A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

33pt Thursday: Was “Feel for the Game” the secret to the Red Auerbach era Celtics and Greg Popovich era San Antonio Spurs legendary drafting?

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Tony Parker and Greg Popovich

Tony Parker and Greg Popovich (Photo credit: Tiago Hammil)

I believe feel for the game is ultimately under-represented in NBA personnel decisions, particularly in the draft. However that does not mean nobody has ever considered the subject. When I look at two incredibly eras for franchises, feel for the game stands out consistently in draft picks/decisions – and that’s Red Auerbach’s Celtics and Greg Popovich’s Spurs.

Now, this could be simply a matter of the Celtics and Spurs being fantastic at finding great players and it just so happening that most great players excel in feel for the game, therefore their successful acquisition correlating with feel for the game friendly players rather than being a cause of it. But for fun, let’s look at the histories of some of their picks:

Auerbach joined the Celtics in 1950. Bob Cousy was actually passed on by the Celtics, but ended up with them anyways after his team the Chicago Stags folded. Cousy was the Celtics’ first player with supreme feel for the game, the first truly great offensive mind in the game at the guard position. Bill Sharman, a draft pick soon after was another with a strong feel for the game offensively.

In 1956 the Celtics made arguably the biggest history changing NBA trade ever, trading for the rights to Bill Russell for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan. Bill Russell of course is in the conversation for greatest feel for the game of all time. His awareness of the court makes him the greatest defensive genius in NBA history, while his elite passing game for a big proved his awareness offensively.

In Russell’s 13 year career, spanning 11 titles, the Celtics drafted or acquired many players with elite feel for the game. Sam Jones, taken 8th in 1957 and John Havlicek, 7th in 1962 had amazing feel for the court as the two of the most intelligent off ball scorers we’ve seen, as well as strong defenders. KC Jones is regarded as one of the most intelligent defenders of his era and Satch Sanders another player who’s strength appears to be elite feel. Super 6th man Frank Ramsey also appears to be a feel for the game friendly player.

After Russell retired in 1969, a series of great draft picks helped them rebuild. Jo Jo White picked 9th in 1969 and Paul Westphal, picked 10th in 1972, had elite feel for the game again. But the most important pick was Dave Cowens 4th in 1970. Cowens’ feel for the game, like Russell’s, is clearly one of the greatest of all time. He became one of the best defenders in the league despite less than spectacular physical tools (ie off his head) and had a supreme playmaking and awareness level offensively. These great picks helped the Celtics pick up a few more titles, then in 1978 they made another legendary pick, taking Larry Bird 6th in 1978, seeing his talent enough to wait a year for him as he finished up college. Bird is yet another “greatest of all time” contending feel for the game player for the Celtics, with a supernatural sense of the court offensively. After Bird’s rookie season, they traded the 1st overall pick (Joe Barry Carroll) for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, two players with supreme feel for the game as one of their greatest strengths. The Celtics went on to win 3 more titles in the 80s.

What’s truly legendary about all these draft picks is that virtually none of them were no-brainers. Bird, Cowens, Havlicek, Jones, Westphal were all passed on by multiple teams and they had to go out of their way to trade for Russell and McHale/Parish. Players like Bird and Cowens didn’t fit the look of superstars physically, but the Celtics saw their mental talent. The Celtics drafted players like they knew something other teams didn’t. Who knows if it was knowledge of feel for the game that made Auerbach single out these players as special, but it definitely fits the pattern.

The Spurs’ history in the Tim Duncan/Greg Popovich era has made them the Celtics of this era. They are spectacular at drafting steals to the point where they’re almost using a cheat-code book. Year in and year out, they pick up great players that everyone missed upon. Once again, while it may be a case of correlation more than causation, feel for the game has its fingerprints all over their success.

Tim Duncan, taken #1 in 1997, of course has arguably the best feel for the game of his era, with scary smoothness, calm and awareness to his game. But as a consensus/no-brainer #1 pick, it’s hard to give them any credit for outperforming expectations with that pick.  After that they get special at drafting. Manu Ginobili was taken 57th in 1999, easily one of the greatest draft picks of all time. Although being a great athlete with high skill, his best in the league caliber feel for the game is what makes him truly special. He’s a beautiful player to watch due how natural his game and awareness level is. Tony Parker, taken 28th in 2002, also has a very strong feel for the game that helps him attack the paint beautifully. Bruce Bowen and Rasho Nesterovic have outstanding feel for the game for their position making up for less talent in other areas, and Stephen Jackson also has it as a strength.

The Spurs went onto draft Luis Scola 55th in 2002 (though losing his rights later) and Tiago Splitter 28th in 2007. Like Ginobili and Parker they were European players who the Spurs identified early as talent, being willing to wait on them coming over to the NBA. The feel for the game of both is tremendous. They took Dejaun Blair 37th in 2009, although a somewhat obvious pick, his feel for the game was his biggest strength. They also traded George Hill for Kawhi Leonard’s rights taken 15th in 2011, a player with a spectacular feel for the game. In the 2012 draft they wanted to draft Scott Machado (a feel for the game demon) according to Machado himself, but he asked them not to so he wouldn’t have to play in Europe. They player they ended up at 59, Marcus Denmon, is another feel for the game first player.

Like the Celtics, the history of the Spurs after the Duncan pick is taking players that many teams passed on. They specifically identified the players to take, which indicates knowing something other teams do not. Perhaps they have a different supreme way of identifying the great players, but it correlates extremely well with if feel for the game was recognized by the team as something to target.

Nevertheless, whether they meant it or not, one thing is for sure: The Celtics and Spurs have an immensely rich history of feel for the game (not just in the Auerbach and Popovich eras – The Celtics went onto to get Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, who both have elite feel for the game, and before Pop the Spurs had David Robinson, George Gervin and Sean Elliot excelling in it) and its played a huge part of their success. Secretly.

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