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Rosen: Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ Evolving System

There’s absolutely no doubt that Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA. None of his peers come close to matching his combination of expertise, flexibility, his ability to motivate his players, nor the discipline he demands.

Responding to Pop’s leadership, the entire Spurs roster, from 1-to-12, always plays hard, fulfills their assignments with precision and never take any shortcuts. It was also very important to note that, during the regular season, none of the Spurs played as much as 30 minutes a game. There were also several games in which he kept his veterans on the bench and trusted his younger players — even at the cost of losing an extra game or two.

Still, one of the keys to San Antonio’s success is the special relationship between Pop and Tim Duncan. From time to time, Pop will scream at Duncan during a game. Really light him up in full view of the fans and the media. But where some superstars would respond by pouting or cursing, Duncan calmly processes what Pop says. Okay, Duncan thinks, he’s telling me what I’m not doing and what I need to do for us to win. When a guy who’s been the league’s MVP twice and a 14-time All-Star responds to harsh public criticism like that, all the other guys have to follow suit.

These days, of course, TD isn’t nearly the player he once was. He’s only asked to set up in the pivot three or four times per game, and is rarely isolated at his favorite spot on the left wing. Instead, Duncan is usually employed as a high-post screener, passer and occasional shooter.

Credit Pop with drastically changing the way Duncan is utilized while still employing him as a vital cog in San Antonio’s offense.

Whereas Pop used to implement a low-post oriented, grind-it-out attack, here’s what the Spurs’ “new” offense looks like.  

They initially form a triangle on the strong side, then quickly move either into staggered screens or a two-man game on the weak-side. What follows is a perpetual series of more screens — high screens, elbow screens, baseline screens and pin-downs. These screens provide opportunities for a variety of player movements — backdoor cuts, dive cuts, curls, fans and slipped screens.

However, the most important new wrinkle here is that the Spurs move through all of these sequences and possibilities at full speed. Throughout Pop’s career, his teams never played as fast as these guys do. The Spurs’ spacing is certainly reminiscent of the Triangle, except that they depend much more on the three than any of Phil Jackson’s teams. Like the Triangle, though, the continuity of the weak-side movement makes double-teaming anybody very risky.

What the Spurs usually do on defense is fairly simple. They look to pack the middle by playing a zone from the foul line down and force their opponents to beat them by shooting over the top. Packing the middle also takes away their opponents’ high screen/roll possibilities and keeps the bad guys off the foul line. The defense is augmented, of course, by quick and coordinated defensive rotations.

In addition, the Spurs’ offense creates so many wide-open shots and relatively few turnovers so that their opponents’ ability to launch a running game is greatly curtailed.

In transitioning his game plan from slow-down to speed-up, Pop (along with general manager R. C. Buford) have been able to rebuild their team without suffering through the normal doldrums that such a process usually takes.

The new-look Spurs still retain a trio of the old guard: Duncan, who was always a slightly overrated man-to-man defender, but remains an adept rotator and a sure-handed rebounder. If Tony Parker has lost a half-step — notice that, except in the opening minutes of any given game, he can seldom zip to the hoop in heavy traffic — he still has a dynamic motor.  Similarly, at age 38, Manu Ginobili is no longer capable of routinely attacking the basket with what used to be a long, quick, gliding last step, but he’s still fearless and dangerous in the clutch.

Of course, Kawhi Leonard is Pop’s latest go-to guy, but that situation — and indeed, the Spurs’ entire game plan — is about to be seriously impacted by the offseason signing of LaMarcus Aldridge, previously a shoot-first-and-don’t-ask-questions player. His superior scoring skills will be a huge plus. Still, with the comparatively immobile Aldridge either stationed in the pivot or on the short left wing, the Spurs’ spacing and quick-moving offense will be compromised.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens: Will Aldridge significantly change his modus operandi to suit Pop’s game plan? Or will Popovich change his offense to accommodate Aldridge’s special talents?

We’ll all soon see.

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