- The San Antonio Spurs are dominating once again this season, with a 4-0 record and an impressive offense and defense. The Spurs’ roster may look underwhelming on paper, but the players all boast a basic skill – they know how to play the right way. The Spurs are fundamentally sound, making the right passes, rotating and defense, and seldom turning the ball over.
There was a belief in the NBA world coming into the season that in a revamped, loaded Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs would finally fall off.
Not fall off enough to end their streak of 20 straight playoff appearances or perhaps not even end their streak of 18 straight 50-win seasons. But in a stacked, super-team-centric conference, the aging and seemingly ordinary Spurs might not be able to keep up.
Through nearly two weeks, the Spurs are 4-0, one of two remaining undefeated teams, and they boast a top-10 offense, the fourth-best defense, and the sixth-best net rating.
All of this is happening with arguably the Spurs’ most underwhelming roster in years. Tony Parker is out while rehabbing a torn quadriceps tendon; Kawhi Leonard hasn’t played because of a quadriceps injury; Manu Ginobili is 40; Pau Gasol is 37; starting point guard Dejounte Murray is in his second season and was the 29th pick in the 2016 draft; a 26-year-old rookie named Brandon Paul is in the rotation.
Yet the Spurs keep on chugging.
The Spurs are buoyed by a simple roster philosophy, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted in a column – get players who know how to play the right way. Lowe noted the philosophy while recalling a debate with a Spurs official over signing Gasol in 2016.
“I remember debating the Pau Gasol signing with a Spurs official two summers ago. I was underwhelmed. He was astonished anyone could feel that way about even the creaky, aging version of Gasol. ‘He knows how to play,’ the official said. He kept repeating that. He seemed confused that I didn’t find ‘knowing how to play’ a super-compelling reason to sign someone.
“But you get it when you see it in action – five guys who know how to play, working from the same script. They don’t foul. They leave the right shooters open, never the wrong ones. They move the ball to the right place, at the right time.”
As Lowe said, knowing “how to play” manifests itself in different ways – making the right passes, proper rotations on defense, and not making mistakes.
The Spurs are the second-best rebounding team in the league, they’re seventh in turnover percentage, and they give up the fewest “open” shots (a defender within four to six feet of the shooter) in the NBA, per the NBA’s stats site.
Some of this is helped, of course, by having Gregg Popovich as a coach. The Spurs have also been helped this season by the resurgence of LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging 26 points per game on 49% shooting, with eight rebounds and nearly three assists per game, all while anchoring the middle on defense.
The Spurs are not a one-man team, though. Gasol and Ginobili are future Hall of Famers and though they’ve lost a step, they still know how to make the right plays as Lowe said. Murray has proven adept at getting in the paint and has been snagging rebounds at a resounding rate (eight per game), while Danny Green has remained a reliable three-and-D player who has mixed in some shot-creation, too.
The Spurs’ formula is not a complex one, though it’s not easy to replicate. Like all good teams, they’re dependent on high-level scouting, all-time great coaching, and talented players, even if the individual talent doesn’t necessarily match that of teams like the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, and others.
In what’s nearly become a yearly tradition, the NBA world was ready to count the Spurs out. Instead, in what also has become a yearly tradition, the Spurs are dominating again, proving everyone wrong.