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The Extra Pass: The Spurs and time

Feb 12, 2013, 9:29 AM EDT

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs - Game Two Getty Images

The Extra Pass is a column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the San Antonio Spurs. 

You don’t have to scrounge for reasons for why the San Antonio Spurs have such great success. A quick point of the finger to Tim Duncan works just fine; an additional point to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili works even better. There probably can’t be enough praise heaped on head coach Gregg Popovich, and attributing credit to the top of the organization won’t warrant many complaints. The Spurs are a world-class organization with all-world players. It can be that simple.

Maybe it’s so simple that it’s easy to look past. Every year the Spurs get older, and every year the concerns about time pop up and we forget everything else. Every compliment includes a caveat — the Spurs are great, but they’re old. Fact is, time is undefeated, and we tend to side with the champion over the challenger in that regard. In the eyes of many, the Spurs are up against it more and more every year.

But when the Spurs inevitably tear through the league like they always do, we say that they’re defying time. We praise their ability to fight time. Every year we do this and act surprised.

It makes me think that we’re looking at it the wrong way. The Spurs aren’t fighting against time. They’re using it.

Forfeiting Time

It starts by giving it up. Manu Ginobili has done it for years, coming off the bench and taking less minutes while not shying away from recuperation time from the bumps and bruises his reckless style of play welcomes. Tim Duncan, meanwhile, has played less than 30 a minutes a night for the last three years. It’s not that Duncan can’t play that much anymore — his playoff average usually hovers around 36 minutes a game — it’s all about pacing. Duncan is playing some of the best basketball of his career and putting up career per-36 numbers, but no team better understands how long an 82 game season is than the Spurs. They are always the tortoise.

That said, thinking that the Spurs sit their stars simply for the sake of rest is a classic mistake. Monday night’s trip to Chicago was a perfect example. Could some combination of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Stephen Jackson could have played? Probably, but suiting up those guys for tired or rusty minutes in the middle of an 82-game season serves no real purpose. Popovich went with none of the four, and the Spurs reserves got a ton of minutes they don’t usually receive. That move paid off, as the shorthanded Spurs beat the Bulls easily, 103-89.

And what’s the result? Another banked experience for guys who might not get many shots at it. When the day comes for Kawhi Leonard to be the Spurs’ top scorer, he has 26 points against the league’s best wing defenders to draw on. That confidence gleaned is more important than anything Parker, Duncan or Ginobili could have done. No coach puts their team in more no-lose, low-risk situations during the regular season than Popovich.

Organizational patience

You would think a front office with an aging core would be in a huge rush to win in their championship window, but the Spurs have gone the opposite route.  Tiago Splitter was drafted way back in 2007, playing overseas for three years of Tim Duncan’s prime before coming over. Nando de Colo was drafted in 2009 and is a rookie this season. George Hill was a mature, useful player at both guard spots for the Spurs, and he was swapped for a raw 19-year-old rookie in Kawhi Leonard last season.

Is it a coincidence that the biggest moves the Spurs have made have been for a center and a small forward?  By waiting on Splitter and developing Leonard into a killer corner scorer, the Spurs might be better than ever. After all, it’s the Spurs — not the Lakers or the Heat or any of the other “super teams” — that have the most effective starting lineup in all of basketball. The Parker-Green-Leonard-Duncan-Splitter lineup has a 106.9 offensive rating and an 87.1 defensive rating. The window is as open as it ever was.

The system

Most of San Antonio’s offense revolves around motion. Guys move with a purpose. There are very few plays for individuals, which eliminates turn taking and bad shots off the dribble. The next time you hear about a player under Popovich complaining about not getting enough shots will be the first time. If you cut hard, you’ll get it. If you screen hard, you’ll get it.

The Spurs may have been missing their stars in Chicago, but their biggest star was undoubtedly the system. The reserves executed in the halfcourt flawlessly, running everything with the same crispness the starters would. Popovich demands his players to follow a lot of rules on both ends, but he doesn’t dumb things down or limit the possibilities. He trusts his players to make the right decisions because they’re his players. Again, that comes with time.

And that’s really the point. We like to consider time as the one great enemy to the mighty Spurs empire, but no other team has used it to their advantage quite like the Spurs have.

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