TrueHoop: Danny Green

Economists vs. tanking: David Berri

September, 4, 2013
9/04/13
2:09
PM ET
By David Berri
ESPN.com
Archive
NBA Draft board
Mike Stobe/NBAE/Getty Images
The NBA Draft might be the single most influential reason we see teams tank. Should we get rid of it?

There are essentially three ways a team can acquire the productive talent it needs to contend for a title:

The Heat approach: Acquire productive veterans
This approach has also recently been used by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The problem is that the NBA has a maximum salary. This means that teams cannot use higher wages to attract better talent. Instead, productive veterans are now considering whether or not your team is likely to win. In other words, the Miami Heat approach seems to require that you already have stars to attract more stars.

In addition, teams have to know which veterans to acquire. The New York Knicks have tried to build with veterans for years. But in most recent seasons, the Knicks have failed because they tend to acquire relatively unproductive veterans (primarily because the Knicks focus too much attention on per game scoring).

The Spurs approach: Acquire productive players in the latter part of the NBA draft
When we think of the Spurs, we tend to think Tim Duncan. Although Duncan was the most productive regular season performer for the Spurs in 2012-13, about 48 of the team’s regular season wins came from other players -- the five most productive were Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, and Manu Ginobili. Each of them was either a non-lottery first round pick or a second-round pick. All teams have access to such players, but the team must be able to identify such talent. And since the Spurs are relatively unique in utilizing this approach, it’s reasonable to assume most teams cannot consistently identify productive players outside the lottery.

The Thunder approach: Acquire productive lottery picks
The third approach is to acquire productive talent in the NBA lottery. Most recently, the Thunder accomplished this when they built an NBA Finals team around the talents of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Lottery picks are granted to the NBA’s non-playoff teams, so you have to lose to implement this strategy. You also must have a fair amount of luck. Not only does it help to finish very high in the lottery, you also have to be able to select the productive players with those high picks. In some years, though, this is difficult. For example, none of the top seven talents selected in 2010 have become players who produce wins in large quantities. A similar story can be told about most of the players at the top of the 2006 NBA draft.

There is another problem that the Thunder discovered. Initially draft picks play under a rookie contract, so these players can produce wins at a very low cost. But this contract expires fairly quickly. Specifically, the Thunder were able to employ Harden for only three seasons. Once a player moves on to his second contract, the team essentially moves to option No. 1 (i.e. building through productive veterans). So not only does this approach requires luck, it’s also a short-lived strategy.

Nevertheless, teams seem to try and follow the third option. And for that to happen, teams have to lose -- or pursue the strategy of tanking. Such a strategy essentially contradicts a fundamental promise made by sporting competitors; that the competitors will do their very best to win the game.

To eliminate this strategy, we simply need to remove the incentive behind this approach. Again, teams only get high lottery picks by losing. And the more you lose, the better your chance of getting the top picks in the draft. If we want teams to stop doing this, we need to change the incentives of the people who implement this strategy.

This can be done in three ways:

Return to a non-weighted lottery
In a paper I co-authored with Joe Price, Brian Soebbing, and Brad Humphreys, we presented evidence that the NBA’s non-weighted lottery -- utilized in the 1980s -- seemed to reduce the tendency to tank. Back in 1985, only seven teams didn’t make the playoffs. Today it is 14 teams. If all lottery picks were selected via a non-weighted lottery -- as was the case in 1985 -- the worst team in the NBA could receive just the 14th pick in the draft. This would effectively eliminate a team’s incentive to be as bad as possible to get the best pick possible.

Eliminate the draft
A more radical approach (for North American sports fans) is to eliminate the draft. In European sports, there is no draft. But on this side of the Atlantic, it is taken for granted that the losers in professional sports leagues are rewarded with high draft picks. However, as we have noted, this gives teams an incentive to tank. So a simple solution is to abolish the draft and allow top amateurs to negotiate with more than one team.

One issue with this approach is that the top amateurs could simply choose to sign with the NBA’s best teams. This is especially likely if the NBA’s rookie salary cap is kept in place. After all, if the wages of the top players are going to be the same, then these players will simply choose to play for the best teams. To avoid this problem, the NBA could implement a system where playoff teams cannot sign a player until 14 amateurs have already received offers from non-playoff teams. And once a player received an offer from a non-playoff team, he could not sign with a playoff team (but could still sign with any of the other 13 non-playoff teams).

This system would force the non-playoff teams to be as competitive as possible, since the top amateurs would probably prefer to play for the best non-playoff team possible. And again, would eliminate the problem of the tanking.

Punish the losers
The tanking strategy is easy for decision-makers in the NBA to embrace. Teams that pursue this strategy are essentially trying to lose to enhance the team’s draft position. This is a simple strategy to follow. Trying to win is difficult, but losing is easy and the more incompetent the decision-maker, the better the strategy can be implemented. Imagine how easy it would be to do your job if you were rewarded for doing the job badly!

To stop this behavior, the NBA could simply implement a rule that says if a team misses the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, the team must fire its general manager. If this rule was put in place, constant losing would lead to consequences for executives.

David Berri is a Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University. He is co-author of The Wages of Wins and Stumbling on Wins (FT Press, March-2010). He has written extensively on the topic of sports economics for academic journals, and his work has appeared at The New York Times, the Huffington Post, Freakonomics.com and Time.com.

Three trends behind Spurs' demise

June, 21, 2013
6/21/13
4:26
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
In San Antonio, the proximity to a fifth title will be the legacy of the 2013 NBA Finals.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the San Antonio Spurs are the fourth team in NBA History to blow a 2-1 and 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals, joining the 1962 Lakers, 1969 Lakers and 1978 Sonics.

Naturally, a post-mortem analysis focuses on what went wrong against the Miami Heat

Benching Parker down the stretch
The losses in Game 6 and 7 shared the curious absence of Tony Parker in crunch-time offensive situations.

In Game 6, Parker remained on the bench for the final 31 seconds of overtime. The ensuing two offensive possessions resulted in a Manu Ginobili turnover and a blocked Danny Green shot.

In Game 7, Parker remained on the bench coming out of a fourth-quarter timeout with the Spurs down by four and 27 seconds remaining. Again, Ginobili turned the ball over.

Would things have gone differently if Gregg Popovich left his best playmaker on the court?

That will remain the great unknown. But it is also worth mentioning Parker’s struggles. He was held scoreless on 0-of-6 shooting on his seven drives and did not create any points for his teammates on drive-and-kicks.

Danny Green hits a wall
Going into Game 6, Green was the likeliest candidate for Finals MVP if the Spurs captured the title. In five games, he’d set an NBA Finals record with 25 3-point field goals, while leading the team with 18 PPG.

That’s when it all fell apart for Green. He went from San Antonio’s most effective offensive weapon into a deep slump.

Green went 2-for-19 (10.5 percent) over the final two games, at one point missing 13 straight shots. Despite his woes, Green played a combined 78 minutes.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his 1-for-12 performance on Thursday made him just the second player in NBA Finals history to take at least 12 shots in a Game 7 and make one or fewer. The other was Dennis Johnson, who went 0-for-14 for the SuperSonics in 1978 against the Bullets.

LeBron happens
Amidst all of the possible second-guessing of Spurs' decisions, it’s impossible to overlook the impact of LeBron James.

Consider that in the final two games of the series, James averaged 34.5 points, 11 rebounds and 7.5 assists. His 37 points on Thursday, matched Tom Heinsohn’s record for points in a Game 7 win.

The Spurs’ defense is content to allow long and mid-range jumpers. That strategy largely succeeded against LeBron in the first six games. In Game 7, James capitalized.

James was 9-of-20 (45.0%) on field goals outside the paint in Game 7, including 5-of-10 from 3-point range. James attempted 87% of his field goals in Game 7 from outside the paint (49% in Games 1-6), his highest rate since joining the Heat.

Spurs keys: Ginobili & Green and Diaw's 'D'

June, 17, 2013
6/17/13
12:08
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
Key to Game 5: Manu Ginobili was hot ...

And LeBron James was not.


It turns out that all Manu Ginobili needed to get his game going was a chance to start.

Ginobili’s 24 points and plenty of 3-pointers from Danny Green were the keys to supporting another big game from Tony Parker on the offensive end, and a different look for LeBron James was huge on the defensive end and pivotal to the Spurs taking a 3-2 advantage in this series.

Let’s break down the statistical highlights.

Difference Maker: Ginobili’s great game
The Elias Sports Bureau noted that Ginobili became the first player to start an NBA Finals game after not starting a game all season since Marcus Camby for the 1999 Knicks.

Ginobili made Gregg Popovich look very smart. His 24 points nearly matched the 30 points he had in the first four games of the series.

Ginobili got 50 touches of the basketball in this game and drove the ball to the basket a dozen times, both numbers far exceeding what he’d done previously in this series.

The Spurs outscored the Heat 45-33 on drives in Game 5, including 14 points when Ginobili kept the ball on his drives, and nine points on drives during the Spurs 19-1 run.

The Heat shot a series-low 39 percent on drives, including 4-of-12 from Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (who were a combined 11-of-15 for 26 points in Game 4).

Green makes it look easy
Danny Green matched Ginobili’s 24 points and made six more 3-pointers.

That gave him 25 3-pointers for the series, breaking Ray Allen’s record for most 3-pointers made in an NBA Finals. He made only 28 3-pointers in the previous three rounds of the playoffs combined.

Green was equally good whether the shot was open (3-for-5) or contested (3-for-5) in this game. He's 18-for-24 on open 3-pointers in the series, 7-for-14 when contested.

Boris Diaw: Defensive Stopper
The other big adjustment the Spurs made was to throw one more look his way-- putting Boris Diaw on him for an extended period of time.

James was 1-for-8 shooting against Diaw in Game 5, and 7-of-14 against all other defenders.

James’ first four shot attempts against Diaw were all at least 19 feet from the basket, and when he changed course and posted up, he was 0-for-3 on those attempts.

The Spurs did a good job at thwarting the Heat both from inside and outside. They contested eight of Miami's 12 shot attempts from beyond 10 feet in the first quarter. The Heat missed all eight of those shots.

Looking ahead …
The winner of Game 5 of the Finals when a series is tied, 2-2, has won seven of 10 possible titles under the 2-3-2 format.

The Heat will try to become the fourth team within that format (which dates to 1985) to win Games 6 and 7 at home in the Finals after trailing, 3-2. The other three are the 1988 Lakers, 1994 Rockets and 2010 Lakers.

The last team to defeat the defending NBA champ in the Finals was the 2005 Spurs who beat the Detroit Pistons.

The Heat have not lost consecutive games since January 8-10. Losing on Tuesday would end their streak and their season.

The Spurs are 14-2 in potential series-clinching games played on the road since the start of the 2002-03 postseason. The rest of the NBA is 61-75 in that span.

Spurs use new big three for big win

June, 12, 2013
6/12/13
12:52
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com
Archive

Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports
Danny Green (left) and Gary Neal both broke a franchise record in the Spurs' big win.
The San Antonio Spurs rode the performance of their big three to a dominating win over the Miami Heat in Game 3. their 36-point victory is the third-largest margin in NBA Finals history and the second-largest in Spurs postseason history.

Danny Green (7-for-9) and Gary Neal (6-for-10) both broke the Spurs franchise record for 3-pointers in an NBA Finals game (five) and Green was one shy of the NBA record (Ray Allen in 2010). Green has made 16 3-pointers through three games, already the most in an NBA Finals series in team history and easily the most of any player through the first three games of an NBA Finals series.

As a team, the Spurs' 16 3-pointers are a new NBA Finals record.

The New Big Three
The big three came through for San Antonio, but it might not be the names you’re accustomed to.

Green, Neal and Kawhi Leonard combined to score 65 points on 50 percent shooting, including 15-for-22 from 3-point range.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined to score just 43 points on 18-for-46 shooting (39.1 percent).

The Spurs' typical big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined for just 25 points, but Duncan pulled down 14 rebounds and the latter two combined for 14 assists.

Green has scored 56 points in this series to lead all players, six more than LeBron James and 15 more than any of his teammates.

Key to the Game: Spurs shut down the pick-and-roll
Defensively, the Spurs bottled up the James-Mario Chalmers pick-and-roll. In Game 2, the Heat shot 7-for-9 with no turnovers off that pick-and-roll combo, but in Game 3 it netted them no field-goal attempts and three turnovers.

James has been held under 20 points in all three games in the series, only the second time that’s happened to him in his career (he’s played 134 playoff games). The other time it happened was in Games 3-5 of the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, the only postseason series Miami has lost since James joined the team.

He was -32 in this game, the worst plus/minus of his NBA career. He’s played three NBA Finals games in San Antonio (two with Cleveland in 2007), posting a negative plus/minus in all three games and shooting 34.5 percent in the three games combined.

Stat of the Night
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili registered their 100th playoff win together, the second trio in NBA history to reach 100 (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper won 110).

The Spurs have played 25 NBA Finals games in franchise history and have yet to trail in the series. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the most NBA Finals games played before trailing in NBA history.

Looking Ahead
The Heat are 4-5 in their past nine games after going 46-3 in their previous 49 games dating to the regular season. Since the 2-3-2 format began in 1985, the Game 3 winner of a tied NBA Finals series has gone on to win the series almost 93 percent of the time (12-1).

3-pointers, pick-and-roll important in Finals

June, 5, 2013
6/05/13
12:20
PM ET
By ESPN Statistics & Information
ESPN.com
Archive

Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
The Spurs and Heat both ranked in the top five in 3-point shooting and scoring off the pick-and-roll this season. Tony Parker has the most points on pick-and-roll plays this postseason.

The San Antonio Spurs will have their hands full with slowing down the Miami Heat and their quest for a second consecutive championship. Despite the challenge of limiting LeBron James and guarding a bunch of long-range shooters, San Antonio has a few matchup advantages to exploit.

The Heat and Spurs ranked among the top five teams in the NBA in 3-point shooting during the regular season, with Miami coming in second behind the Warriors.

The strong shooting from both teams has continued in the playoffs, with the Spurs and Heat ranking second and third, respectively, in 3-point shooting during the postseason.

The corner 3

The corner 3-point shot has become a staple of the Heat and Spurs. Miami made 309 corner 3-pointers this season, 35 more than the next closest team, while the Spurs ranked third with 261 during the regular season. The Spurs are shooting a slightly better percentage on corner 3-pointers in the playoffs, but Miami has made 13 more field goals from that spot on the floor.

Ray Allen (15), Shane Battier (11) and Norris Cole (7) have 33 of the Heat’s 48 corner 3-point field goals this postseason. Allen’s 15 corner 3-pointers are tied with Quincy Pondexter for the most of any player in the playoffs.

Pick-and-roll

Pick-and-roll plays will be important for both teams in this series as well. The Spurs and Heat are first and second in the postseason in points per game on pick-and-roll plays, averaging 38.4 and 36.6 points per game, respectively. However, the Heat are second in postseason defensive efficiency against the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.80 points per play. The Heat cause turnovers on 16.9 percent of their opponents’ pick-and-roll possessions in the playoffs, leading all teams.

The Heat haven’t faced a guard similar to Tony Parker in the postseason. Parker is responsible for nearly 62 percent of the Spurs’ pick-and-roll offense. This postseason, Parker has the most total points on pick-and-roll plays with 152 and the second most points per game off the pick-and-roll. During the regular season, Parker’s 562 pick-and-roll points were second to Damian Lillard’s 629.

Can the Spurs stop LeBron?

The Spurs have done a great job of taking away their opponents' best options in the playoffs.

Tiago Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to 15-of-48 (31.3 percent) shooting in eight games.

Danny Green was asked to guard Stephen Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from the 3-point line.

But can the Spurs stop LeBron James? Kawhi Leonard has played against James just once in his career, as a rookie Jan. 17, 2012. James was 9-of-14 from the floor with 20 points with Leonard as the primary defender. This postseason, the Spurs have allowed 93.7 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court. That’s the second-lowest total, behind Tyson Chandler, for any player averaging at least 25 minutes a game this postseason.

Sunny Saini and Evan Kaplan contributed to this post

Young role players help Spurs reach Finals

June, 4, 2013
6/04/13
11:28
AM ET
By Ryan Grace, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Harry How/Getty Images
As the Spurs' big three gets older, the development of San Antonio’s young role players has helped the team stay successful.

The San Antonio Spurs' big three has been consistent for the past decade. But as the Spurs’ core gets older, how does the team continue to be successful?

The development and improvement of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green have provided a youthful punch to elevate the Spurs past their opponents.

In last season’s playoffs, Leonard, Splitter and Green combined to average 21.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. This season, those numbers have jumped to 29.4 points, 15.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game.

Leonard: Mr. Do-It-All

The Spurs average 0.93 points per play in the half court this postseason, second best in the NBA behind the Miami Heat. Leonard has been the team’s most efficient player in the half court, averaging 1.12 points per play (minimum 55 plays).



Leonard is scoring on 52.3 percent of his half-court plays this postseason, which ranks first among qualified players.

Leonard also has been the most efficient defender for the Spurs this postseason. When Leonard is off the court, Spurs’ opponents average 6.5 more points per 100 possessions than when he is on the court.

Splitter excels on both ends

Of the 87 players with at least 60 plays on defense this postseason, Splitter ranks fourth in the league, limiting opponents to 0.66 points per play.

This postseason, Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to a combined 31.3 percent shooting in eight games. Prior to facing Splitter, Randolph averaged a playoff-high 9.9 post-up points per game. In four games against the Spurs, he averaged 4.2 points per game in the post.

Splitter was the fourth-most efficient scorer as a pick-and-roll screener during the regular season, averaging 1.23 points per play (minimum 100 plays). Splitter has elevated his game in the playoffs, averaging 1.50 points per play on 83.3 percent shooting when he rolls to the basket.

Green emerging as two-way player


Green has taken the third-most catch-and-shoot shots (64) this postseason. Of the 39 players with at least 30 such plays, Green ranks seventh in the league in points per play. Green has the second-most catch-and-shoot makes this postseason behind Chris Bosh, and he has been more efficient on catch-and-shoots than Ray Allen, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

Overall, Green has been especially effective shooting 3-point field goals from the corners, making a team-high 52.9 percent of such shots this postseason (10-of-19).

In the second round of the playoffs, Green was asked to guard Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 pct.) from the 3-point line. Curry entered the series shooting 44.2 percent in the playoffs.

Gregg Popovich builds young players

May, 28, 2013
5/28/13
3:50
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Tiago Splitter and Zach Randolph
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Memphis lost to a team that has always been more aggressive about developing young talent.

Of all the things coaches hate, globally televised boneheaded mistakes surely top the list.

They happen.

Not even the most veteran are immune. Derek Fisher inbounded a crunch-time ball to the other team in these playoffs. Manu Ginobili shot an early-clock covered long 3-pointer that almost cost the San Antonio Spurs a game.

But, by and large, the spectacularly mindless moments, the ones that get Shaquille O'Neal mocking you in custom video from an Atlanta studio, are the province of the young.

Think JaVale McGee.

That's why so many teams keep young players stapled to the bench in big moments.

But there's an oddity: Those very same McGees tend to have valuable things like superactivity and bodies from basketball heaven.

In the final analysis, who's better for your team: an active and mistake-prone dude, or a fundamentally but athletically compromised guy?

The old guys keep everyone from looking stupid. But sophisticated numbers suggest that even with all their missed rotations and biting-on-fakes, the youngsters like McGee are very often better at, you know, winning.

Remember Zach Lowe's insight into the Toronto Raptors from Grantland earlier this season? The Raptors have their own young, mistake-prone guy, Jonas Valanciunas:
Valanciunas, like most rookies, misses rotations, overhelps, and commits other sins of positioning on defense. Coaches hate that stuff, and they've often nailed Valanciunas to the bench in crunch time in favor of Aaron Gray -- a fundamentally sound player who lacks NBA athleticism.

The numbers in large part disagree with that tactic, at least as it relates to Valanciunas's defense. The Raptors' defense has been better with Valanciunas on the floor. More importantly, the visualization data shows that Valanciunas is active and athletic enough to make up for all his defensive mistakes, Rucker and his team say.

"With Jonas -- yeah, he's making mistakes," Boyarsky says. "But who cares?"

Casey said he hasn't had deep discussions with the analytics team about Valanciunas, but Sterner has, and he agreed it's sometimes a thorny issue of valuing culture over results. "You want your defense to be sound," Sterner says. "Even though the production might be better, you still want [Valanciunas] doing the right thing.

This is a trend


Coaches are playing "correct" Grays over "still learning" Valanciunases all over the league. It satisfies a coach's sense of order and control. Every coach wants his team to play the right way -- which is not so different from following coach's orders. Without that, what's the point of having a coach?

Meanwhile, the guy who plays the "wrong" way often helps his team more, thanks to the many advantages of youth.

It's a dilemma that trips up many NBA head men. But not Gregg Popovich.

The story is that the Spurs' front office keeps feeding Popovich NBA-ready role players, and by the time his team's in the Western Conference finals, he can confidently trot out Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Cory Joseph and the like, who are all both young enough to be in their athletic primes and schooled and experienced enough to do things the right way.

Nice. Decisive, even. Lucky.

Young Spurs play, produce


Only it's not luck at all!

Popovich gets the same unproven players every team gets -- in fact, he gets worse ones. The Spurs haven't had a lottery pick since Tim Duncan in 1997. Nevertheless, he plays young players relentlessly and aggressively all season long. He plays young unproven players when his team is ahead. He plays them when his team is behind. He plays them when his team is in first place and when they're in last. He plays them in all four quarters and in overtime. And, most importantly, he does it season after season.

Splitter was once the Spurs' Valanciunas, if you will -- only the kind you draft 28th overall instead of fifth. Splitter has started 66 games for an elite team and has played close to 4,000 NBA minutes. Popovich has had plenty of time to make clear what he wants from his big man. By crunch time of a conference finals elimination game, coach and player had built so much trust that Splitter was not just on the court, but was the linchpin of the Spurs' successful campaign to thwart the pound-it-into-Zach Randolph Memphis Grizzlies.

Splitter was much bigger and gave Randolph fits.

"The irony of Zach," David Thorpe, ESPN.com NBA analyst and executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., said, "is that while he's not athletic, he is better against very athletic defenders. He's all fakes, feel, pins. Get him against an athlete like Blake Griffin, and he'll murder him. Really long guys like Splitter, though, who don't have to jump … Randolph can't counter that. And his impulse was to take Splitter closer to the hoop, but that close Splitter's length becomes even more useful, and there was help almost every time. Zach just had a little tiny bit of space to operate. It was a huge factor in deciding the series."

That's the kind of advantage Popovich develops for himself, and this is hardly a one-off.

In 2001-02, the Spurs were a 58-win contender with an unconventional 19-year-old rookie French point guard who couldn't really shoot, didn't rack up a lot of assists, was undersized and didn't play great defense. Any coach would have benched Tony Parker while he was learning, and it's no secret why. I'm not sure I can recall a coach more openly exasperated with Parker than Popovich was that season.

But you know what Popovich did? He played Parker more minutes that season than Parker played this season -- when he was an MVP candidate -- saying all along that he wanted to see if Parker could develop into the kind of player he knew he could become.

If you believe Thorpe's talk of "royal jelly," Popovich's minutes and belief played starring roles in the development of all the Spurs' talented young players. In other words, it's likely Parker would not have turned out as fantastic now without all that learning on the job back then.

This season, Green led the Spurs in minutes played. Splitter, Leonard and Neal all logged more minutes than Ginobili. It's about keeping the stars fresh, which is crucial. And it's about developing the young corps. The right way to distribute minutes is up and down the roster. When you get it right, you can end up with fresh veterans and trusted young players, both of whom can work wonders.

Grizzlies timid with young role players


Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, meanwhile, does things like most NBA coaches and has come to trust few of the Grizzlies youngsters. Darrell Arthur and Quincy Pondexter have developed into rotation players on the job. Ed Davis, Donte Greene, Austin Daye, Tony Wroten, Jon Leuer and Company, however, well, we'll never know if they could have helped against the Spurs.

When they got to play together, the Grizzlies starters with Davis in place of Randolph comprised one of the most effective units in the NBA, by plus/minus. Davis is long and athletic and offers help defense and rim protection that Randolph does not. Although the Grizzlies weren't good in Davis' almost 11 minutes in the conference finals, to the naked eye, Davis is far better than Randolph at containing Parker in the pick-and-roll, which turned out to be a key Randolph shortcoming in the series. Davis also has a track record, born in Toronto, where he played regularly, of finishing around the rim at an even more efficient rate than Randolph.

That doesn't make him a better player, but it does make it a shame Hollins couldn't deploy him confidently to mix things up as the series fell apart. Different looks were precisely what the Grizzlies needed. Hollins only had Davis for 36 games after he arrived via the Rudy Gay trade, however, and he only played him an average of about 15 minutes per game. When push came to shove, Hollins didn't know what to expect.

And the conference finals is no time to experiment. Although … Did you happen to catch Leuer in Game 3? It was like seeing an antelope wander onto a Hollywood movie set. Where did he come from? He plays for the Grizzlies, by the way. Or, more accurately, he has been on the Grizzlies roster since January. Does 96 minutes over 41 regular-season games -- or 11 minutes over 15 playoff games -- count as "playing?" That's a tad south of two minutes per contest, all told. The Grizzlies got him to shoot 3s -- something he didn't play long enough to do in these playoffs.

Hollins just coached the Grizzlies to the best season in team history. His team was well prepared for every game and, in an important measure of any coaching staff, has played gritty defense every minute of every game for years. Nothing is broken in Memphis.

But when it comes to the fine art of turning prospects into producers, Popovich's aggressive youth-friendly approach is the standard. Popovich has missed with some young players, but he has also hit the bull's-eye more than once, and it's made all the difference.

Killer Lineup: The old-is-new-again Spurs

January, 25, 2013
1/25/13
10:32
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive





Miami Heat
Tony Parker | Danny Green | Kawhi Leonard | Tim Duncan | Tiago Splitter
Minutes Played: 179
Offensive Rating: 105.3 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 89.1 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
The Spurs get to their spots on the offensive end of the floor immediately and entirely without confusion. The offense is like a well-produced stage play -- every actor knows his marks, the rhythm between those actors is seamless and the audience almost forgets it’s watching a performance.

It might be ballet, but the offense isn’t a juggernaut like some of the other elite starting units in the league such as the Thunder, Heat and Clippers. As has been the case for years, the Spurs all but concede the offensive glass. In fact, of the 50 most frequent lineups in the NBA, this unit ranks 49th in offensive rebounding rate. Who’s 50th? The same lineup, except with Boris Diaw in Tiago Splitter’s place. In addition, the Spurs' starters don’t get to the line all that frequently.

But even with those deficiencies, this five-man unit shoots the ball extremely well and it’s fairly simple to understand why -- the Spurs rarely take a bad shot.

If Tony Parker isn’t slicing his way to the rim, he’s firing a pocket pass to Tim Duncan or Splitter, who is rolling to the basket. Nearly two-thirds of Danny Green’s shot attempts come from beyond the 3-point line, and the vast majority of Kawhi Leonard’s shots materialize one of two ways -- an uncontested 3 (usually from the corner), or in the immediate basket area off a baseline cut or drive. In fact, Leonard hasn’t had an unassisted 3-point field goal all season.

There’s a great deal of discipline and design that goes along with the Spurs' shot selection. For one, the very idea of playing in isolation violates one of the central tenets of the offense, which is to explore every possibility until one appears.

That doesn’t mean the Spurs reject early offense altogether. Splitter has the ability to run the floor, and when the Spurs rebound off a miss, his first responsibility is to find Parker in transition and offer him a drag screen. It might not give Parker a clear avenue to the basket, but it often throws the defense off balance, or gives Duncan a mismatch on the left block, or allows Parker to hit a trailing Green behind the line.

The Spurs’ signature sequence relies on a few basic actions, then demands that the guys on the floor make intelligent reads when a high-percentage look surfaces. A set will begin with Parker dishing the ball to the wing. Parker will then swing clockwise down to the baseline, across, then back up top to receive the pass on the far side. If he’s open on the catch, he’ll shoot. If he’s not, he’ll instantly get a pick from Duncan or Splitter, and work from there. Parker also might find Green, who has popped out to the perimeter courtesy of a pin-down from the other big man. If the defense has collapsed, Leonard will often be open in the corner where he can shoot or create. As a general course of action, the Spurs are always on the lookout for the skip pass to a 3-point shooter.

The Spurs still have one of the best second options in the NBA -- an angle pick-and-roll for Parker and Duncan. That’s often what the Spurs move into if their initial off-ball stuff doesn’t come together, or Parker can’t get separation from his man off those screens.

Duncan is still a brilliant offensive player. He’ll often set up down low while Splitter sets a high screen for Parker. Once Parker successfully splits or eludes the defenders and gets into the paint, Duncan will lift to the space vacated by Parker and Splitter. Parker will pitch the ball back to Duncan for an open jumper from about 18 feet. If he’s not feeling the shot, or there’s a better one elsewhere -- say Green on a basket dive or Leonard cutting from the corner -- Duncan will happily make that pass.

Reading these options and acting on them is the defining quality of this lineup. It picks away at defenses little by little. With Parker and Duncan as the primary catalysts, the Spurs force their opponents to defend for a good 18 seconds. They’re all discipline and patience and slow-playing their hand in a half-court possession. They know that, more times than not, even a capable NBA defense will make a bad decision at some point, especially if the Spurs keep moving, picking and cutting. At the moment of defensive indecision, desperation or breakdown, that’s the instant the Spurs will pounce -- and not before or after, but right on time.

How it works defensively
“Last year we were a very good offensive team, but we were a middle-of-the-road defensive team,” Gregg Popovich said in early November after the Spurs came out of the gate 4-0. “So that’s been our emphasis this year, to try to become a significantly better defensive team as we always have been.”

Popovich’s imperative has become a reality. Seventy-eight lineups in the NBA have played 100 minutes or greater, and none is more defensively efficient than this group. Ever since Leonard returned and Splitter became more comfortable with the starters, this unit has surrendered only 88.3 points per 100 possessions -- even better than its overall rating of 89.1.

Popovich and Duncan are men who appreciate order, and the Spurs' defense is designed with this proclivity in mind. Individual defenders are responsible for one-on-one duty, because early rotations create confusion, and confusion produces breakdowns, and breakdowns yield open shooters in places you don’t want to be giving up shots.

It’s not that defenders aren’t accountable to their teammates, and you’ll increasingly see two defenders pressure the ball late in the shot clock, especially if the player with the rock finds himself along the baseline. But if everyone digs, stays at home and does his job, the offense probably will settle for a long contested jumper.

In many respects, the Spurs' defensive strategy is a mirror image of their tactical plan on offense. Whereas they want to generate clean looks in the corners and at close range for themselves, they’re looking to deny opposing offenses the same. For instance, if Parker or Green gets caught down low defending a skilled big man, help will come from the baseline while the mismatched guard retreats to the high side. This boxes in that big man but, more important, makes a pass to the weak side extremely difficult. To that end, this unit gives up only 15.6 3-pointers per 48 minutes (far below league average), and opponents are hitting at only a 31 percent clip from beyond the arc. Credit not only the half-court schemes, but a transition defense that’s militant in its commitment to pick up shooters on the break.

In a league where showing high and hard has become commonplace and versatile lineups allow for switching on demand, Duncan and Splitter rarely leave the paint when defending a pick-and-roll. When they find themselves up against an attacking point guard such as Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, it’s Parker’s job to stay up on the ball handler’s right shoulder, while Duncan and Splitter hang back, but also influence the guard to his left. Duncan won’t panic if the guard gets around both Parker and him. So long as Paul or Westbrook is moving left, cornered against the sideline, the plan is working (for reference, see 2012 Western Conference semifinals).

Splitter and Leonard have breathed new life into the Spurs' defense. Splitter adheres to Popovich’s general precepts, of course, but he’s a bit more mobile than Duncan and will get up on a side screen-and-roll a little more readily. The Spurs rarely, if ever, look to actively prevent a screen, but both Splitter and Duncan read the ball handler, looking to deny his best passing option.

From the moment Leonard arrived at training camp as a rookie following the lockout in 2011, he has been groomed as the Spurs’ designated lockdown wing, an essential ingredient in Popovich’s balanced, shipshape defense. Leonard is making good progress. First off, his ball denial to the wing is persistent, and that makes life difficult for the Rudy Gays and can stall the flow of an opposing offense. Second, Leonard is mindful of space and the Popovichian aversion to allowing incursions into the paint. This isn’t to say he isn’t a physical defender, but Leonard is far more interested in cutting off the most sensible route to the basket than he is bodying up on a guy just for the sake of it.

Take away the paint, reroute ball handlers, prevent skip passes and reversals that can hurt you, don’t gamble and get back in transition. After a couple of solid but unexceptional defensive campaigns by the Spurs of late, this new starting unit is restoring the old spirit.

Friday Bullets

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
5:39
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • LeBron James rang up 12 assists in Denver on Thursday night, and was deadly on the kickout to spot-up shooters. The biggest dime of the night came in the closing minute with the game in the balance. James could've played one-on-three against the Nuggets' collapsing defense. Instead, he dished the ball off to Norris Cole who was wide open and drained the shot. What did critics have to say about James' passing up the big shot? Not a thing. What a difference a ring makes.
  • So let's get this straight: The Clippers are without Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are playing career-low minutes -- and Griffin's overall numbers are down. Lamar Odom has a Player Efficiency Rating that starts with zero. Their backup point guard, nicknamed Mini-LeBron and posting a PER of 22.6, is playing fewer minutes than Willie Green. All the while, the Clippers are killing the competition.
  • At the New York Times, Beckley Mason writes that the Boston Celtics provide an interesting template for the Brooklyn Nets.
  • Tom Ziller of SB Nation on the Knicks: "I don't get the sense this is a massive house of cards, unlike other teams that blaze off to incredible starts. Among the rotation players, only Smith and Kidd are playing way over their heads, and that's all related to the above-mentioned shooting. Felton has been surprisingly good compared with last season, but it's in line with what he did in his previous half-season in New York. It's not a Mike James bargain with the devil type of start he's having. Ronnie Brewer has always been solid. Rasheed Wallace is ... Rasheed Wallace. Tyson Chandler is elite. Carmelo Anthony is very good. Mike Woodson is criminally underrated as a coach."
  • Is that a Raymond Felton sighting, shredding the Spurs on the pick-and-roll?
  • A bad bench can undo a lot of hard work by your starters.
  • Just because you hit a huge game-winning shot to beat the Lakers earlier in the week doesn't mean you're exempt from household chores.
  • Damian Lillard is looking for a Portland-based barber. Lucky for him, grooming is optional in Multnomah County.
  • At 0-7, the Wizards have a ton of question marks. Could Shaun Livingston be one of the answers?
  • One idea being floated in Milwaukee: Scarf down a double-cheeseburger to help pay for a new arena. (Hat tip: Bucksketball)
  • As HoopChalk's Jared Dubin points out, a sniper doesn't always have to catch-and-shoot the ball coming off a pin-down. Passing is almost always an option -- and a smart one.
  • Liberty Ballers' Michael Levin reports that the 76ers are close to becoming the latest NBA team to own their own D-League franchise. I love the idea of the NBA replicating an MLB-style minor league structure, with each big-league team having its own exclusive affiliation with a "AAA" club. Already, the stigma of being "sent down" to the D-League is dissipating. Many of NBA organizations that have one-to-one partnerships with D-League franchises are using them as laboratories to teach their less refined young prospects the system run by the big club (see Houston Rockets). Development has long been sorely lacking at the NBA level. Some of that is the fault of NBA teams, but much of the shortfall is circumstance. It's hard to devote a ton of resources to developing the skills of your second-round pick when you're preparing for a back-to-back with the Thunder and the Spurs. But give a prospect some high-grade instruction down on the farm, and you're likely to see more tangible progress in his game.
  • More vegan propaganda from John Salley. I've been dabbling myself. If there were more joints like this in my city, it would be easier.

No hero-ball for the San Antonio Spurs

November, 14, 2012
11/14/12
2:53
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive


LOS ANGELES -- Rarely does a night go by in the NBA when we don't see a one-possession game play out like this in the closing seconds:

A head coach puts the ball in the hands of his most dynamic shot creator at the top of the floor. Maybe that player gets a high screen from a big man, or maybe the floor is flattened out for an isolation with four teammates standing still on the far margins of the court to yield as much room as possible for the ball handler to drive.

With his defender's arms extended perpendicularly, the playmaker pounds the ball into the hardwood while watching the clock. There's no motion, just a tunnel between the ball and the rim. Nobody in the building can predict the outcome with any certainty, but almost everyone can tell your what's about to transpire.

"I hate that," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It's so boring."

As an antidote to boredom, Popovich decided to draw up something novel with 19.9 seconds left in regulation and the Spurs trailing, 82-81.

Tony Parker brought the ball up the left side of the court across the timeline, with Tim Duncan following. From left to right, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard were spread along the baseline from corner to corner. Manu Ginobili, who has hit so many big shots in late-game situations for the Spurs, was not on the floor.

Parker passed the ball off to Duncan just above the top of the 3-point line, then cleared to the left wing. As Duncan took a single dribble, Leonard swept up along the arc to collect the handoff from Duncan.

While all this is going on in the backcourt, there's a ton of movement down low. Jackson ran a little misdirection play from the left block to the right, then reversed course, rubbing his defender, Pau Gasol, off Green, who set a wide base underneath the basket.

"Obviously, in that situation we want to move people around and see what we can get open-shot wise," Duncan said.

There was nothing pointed about Duncan's "obviously." It was the furthest thing from an empty qualifier and you can imagine him substituting "basically," "essentially" or even making his remark without a preceding adverb. But in SpursWorld, the notion that you'd actually want motion on the floor is patently obvious. Basketball requires a degree of deception, and movement is one of the most effective ways of achieving that.

On the surface, that brush screen from Green on Gasol appeared as if it was intended to free up Jackson, but it created separation for Green from Kobe Bryant, who was lurking underneath the hoop, still close to Green.

"I think it was a great call because Kobe always has a tendency to stay in the paint," Parker said. "They think maybe it’s a play for me or for Timmy."

Here's where it gets a bit interesting.

Duncan moved to set a down screen for Green on Bryant, and Green sprinted out to the right wing, following a path along the baseline side of the screen.

Watching the play live, the actions looked picture perfect. Duncan has set that screen a million times and does it as well as any big man alive. But after the game, Duncan insisted on setting the record straight.

"Honestly, the play was called, the play was run great -- and I missed a screen," Duncan said. "Kobe [Bryant] faked me off of one side. I went to that side. He came up the inside. I didn't actually hit him."

A review of the video confirms Duncan's confession, but Green was quick to cover for his future Hall of Famer teammate.

"He didn't miss a screen." Green said of Duncan. "He just couldn't find the man [Bryant] who was guarding me because [Bryant] was kind of roaming a little bit."

Listen to Parker and Green and it almost sounds as if the Spurs were targeting Bryant because of his propensity to rove in the painted area.

Even without a clean screen from Duncan, a quick-footed Green had enough daylight to catch the pass from Leonard to his left, turn clockwise, square his shoulders and launch the shot. Bryant couldn't close quickly enough, despite fighting through the tangle of bodies in the lane.

Spurs 84, Lakers 82. The score would hold up, as Gasol's go-ahead attempt didn't fall.

"Danny came off [the attempted screen] and decided to shoot it anyway," Duncan said. "So that’s all Danny on that one."

Rather than rely on Parker, Duncan or Ginobili, Popovich opted for Green, a young but very proficient 3-point shooter (48.3 percent coming into Tuesday).

At his locker following the game, Green was simultaneously self-deprecating and giddy, playing the whole thing a bit coy.

"It was a total accident," Green said. "[Popovich] didn't draw up anything. I just ended up with the ball somehow. And I just picked it up and shot it. Sometimes it happens that way. You get lucky."

Nobody bought Green's false modesty. He nailed a huge shot on a big stage against a bitter rival. He eventually acknowledged that the bucket was a product of inventiveness on the part of the players and their coach, but the dagger was also a product of something else.

"When [Popovich] does draw up plays for young guys like us, it’s very surprising," Green said. "We don’t expect it. It’s only, like, my second and a half or third year here. For him to draw up a play for me, there’s a lot of pressure, but you take the shot with the confidence he gives you. He encourages you. We encourage each other. And it was easy for me to take the shot and not think about it."

There’s a reason the Spurs find guys on the NBA scrap heap such as Green and sculpt them into contributors, and it's not a process that happens serendipitously. Popovich made a call dozens of other coaches resist with the game in the balance. To the Spurs, collaboration is obvious. To most other teams, it's unthinkable.

"At the end of the game, more often than not, we’ll run something that involves everybody," Popovich said. "Then you make the shot or you don’t."

The team that makes the players good

May, 29, 2012
5/29/12
2:19
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Boris Diaw
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The Spurs are winning with several players, including recent Bobcats castoff Boris Diaw, who couldn't stick on far worse teams.

Jerry Krause, then general manager of the Bulls, was once ridiculed for saying "players don't win championships, organizations do." It wasn't the idea that organizational excellence is vital to winning teams that got everyone riled up. It was that at the time, Michael Jordan, now owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, was one of those players.

These days you'll hear similar responses to praise for Spurs GM R.C. Buford: "Well I'd look pretty smart if I drafted Tim Duncan, too."

But now that Duncan's no longer an MVP candidate, is Duncan really the reason the Spurs are good? Can his presence really explain how Danny Green and Boris Diaw, players deemed unworthy to play for two of the worst teams in the league, are starting on the best team in the NBA?

The 2010 Cavaliers team that Green couldn't make went 19-63. This year's Bobcats, the worst team in NBA history, finally trimmed Diaw's overweight contract and body from their roster after starting 7-37.

This isn't some brand-new phenomena, either. Tyson Chandler was the second-best player on the Mavericks championship team just months after not even starting in Charlotte.

What we're learning is that there's more to building a great team than just accumulating all the best players. It's about acquiring and developing players in a system that maximizes their abilities.

Green is a 6-6 shooting guard out of North Carolina who, in his third season, shot nearly 44 percent on 3-pointers (ninth in the NBA), can defend three positions and owns a handle solid enough to play some point guard. Sounds like a can't miss talent, right?

Except while everyone else whiffed, Gregg Popovich and company hit a home run when they picked him up off the NBA scrap heap.

The frenzy to acquire top talent in the NBA market is sometimes compared to an arms race: gather the best weapons or be destroyed by those who do. But the Spurs have sustained their excellence not by picking up shiny new toys, but by dusting off misused or underdeveloped players and applying them in a system that brings out their best.

This effect is not exclusive to the Spurs. In his book, "Basketball on Paper," ESPN Director of Production Analytics Dean Oliver notes that really good teams tend to stay really good even longer than the life of one superstar's career. "Parity has pulled on the bad teams, but the good teams have resisted," Oliver writes. "Even ten years down the road, good teams seem to be able to maintain some comfort level between themselves and .500."

Translation: really good teams tend to break the cycle of rise and fall in the NBA.

When a small market team like San Antonio pulls it off even as its meal ticket talent declines with age, it's clear that being good in the NBA is about much more than player acquisition. Players are human after all, and hardly a static commodity.

There is mounting evidence that developing a smart system is another essential ingredient. For instance, an offense that relies on 3-point shooting and motion, and seeking out players that can fit into the system rather than players that fit conventional notions of "value." Such a system can endure even when the principle cogs must be changed out from time to time.

Five years ago, no one would have predicted that Tony Parker would lead a team to the best record in the NBA. But Parker, and the Spurs system, both developed in order to do just that.

That takes synergy between the coach who designs the system, the GM who helps finds the players and the owner who writes the checks -- not to mention all the people running research and crunching numbers behind the scenes.

There is talent in San Antonio's system, sure. But it's also true that in San Antonio, the system brings out the talent of its component parts.

Maybe Jerry Krause was on to something, after all.

Spurs Bullets

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
6:49
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
  • A 12-year-old kid was suspended from school for having Matt Bonner's likeness shaved into his head. Bonner responded by giving him and his folks free tickets to Game 2 of the Spurs-Clippers series at the AT&T Center on Thursday night.
  • There's a ton of insight to glean from Chris Ballard's tremendous profile on Tim Duncan in Sports Illustrated titled, "21 Shades of Gray." You can read about how Duncan isn't much of a Kevin Garnett fan, how Duncan first bonded with Gregg Popovich on the beach at St. Croix and how Stephen Jackson is "humbled" to count Duncan as a friend. Ballard also offers this very telling portrait of what happens when the Spurs call timeout: "When the Spurs call a timeout and you see the San Antonio coaches huddle a few feet from the bench, it's not to hash out strategy. Rather, Pop is giving Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker time with the team. 'You'll see Timmy over there with a young kid, talking about how he should do this or that or what we meant by such and such,' says Popovich. 'I'll come back to the timeouts sometimes and say, "Are we square?" and Timmy will say, "Yeah, we got 'em."' Popovich pauses. 'He commands that type of respect because he doesn't demand it, if that makes sense.'"
  • Should Tim Duncan have been a more public celebrity over the course of his legendary career? Would the NBA and the Spurs been enriched had Duncan given us a deeper glimpse of both his interior and external life? Alex Dewey of Gothic Ginobili grapples with these questions and more.
  • For years, Popovich has rationed the minutes of his most important players, readily sitting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker during tough stretches of the schedule. In doing so, Popovich has raised eyebrows around the league and the ire of basketball populists who feel that the Spurs owe it to the ticket-paying public to put the best players on the floor. History sides with Popovich and you don't have to look much farther than the Spurs' current series with the Clippers -- a younger, sprightlier team -- to appreciate Popovich's strategy. But there's also an ancillary benefit to sitting Duncan, Parker and Ginobili periodically: It means that secondary guys get the ball in meaningful spots during games that matter.
  • As Zach Lowe of The Point Forward documents in pictures, the Spurs' ability to stretch the floor, mastery of the misdirection, and constant movement have the Clippers' young big men twisted in knots.
  • Bill Simmons at Grantland, on the Spurs: "Thank God for the Spurs, an offensive powerhouse that has single-handedly saved the playoffs from turning into a rockfight. They're headed for a second sweep while pacing the league in points per game (103.7), shooting (49.1 percent) and 3-point shooting (42.7 percent). It's the best version of international basketball we've ever seen -- the Spurs might as well be Argentina or Spain, only with superior players. Everything revolves around their slash-and-kick guys (Parker and Ginobili), their 3-point shooters (too many to count) and their versatile big men (Duncan, Diaw and Splitter, all of whom know where to go and what to do). And unlike Nash's high-scoring Suns teams from back in the day, San Antonio can also rebound and protect the rim, which makes them our single most dangerous playoff favorite since the 2001 Lakers. They aren't just beating teams, they're eviscerating them."
  • Boris Diaw might best illustrate the strength of the Spurs' system and culture. Here's a guy who, as recently as 12 weeks ago, was a punch line for his conditioning and an irritant to Bobcats coach Paul Silas. Now he's the starting center for the title favorites. When you watch Diaw dig in defensively for the Spurs, it’s a reminder of what a dominant role effort plays in defensive makeup. Prior to landing on the Spurs' doorstep, Diaw hadn't played much defense in years, but here he is grinding away for Popovich in May. On the offensive end, Diaw passes with so much confidence, and his high-low deliveries to Duncan are a reminder of his refined skill set as a big man. Yet another instance of the R.C. Buford telling the league, “If you’re not going to use that guy, we’ll take him.” At 48 Minutes of Hell, Jesse Blanchard has more on Diaw.
  • Timothy Varner of 48 Minutes of Hell: "You’ve heard me say it before, but the Spurs’ ability to attract a championship supporting cast was fueled by veterans who signed on for an opportunity to chase a championship alongside Tim Duncan. Duncan was the draw. Not the city of San Antonio. And never the promise of more money. It was always Tim Duncan. Not anymore. The draw is the opportunity to play in Gregg Popovich’s system. It’s Tony Parker. It’s Spurs culture. It’s Pop himself. It’s the confidence that the front office can always shore things up by adding a Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter or Kawhi Leonard. It’s the confidence that the front office will manage its books and never the saddle the team with a cancerous contract. It’s the confidence in the ability to improve through the internal development of guys like Danny Green. The Spurs have it figured out. Players understand this."
  • Paul Garcia of Project Spurs on the quiet professionalism of rookie Kawhi Leonard, about whom Popovich once said, "He just does his work and goes home."
  • Steve Perrin of SB Nation on Gregg Popovich, the Alchemist.
  • Jordan Heimer and I shower the Spurs with much love on the most recent episode of The Clippers Podcast, presented by ESPN LA.

The San Antonio Spurs aren't boring

May, 15, 2012
5/15/12
5:10
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
How the San Antonio Spurs got tagged as boring never made much sense to me.

Yes, the Spurs were the proctors who broke up the spring flings thrown by the Seven Seconds of Less Phoenix Suns. For those who like their superstars to dazzle, Tim Duncan's charisma deficit and his mechanical game can be affronts. The Spurs have historically been defensive stalwarts, likelier to grind an opponent into submission, not run it off the court. Those qualities, along with a lack of interpersonal drama, might lull certain fans to sleep.

But boredom, at its very root, can be defined as the absence of choice. Get stuck with a program that uses the same formula to produce the same outcome over and over and over again, and you get bored. If you eat the same stuff every day for lunch, you grow tired of it. The same outings with the same people where you talk about the same stuff -- those experiences can become rote.

We're rarely bored when our expectations are challenged, and the most interesting way to do that is by introducing choice into the equation. Anything can happen means that the range of possibilities is endless.

When the Spurs bring the ball upcourt, that's usually the case. They relied on isolation plays only 7.1 percent of the time in the regular season. (Only the Magic used a smaller percentage of their possessions in iso.) In their first-round sweep of Utah, the Spurs ran isos only 24 times in four games. (The Knicks, in contrast, had 124 such possessions over five games.) Instead, the Spurs did what they usually do to get what they want in the half court -- rely on motion, timing, ball movement and, most of all, choice.

Choice is the overriding principle at work in an efficient offense. Take away that offense's primary objective in a half-court possession, and it will gladly move on to option No. 2. Sniff out No. 2, and a third choice will materialize. And so on.

The Spurs under Gregg Popovich have always understood that NBA defenses are too big and quick to confine your offense to one option. There have to be multiple contingency plans in a given possession; otherwise, you leave yourself vulnerable to chance. A lot of fans like the element of chance in sports -- and perhaps that's one explanation for the Spurs' "boring" rap.

But the Spurs' trademark set -- called "motion weak" -- is anything but boring. It's a magical merry-go-round of basketball possibility, a play that has an endless number of outcomes. When it begins, the players aren't even sure where the ball will land, but they know that if they read the defense and move with precision, a quality look at the basket will surface from somewhere.

Let's take a look:
Celtics
FastModel Technologies

The play starts simply enough: Tony Parker passes the ball off to a wing player on his right. It might be Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson or Gary Neal. Once the ball leaves Parker's hands, he cuts through to the basket.

If the defense is napping or Duncan has prime position against his defender down on the low right block, the ball can go immediately from the wing to Parker on the move (it'll look like a simple give-and-go) or Duncan for a quick shot. Against bad defenses in January, the Spurs will pick up a couple of easy buckets this way, but deep into the postseason, the Spurs usually will have to put in a little more work.

Celtics
FastModel Technologies

Whoa! There's a lot going on here!

Very true, so let's break down what each of our chess pieces is doing on the board:
  • Tony Parker: Rarely do the Spurs get that easy give-and-go mentioned above, so when Parker dishes the ball off in Picture 1, he dives to the basket, but ultimately clears through, then loops around to the wing on the weak side.
  • Tim Duncan: If Duncan isn't fed the ball down low on the right block, he'll use a cross screen along the baseline provided by the Spurs' other wing player (2/3), then set up on the opposite block.
  • 4/5 (Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair): The big man who isn't Duncan sets up at the top of the floor, where he'll receive a pass from the wing, then keep the ball moving by dishing it off to Parker once Parker has cleared through. When he dishes the ball off, our 4/5 man will then set a down screen for 2/3, once 2/3 has finished setting that aforementioned cross screen for Duncan. After setting that down screen, 4/5 will head over to the right block vacated by Duncan. On the rare occasion Bonner is the guy at the top of the floor and his defender is elsewhere, he can fire away. But generally, this is merely a transit point for the ball between the strong and weak sides fo the floor.
  • 2/3 (Ginobili, Leonard, Green, Jackson, Neal): As mentioned above, 2/3 has two jobs: setting that cross-screen for Duncan, then looping back to the perimeter courtesy of a down screen from the big man.

When this cycle of events is over, the ball is back in Parker's hands on the other side of the floor. Duncan may or may not have a mismatch on the left block, depending on how the defense dealt with that cross screen.
Celtics
FastModel Technologies

The carousel has slowed down a bit, and Parker has a few options:
  • Feed Duncan on the left block, six words that have yielded four championships. Duncan might have a mismatch or have his man sealed off. Whatever the case, Duncan one-on-one in the low post is never a lousy consolation prize.
  • Kick it over to 2/3. It's difficult to capture the choreography with still diagrams, but 2/3 will often be buzzing at warp speed with his defender trailing in hot pursuit. If there's ample separation and Parker can hit 2/3 on the move, this can either serve as a catch-stop-and-pop midrange jumper, or 2/3 can keep moving and attack.
  • Move into a pick-and-roll with Duncan on the left side. If you're the San Antonio Spurs, there are worse things than a Parker-Duncan two-man game on the left side of the floor with the defense still catching up to all the movement.

The responsibility now lies with Parker and Duncan to make the call. If Duncan moves off the block to set a ball screen for Parker, we move on ...
Celtics
FastModel Technologies

The final resort of the Spurs' signature set looks like the first strike from most teams -- a simple angle pick-and-roll on the left side with a variety of drive-and-dish options for Parker. He can deliver a bounce pass to Duncan on the move (or a quick dish if Duncan pops, which is increasingly the case these days). Otherwise, Parker can hit the other big man on a duck-in beneath the weakside glass or kick the ball out to either of his wings on the perimeter.

Parker recorded a career-high 28.4 assist rate this season, far and away the best mark of his career. How did he do that at age 29? By become fluent in situations like these. It takes years to master an intricate offense, even for the most instinctive players. There's a reason we see veteran teams executing best in the playoffs. It's because this stuff is tricky! Running a sophisticated offense requires tens of thousands of possessions in repetition over several seasons with the same guys.

There was a time when Parker couldn't see or wouldn't respond to all the options in the Spurs' offense. He didn't arrive in the league with the vision of Chris Paul or Steve Nash. It took several seasons and some tough love from Popovich, but Parker has arrived in full.

And that's how you build the league's No. 1 offense.


Information in this post was provided by mySynergy Sports.com.

Roundup: Bulls, Bryant, Green rolling

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
1:22
AM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
Archive
The Chicago Bulls have been winning with their half-court defense. The Bulls entered Friday’s game allowing 0.78 points per play in the half court, which ranked second-best in the NBA.

This time, it established itself a little earlier than usual.

In its first 12 games Chicago’s half-court defense was holding opponents to 41 percent shooting in the first half and 38 percent in the second half.

Those numbers basically flipped around in a Friday win as the Bulls set the tone by holding the Celtics to just 33 first-half points (all but two in the half court), their third-best defensive effort in a half this season. The Boston Celtics shot just 35 percent in half-court sets in the first half in dropping their third straight game.

Bulls guard Derrick Rose scored 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, including two big three-pointers in the final 7:30 of the game, completely turning around what was a below-average performance in the first three periods.

Entering Friday’s game Rose was shooting 44 percent in the half court and was most successful as the pick-and-roll ball handler, shooting 47 percent.

Rose turned it on in the half court in the final 12 minutes, making as many shots in half-court sets (four) as he did in the first 36.

Rose was just 1-for-6 on pick-and-roll plays in the first three quarters, but made a pair-of-baskets on three attempts off pick-and-rolls in the fourth quarter.

The Celtics are floundering. They are off to their worst start since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston in 2007-08.

Boston has struggled offensively during the three-game slide, shooting 42 percent from the field while getting just under 20 points per game off the bench.

Kobe, again
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant topped the 40-point mark for the third straight game in Friday’s win over coach Mike Brown's former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

It’s the seventh time in his career that Bryant has had a streak this long, the first time since doing so for five straight games during the 2006-07 season.

Bryant’s longest streak of 40-point games was a nine-game run in which he averaged 44 points per game in the 2002-03 season.

30/10 for Williams, 30/15 for Love

Deron Williams had 35 points and 14 assists in the New Jersey Nets win over the Phoenix Suns. That is Williams' 13th 30-point, 10-assist game since the 2008-09 season. The only players with more in that span are LeBron James (17) and Dwyane Wade (15).

Kevin Love scored 34 points and pulled down 15 rebounds for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was his 10th career game with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds, which moves him into a tie for 9th most among active players, despite only being in the league for four seasons.

Plus-Minus Note of the Night
It was a good day for the San Antonio Spurs bench in a 99-83 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Danny Green
Green
In the 30 minutes that third-year swingman Danny Green was on the floor, the Spurs outscored the Trail Blazers by 29 points.

It was the best plus-minus of Green’s career by far, surpassing a plus-15 as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Milwaukee Bucks on March 6, 2010.

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