The San Antonio Spurs: A Basketball Utopia

A basketball utopia

The San Antonio Spurs operate differently to every other NBA team in the league. While many teams talk about having a winning culture, or sacrificing individual goals and accolades for the good of the team, no team lives this mantra as much as the Spurs.

Sure, most championships are won only if the team as a whole can subjugate their individual egos and agendas and make sacrifices for the good of the team. However, this is usually done by veteran players who had already achieved every other individual goal in the years prior. They’d made the All Star teams, All-NBA teams, piled up gaudy statistics, and had probably made close to (or in some cases, upwards of) $100 million in career earnings. By the time they get together, it really wasn’t that big of a stretch to ask those guys to put aside their egos for the good of the team.

The Spurs take this to a whole ‘nother level though, and I don’t think people realise just how much guys like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili gave up from a reputation and career legacy standpoint in order to win.

Let’s play a game. Here are three players’ career statistics, adjusted per 36 minutes, and you have to try and guess who they are:

  • Player A: 20.5 points 6.7 assists 0.9 steals 46/31/81.5 shooting 19.9 PER
  • Player B: 20 points 7.2 assists 1.6 steals 43/29/82 shooting 19.8 PER
  • Player C: 18.4 points 6.4 assists 1.1 steals 49/31/74 shooting 18.8 PER

Player A is Derrick Rose, a league MVP and a guy who recently signed a $250 million endorsement deal with Adidas. Player B is Russell Westbrook, a player who recently signed a max-contract extension with the Thunder at age 23. Both guys are hailed as All-NBA caliber talents and are often among the first names thrown out when listing the league’s top point guards. Player C is the Spurs’ Tony Parker.

Parker’s raw numbers are a little shy of the other two players, but he shoots the ball at a much more efficient rate (he has the highest True Shooting % out of all three), and has the ball in his hands far less than the other two players (he has the lowest usage rate out of the three), so he has fewer opportunities to accrue individual statistics. As the Spurs are always playing deep into the postseason, Coach Gregg Popovich often rests his stars to keep them fresh, which depresses their individual statistics. Add to that the presence of Duncan and Ginobili, as well as the Spurs’ egalitarian ball-swinging offensive system, and no one player can dominate the ball enough to pad their stats.

It’s true that Rose and Westbrook are younger players with more potential, and will likely soon become better players than Parker. But Parker has never received the amount of respect or attention close to what the other two players receive today. Even during his devastating run in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 postseasons when he averaged 22 points a game and earned himself a Finals MVP honour, Parker rarely got the same amount of accolades or praise as other young point guards of similar ability such as Rose, Westbrook, or even Rajon Rondo. It hasn’t been until this current season that the “Is Tony Parker actually really underrated?” bandwagon has started to fill up, and it required a historically dominant winning streak for him to get his All-NBA recognition.

I don’t know why you don’t get any attention either, Tony

All three play a similar style of game. They can all beat any defender off the dribble at will, and once they get into the lane they have a plethora of weapons with which to put the hoop through the bucket. However when watching these guys plays it is difficult not to pick up on the annoyingly effective (depending on your rooting interest of course) nature of Parker’s game. Indeed, he has often been among the league leaders in points scored in the paint, despite barely standing 6 feet tall. The guy just has a knack for penetrating and finishing, and his traditional point guard skills are often overshadowed thanks to the tactical brilliance of his coach. However, his ability to provide solid entry passes for Duncan, his crafty use of the screener in pick and rolls, and his feel for tempo and pace are things which the casual fan may not appreciate. Also, while his drive and kick instincts are as impeccable as any point guard in the league, thanks to the unselfish ball movement of the Spurs and their dedication to always finding the extra pass, he often contributes the equivalent of the ‘hockey assist’ (the pass that leads to the assist), which of course goes unrecorded on NBA box scores.

And it’s not like his game is lacking in flair – YouTube is stocked to the gills with clips of Tony Parker ankle-breakers. Parker has all the makings of a player who should be far more celebrated than he currently is, but has happily eschewed all of that in favour of quietly but ruthlessly piling up the wins.

—–

Here are three other players’ career statistics, adjusted per 36 minutes. These guys are, in some order, probably the three best shooting guards in the league, post-Jordan:

  • Player A: 25 points 5.2 rebounds 4.6 assists 1.5 steals 45/34/84 shooting 23.4 PER
  • Player B: 24.3 points 4.9 rebounds 6 assists 1.7 steals 49/29/77 shooting 25.7 PER
  • Player C: 19.6 points 5.1 rebounds 5.1 assists 1.9 steals 45/37/83.5 shooting 21.8 PER

Player A is Kobe Bryant, widely recognised as the second best shooting guard of all time and one of the ten best players ever. Player B is Dwyane Wade, also highly regarded as being one of the 10 best players in the world. They are two of the most popular players in the league, having been voted in as All Star starters by the fans for the majority of their careers. But while Kobe’s heroic fadeaways jumpers and Wade’s violent yet graceful attacking style of play captures the imagination of ballers everywhere, how many kids are in the driveway emulating Manu Ginobili? Even if they are, they’re probably copying the euro step because of its usage by guys like Wade or James Harden.

Just as it was with Parker and his contemporaries however, if you look at these three players objectively, they are almost indistinguishable. Wade and Kobe average more points than Manu, but they also shoot 4-5 more times a game, and have ridiculously high usage rates, meaning they use a much higher percentage of their team’s possessions (around 32% for both Wade and Kobe; just 25% for Manu). Manu also shoots at a much more efficient rate, topping out at an eye-popping 59% TS%.

“It’s real easy man, you just smear a bit of Rogaine on your palm like so…”

As outrageous as it might sound at face value, if Manu Ginobili could’ve stayed healthy* and played big minutes every game, it wouldn’t be inconceivable that he should be considered as, if not Kobe’s equal, then at least his closest rival. From a skill standpoint, Manu is second to none. He can pass it better than Kobe, and is a much better shooter than Dwyane Wade. He can handle the ball, get to the rack and finish with either hand, has incredible point guard-like court vision, and can also beat his guy off the dribble at will despite not being blessed with the same explosive first step as guys like Kobe and Wade. On top of it all, when the Kobe backers predictably ask to see the ringz, Manu has 3 championship rings of his own on his résumé.

*Interestingly enough, while Manu has the knock on him for being injury prone, he has played in 83% of his team’s games throughout his career. Dwyane Wade also has a bit of a reputation for getting injured, but it is not used against him like Ginobili’s injury record is (the common refrain: “Ginobili is a great player but you just can’t rely on him to stay healthy!”). And yet Dwyane Wade has played in 82.5% of possible games – meaning he actually has missed more games to injury than Ginobili has.

Again, I’m not here to say that Manu is better than Kobe or Wade. But he’s right there with them in that same elite status by any metric, be it simply going by the eye test or breaking down the advanced statistics. But a combination of factors outside his control (or perhaps more accurately, factors which he could control but of which he has ceded control to his coach for the betterment of the team) has led him to become the forgotten shooting guard of this generation.

—–

The payoff

Despite all of this, the Spurs keep on rolling. While other teams squabble about who takes the “big shot”, or have their star players throwing their coaches and teammates under the bus, such a thing is unheard of in Spurs-land. Not once has any of the Spurs’ “Big 3” ever complained about another guy getting too many shots. Ginobili happily comes off the bench and plays fewer minutes, even though he can and should be playing much more. There’s never been a public debate about who their ‘alpha dog’ is.

And through it all, they continue to win. Together, Parker, Manu and Duncan have won 70% of their regular season games and 3 NBA championships.  Some may find it boring. And I suppose ruthless, dispassionate excellence may indeed be lacking in a certain dramatic element. But San Antonio represents a sort of basketball utopia where individuals are not the focus, and teamwork, chemistry and winning are all that matters. In this respect, they are truly one of the more remarkable outfits of the past 20 years.

I just wish more people would appreciate it.

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