The Spurs have been the best, most consistent team in the NBA for more than a decade yet they’ve always been more popular among critics than fans.
Every year the Spurs make a deep playoff run, and basketball nerds go nuts with excitement. But when they make the Finals, no one watches.
Since 1999, the three lowest-rated NBA Finals have all involved the Spurs. And the three highest-rated Finals have all involved Kobe and the Lakers.
That tells you everything you need to know about what drives interest in the NBA. It’s a league driven by a handful of cross-cultural stars, not by pure basketball quality.
The Spurs are boring from a narrative standpoint, but spectacular from a basketball standpoint. There’s a reason that this Spurs team has been appearing in NBA Finals since LeBron, Wade, and Bosh were still in high school.
While the early-00s Spurs teams were built around defence and Tim Duncan in the post, this version of the Spurs is an up-tempo team that relies on passing, three-point shooting, and remarkably savvy defence.
Here’s what makes them so good:
They’re the best passing team in the NBA.
Nearly 24% of San Antonio’s made baskets were assisted this year, the highest percentage in the league. They’ve developed a system where every play has multiple options, and almost none of their possessions end in a player trying to go 1-on-1.
Even when the Spurs benched their Big 3 against Miami earlier this year, their back-ups still kept it close because they play the same exact system no matter who is on the court.
All that passing is designed to create high-percentage shots, regardless of who’s taking them.
60% of San Antonio’s shot attempts came either at the rim or behind the three-point line (the two most efficient areas in the game). They whip the ball all over the place until someone ends up with an open look, and over the ~95 possessions that comprise of an NBA game, that usually results in a win.
They force low-percentage shots on defence.
San Antonio is not the historically good defensive team that they were when Tim Duncan was at the peak of his powers. But they do two incredibly important things well — defend the three-point line and protect the rim.
The Spurs allowed the 4th-fewest three-point attempts in the league this year. They also had the 3rd-best field goal percentage defence on shots in the rim.
Lay-ups and three-pointers are the two most efficient types of shots in the NBA. And the Spurs are really good at defending them.
San Antonio dares opponents to beat them shooting long mid-range jumpers (the least efficient shot in basketball), and that’s what often happens. The Spurs allowed the 2nd-most shots between 16 and 23 feet in the league — those are the exact type of shots they want opponents taking.
They have solid individual defenders in Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green. But they’re the 3rd-best defensive team in the league because they’re smart about which types of shots they’ll let opponents take.
Tony Parker can win a game by himself.
San Antonio is often described as a “system team” where the players are just cogs in a bigger machine. But when Parker is healthy and playing well, they have one of the few players in the league who can win a game by himself.
That doesn’t mean he takes 30 shots and starts nailing low-percentage jumpers. When Parker is going well, he can completely break down a defence with an endless succession of pick-and-rolls.
Just look what he did to Memphis in the Western Conference Finals.
The Grizzlies came into the series as the best, most intimidating defensive team in the playoffs. They had the Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol, and one of the best on-ball defenders in the NBA in Tony Allen.
Parker destroyed them. He found the open man when Memphis tries to trap on the pick-and-roll, he attacked the rim when Memphis fought over screens, and he nailed open jumpers when Memphis switched and sagged.
He averaged 24.5 points and 9.5 assists while shooting 53%. In the one game where he shot less than 50%, he had 18 assists.
Parker is the secret weapon. The Spurs’ system inherently suppresses individual excellence. But if that system is failing, there’s always the possibility that Parker can simply take the game into his own hands. And that’s what makes this Spurs team really special.
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