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San Antonio Spurs' grinding halt

6/19/2014

The San Antonio Spurs are great at exploiting an advantage that was hiding in plain sight. Sometimes it's a simple discovery, like how 3-pointers from the corner are just a bit easier than other shots from behind the arc. Sometimes there's more nuance to their edge, like how Manu Ginobili creates these open corner 3s by leaping out of bounds for his passing angle. It's not a natural thing to jump out of bounds with the ball in your hands. Or it wasn't, until the Spurs made the hammer set a normal way of doing business.

Jumping out of bounds might go against basic basketball instinct, but this team has thrived with the counterintuitive approach that only later looks obvious. The 2014 title winners pulled off another pioneering coup in playing their best guys significantly less than anyone else would. Tony Parker led the Spurs this year with 29.4 minutes per game. Tim Duncan led the team in total minutes with 2,158, nearly a thousand fewer than what his Western Conference Finals opponent Kevin Durant logged (3,122). By the end of that series, Durant had played 1,192 minutes more than Duncan -- roughly the equivalent of 25 total NBA games.

Perhaps the minutes difference factors into two of the most memorable plays from that series. Kevin Durant slipped and fell with the season on the line. Old Man Riverwalk sunk a huge basket over a lively Thunder double-team. The Spurs went on to trounce Miami in possibly the most lopsided Finals of all time. There were many reasons why this happened, but San Antonio's team certainly looked fresh at a time in the season where teams are worn down. In victory, the Spurs are an object lesson in the value of rest. It's not just about winning in the postseason, either. The Spurs had the best regular-season record with this approach, too.

So will all the other teams follow suit? Not so fast, when you take into account that stars have to buy into a program where minutes are rationed. We have a system in place that rewards the individual for overworking himself. The more you play, the more likely you are to win All-NBA, All-Star, All-Defense and MVP votes.

It's not an entirely illogical bias, either. When weighing who should get an individual award between two equally qualified candidates, it makes sense to lean on minutes played. Parker and Kawhi Leonard are slight exceptions to the rule, in that they garnered second-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defense, respectively. For the most part, it's difficult for a guy playing fewer than 30 minutes to get proper recognition.

Take Ginobili, who, statistically, has an argument over Kobe Bryant on a per-minute basis. Now, before you throw the laptop out the window, keep in mind that I'm not saying Manu was better than Kobe. I'm just saying that you'd expect more than two All-Star appearances from a guy whose advanced stats (offensive rating, win shares per 48 minutes) compare favorably to an all-time great.

Low minute totals helped keep Ginobili healthy, but that also diminished his reputation relative to his skill set. His 2006-07 season might have been his finest, but a 16.5 scoring average looks unimpressive on its face. Ginobili is one of the best passing wings ever to play, but he's never averaged five assists per game.

That's the real killer when it comes to playing fewer minutes: Your overall numbers look mingy. Chris "Birdman" Andersen killed Jamal Crawford in the advanced stats, but Crawford scored 18.6 points per game and Birdman scored 6.6. It's no wonder the former won the Sixth Man of the Year award.

As John Hollinger used to note, the Most Improved Player award is often really just a reflection of which good player finally got minutes. Per minute, there isn't much statistical difference between 2011-12 Paul George and 2012-13 MIP-winning Paul George. Indiana's rising star saw a 1,014 minute increase in 2012-13, which made his raw stats look better. More minutes means more credit.

The Spurs don't care if we ignore their individual greatness on account of low minute totals. So what if early-season criticism of Leonard's progress was mostly based on minutes played? He won Finals MVP in the end. They've found this awesome market inefficiency with a "less is more" approach and are just fine if other players can't trade accolades for effectiveness.

But since the Spurs are showing us what works, perhaps we should learn from them. If the goal of these awards is to acknowledge great basketball, then we could stand to lean towards quality over quantity.

It might also be wise to look at how other incentives fight against great basketball. The Spurs are famous for not subjecting older players to back-to-back games. For this approach, Gregg Popovich paid -- quite literally in the form of a $250,000 fine for the Spurs -- when San Antonio excused its best players from a nationally televised game versus the Heat. The NBA's a business, and Popovich's choice worked against those interests. In that context, the fine made sense, but it also reflected a subversive truth: The Spurs are giving us the best possible team basketball while working against what basketball is used to being.

Basketball is used to being a place where stars are perpetually present for the 82-game grind. It's a game that sells its heroes, and for those heroes to be heroic, they must be impervious to the fatigue of 82. The problem is, this isn't realistic. There are more games than means for physically coping. Logging 40 minutes per outing might help with awards voting returns, but returns diminish on the court. Maybe it's time to give more credit to the guy who plays less.