finalists to out of the playoffs, that I really started to appreciate the Spurs. They followed that up with some massive flopping and complaining performances that were annoying, but they’re proactive in adjusting to the evolution of the NBA game. Most importantly, they don’t panic; they’ve been first-round upsets twice since ’08 and once finished as the 7th seed, but they don’t overextend themselves. Too often, Wolves fans have to choose between irrational defense of indefensible decisions or perpetual pessimism; it’d be nice to be genuinely satisfied with the way things are being run.

    One additional aspect to the Spurs is also important, though: they know how to develop skills in role players. It’s one thing to only require a guy to play defense and make catch-and-shoot 3s; it’s another to turn a non-3-point-shooter into a 35-plus% guy.

  3. GJK, fantastic point that I actually meant to mention somewhere in there but just forgot. The development of skills is incredibly impressive with the Spurs.

    Seeing how the Wolves have helped develop Pekovic inside, you know there is development capabilities with this team, but we haven’t seen it with many wings yet, with respect to shooting. Rubio and Derrick will probably be our best tests for just how much these guys can develop shooters. Pressure is on Shawn Respert to turn them into respectable options.

  4. Excellent post, Zach. I agree that we don’t necessarily need Tony Allen or Larry Sanders to be a decent defensive team. But EVERYONE on the floor needs to buy into and work at the team defense or it won’t be effective. So glad that Beasley is gone, but team defense questions remain (Love, Martin, Williams…..)

    Regarding team identity/culture, any guess who the next coach could be to keep the Adelman philosophy rolling? Someone from within the org or outside?

  5. Great post – while I agree that the Spurs philosophy is one to be admired, I always wonder about the chicken-and-egg question with them. Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan are all superstars, and I would argue that only Parker’s development has been enhanced due to Pop’s system (though obviously all those three benefit and contribute to the system). With the Wolves only having one superstar (sorry, Ricky), we sometimes have to ask other guys to do a little more than they are capable of, and we’ve seen that lead to hit-and-miss results, especially in our backcourt. The Spurs scouting prowess has been analyzed to death, but is obviously a big part of their success as well.

    But yeah, defense is more than just the sum of the parts – overall cohesion is very important. Spurs players get yanked if they stray from a guy camped in the corner, which is usually a symptom of lack of discipline on defense. I don’t think Adelman’s style allows for that luxury, especially with his love of multiple ballhandlers on the floor on offense. Due to the lack of consistency in personnel moves, we have much more of a patchwork roster of guys to plug in, which is great in terms of situational matchups, but not so great when you look at the “big picture.”

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