The central premise in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath is that sometimes your strengths can be major weaknesses and weaknesses major strengths.
This is the San Antonio Spurs.
Over the past decade, in the years following Tim Duncan’s “Four Down” brilliance, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have exposed the league’s market inefficiencies. They were the first to exploit the corner three, the first to diminish offensive rebounding, the first to embrace advanced analytics, the first to understand the importance of budgeting minutes and the first to find valuable assets overseas.
Experimentation was a necessity for the Spurs. These ingenuous organizational ideas became widespread NBA truths, but not before the Spurs moved onto the next inefficiency.
The 2015 Golden State Warriors won an NBA championship employing a style that many throughout the league doubted. The ultimate irony of the jump-shooting incredulity was that the San Antonio Spurs had just proven this hypothesis inaccurate the year before.
The Spurs modeled their personnel and schemes on Mike D’Antoni’s original vision of :07 or Less, using pace and space to best LeBron James’s Heat in 2014. Steve Kerr’s Warriors were simply the next evolution.
Today’s NBA from a schematic standpoint substantiates D’Antoni’s vision, and contradicts the prevailing premise that jump-shooting teams cannot win an NBA championship.
As good as the Spurs were in 2014, Pop, always the underdog, had his eyes towards what’s around the bend.
Necessity is truly the mother of invention. Pop’s latest zag isn’t entirely a reaction to the latest league trends; it’s also a product of roster construction. The Spurs intuitively understood not to follow the Golden State blueprint, like many other teams, but instead to beat the Warriors by playing an entirely different style.
The rest of the NBA has gone small in lockstep with the Warriors, so the Spurs transitioned to a more inside-out style. Their offensive success is predicated on their ability to create mismatches on the low block.
The Spurs are second in the NBA with post-ups on 13.9% percent of their possessions, first in the NBA with 633 points out of post-ups and first in the NBA at 52 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports.
They’ve gone away from the three-ball, shooting 18.5 per game, or 26th in the league.
In just a few seasons, the Spurs went from perimeter-oriented to an interior-based system.
Certainly the Spurs went to more of an interior style based upon the offseason acquisitions of LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. However, it’s the full complement of frontcourt pieces, with an interchangeable skill set, that allows San Antonio to capitalize on a forgotten style.
Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, David West and Boris Diaw all have range from in tight to the elbows, they’re all above-average passers and they can all defend at a high level.
When the Spurs are able to play this style they’re unbeatable, much in the same way of Golden State’s small ball lineup of death.
Which style will prevail when these two heavyweights inevitably meet in the Western Conference Finals? If the Spurs can force Golden State to play big, they’ll undoubtedly win.
That’s a task easier said than done.
As much as the Spurs have schematically evolved, they won in 2014 by being chameleons.
They went big with Aron Baynes as a starter in dispatching Portland, and then switched to a small ball lineup in the Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City with Matt Bonner.
The Spurs still have this ability. Boris Diaw unlocks a volatile small ball lineup much in the same way Draymond Green does for Golden State. Diaw can defend 1-5, pass at a high level and retains fairly consistent range on offense.
In a best-of-seven series, though, Golden State will want to dictate that style.
That’s the impetus for the new Spurs.
These two teams will meet for the first time tonight in Oakland in a game that’ll mean absolutely nothing when April comes.
The reason being, the key for the Spurs to win tonight is the same as it’ll be when these teams likely match up in the West Finals. They’ll win if they can be Goliath, as long as they overpower David before he can get his slingshot.