A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Spurs and their market inefficiencies

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The term “market inefficiency” was popularized in sports after Moneyball and the baseball statistics-revolution in the early 2000s. It largely means a team can “tip the scales” in their favor, instead of using resources and succeeding as much as the other teams in the league, they can do better by valuing things other teams undervalue. In baseball, some examples have been targeting hittings with high walk rates or shifting defenses according to the batter, before the crowd caught up to these tricks.

Logically, the Spurs incredible run of success should be tied to the concept of market inefficiency. The Spurs front office is better than everyone at everything. They are the Tiger Woods of front offices. They are the best at drafting, best at developing players, they allocate salary the most efficiency, from a coaching perspective they have the best offensive and defensive gameplans, and they’re the most forward trying to maximize a player’s health and longevity with strategies like limiting their minutes.

The drafting and identifying talent however, is really their most standout trait. None of the other stuff would be enough if they hadn’t taken HOFers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the 20s and 50s, Kawhi Leonard in the teens, Tiago Splitter and George Hill in the 20s, etc., along with seeing Danny Green’s talent when he’d been cut by the Cavaliers. Nobody is even close to the Spurs when it comes to drafting. It’s as if they’re using a cheat code.

So what are the Spurs doing? Here’s my take

Feel for the Game (or Fluidity)

This is really the Spurs “corner”. There are still some people who think fluidity is athleticism instead of mental instincts-driven, but even if you do, the pattern still applies, Spurs horde the stuff.

It’s not just that the Spurs stars like Tim Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard are fluid, aesthetically natural players, it’s that their entire roster is. Patty Mills, Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, etc. Along with some of the great Spurs role players of the past like Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Rasho Nesterovic, Stephen Jackson and so on. I find fluidity to be most visible on drives to the rim or posting up, so if you are not convinced, try to look at those during these Finals or online. As far as I can tell, you don’t make the Spurs roster without a very good to great fluidity or feel for the game.

It bears noting that feel for the game is not a one-way ticket to success. Some of the prospects I feel are most overvalued in the upcoming draft are ones with strong feel for the game, such as Tyler Enins and James Young. There’s enough room to take the high mocked draft pick with the feel for the game and still bust. Evan Turner has a near elite feel for the game, but without either the speed to drive, ability to move well on defense or outside shooting, along with a poor attitude to boot, he’s a disastrous 2nd overall pick. Likewise Adam Morrison’s feel for the game was his strong suit, but between league worst physical tools and an overrated jumpshot, he didn’t make it. Michael Beasley is an interesting example of a feel for the game/fluidity-strong bust. I’ve made the case that except for young players, the notably fluid prospects who play dumb in the NBA, are all guys with “personality flaws”. It doesn’t matter that Beasley, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Charlie Villaneuva, etc. have the feel/talent to be smart players, because they were destined to be erratic because of their personality off the court. Luckily for the Spurs they don’t have to worry about players who’s IQ underperforms their feel like Lance or Beasley, because they also are obsessed with character and work ethic and players who fit into a team culture.

The Athleticism loophole

Ok, so we know the Spurs target feel for the game. We know they love outside shooters as much as anyone, which isn’t really a market inefficiency because everyone else values that too, or at least they do now. Between their outside shooting and the post play of Duncan, Splitter and Diaw, the Spurs inside-outside skill level leads the league as strongly as their feel for the game.

If putting their resources into skill and feel, it’d be logical if the return cost for them, is being a less physically gifted team. The only players who both elite physical tools and the elite skill/feel for the game that’s the hallmark of the Spurs system, are monsters like Lebron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George, etc. Since the Spurs can’t just get their hands on those guys, if they really wanted elite athletes or bodies who DON’T have the Spurs-like skill and feel, they’d have to pick up players like Thomas Robinson or Gerald Green for their bench. They don’t do this.

On one hand, the Spurs are indeed less athletic than most teams. We saw the Thunder manhandle them athletically in games 3 and 4 of the WCF. The Spurs most likely rank 30th in the league in dunks and alley oops. It’s not their corner.

However, there’s ways around this. First, just because the Spurs aren’t great athletes, doesn’t mean they lack the ability to attack the basket. Because Parker and Ginobili are both some of the best ballhandlers for their position, they’re still impressive driving threats, arguably elite for their position in their athletic primes. I’ve been arguing for a long time that on the offensive end athleticism and ballhandling have a serious overlap. Because although one is a physical talent and the other is a skill, the net result of both is mostly freedom of motion. Driving past a defender with ballhandling, does the same for a player as driving past him with an explosive first step. There are other ways athleticism and ballhandling help a player such as finishing at the rim or retaining the ball from turnovers, that do not overlap as well, but I feel on the offensive end this freedom of motion and penetration ability has a key overlap, at least for perimeter orientated players – Which is the majority of the league as it includes not only PG, SF and SF, but including all the PFs or Cs who play like SG/SFs. It’s why sometimes athletic wings without the ballhandling have the offensive game of a worse athlete (ie Wesley Johnson and Gerald Green being spot up 3 point shooters), or the opposite, wings with great ballhandling can play like they are more athletic (James Harden, Chris Paul, along with Parker/Manu are good examples). I’m guessing one of the reasons the Spurs were able to see Parker and Ginobili’s talent when they drafted them, is they were bigger believers in their NBA driving ability than others and believed it could replicate more elite athleticism.

Secondly there’s other ways to be physically significant including length, strength and lateral mobility, the combination of which the Spurs do a very good job targeting. None of the Danny Green-Kawhi Leonard-Tiago Splitter combination have elite explosiveness for their position but they bring other crucial physical elements to the Spurs. They add length to the team (Green and Leonard are longer than the average SG, Splitter is average), strength (Leonard and Splitter are stronger than the average SF, Green is average) and lateral mobility (all three are impressive for their position). In other words, the Spurs didn’t need to draft high flying athletes to add badly needed physical reinforcements in the draft, they were able to go around it with length, strength and lateral mobility. This is added to the fact that Parker and Manu can still drive to the basket and Duncan still has elite size for a big. If looking at “physical impact” as a combination of driving to the rim, length/strength and movement on defense, the Spurs may not lead the league when physically freakish teams like the Heat and Thunder are out there, but they’re a more gifted team in that area than if one only uses “high-flying athleticism” as a judge of physical value. I suspect the reason the Spurs are so good at drafting isn’t just their priority of feel for the game, but having a clearcut value system for physical talents and skills as well. Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter aren’t just steals because of their feel for the game, but because when one added that to how much of the rest of their talent they had such as length, strength, lateral movement, speed attacking the rim, outside shooting ability, finishing skill at the basket, etc., that’s when they started to look like clear starting caliber talents, or star talent in Leonard’s case.

Fittingly, Tim Duncan himself embodies the “Spurs model” in drafting a prospect. First, Duncan combination of skill level and feel for the game was one of the best in history for a PF or C. His “traditional” athleticism (above the rim, speed) was never elite for his position, but he was still physically gifted because of his massive frame, length and lateral mobility combination. And with the skill and feel there, along with perfect character, he didn’t need more than that to be a dominant superstar.

Written by jr.

June 3, 2014 at 12:40 pm

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