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In copy-cat league, could other teams mimic the Spurs’ offense?

Jun 15, 2014, 12:05 AM EDT

Miami Heat v San Antonio Spurs - Game One Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — Every coach in the NBA (and college, and high school, and youth YMCA leagues) espouses the same basic principles as Gregg Popovich on offense — move the ball, cut when you don’t have the ball, find your open teammate and trust them to make the play.

But nobody executes those things like the Spurs — they have an offensive rating of 119.2 point per 100 possessions in these Finals.

The NBA can be a copy-cat league. If coaches or scouts see something that works — for example Mike D’Antoni’s push in Phoenix to get off a shot before the defense could get set — a lot of other teams will do it. Maybe not the exact same way, but they incorporate parts. Another example, every team has a couple of triangle offense sets in the playbook.

San Antonio is on the doorstep of winning an NBA title playing “the beautiful game” of balanced team basketball — passing, cutting off the ball, swinging the ball sharply strong to weak, and being willing to give up a good shot to get their teammate a great one. It makes the Spurs offense unpredictable and hard to defend. Just ask the Heat.

“There’s nobody that’s not in play,” Ray Allen said. “For us, you have to guard a man-and-a-half, sometimes two men, in a possession.”

“Everybody’s dangerous on our team,” Boris Diaw explained. “Everybody can score at any time. It’s not like a pattern, like some times you do scouting on a team and you say ‘Who’s the head of the snake, who’s the guy who’s going to score?’ You keep them from scoring and you’re going to win the game. With us it’s a little bit different, anybody can score on any given night. You saw that during the whole regular season. One night Patty Mills is the leading scorer on our team, some times it’s Danny (Green), sometimes it’s Tony (Parker), sometimes it’s Manu (Ginobili), sometime’s it’s Tim (Duncan). It can be anyone.”

It’s a joy to watch, it makes you ask “why doesn’t every team do that?”

But is that kind of selfless team play something other teams can actually successfully emulate?

“It’s a big strategy shift from how a lot of players are brought up playing from AAU,” Matt Bonner said. “That’s give the ball to the best player and get out of the way…

“You look at teams in Europe, playing for the EuroLeague title, and their leading scorers average 13, 14 points a game probably. It’s just a team mentality, a style of play thing everybody has to buy into.”

It’s no coincidence there are a lot of European players on the Spurs, the system comes more naturally to them.

For a team that wants to do what the Spurs do on offense, it has to start with getting players not wed to that AAU style of ball. The Spurs organization focuses hard on getting guys willing to play this style, guys not concerned with numbers but rather with fitting in the team concept. For another team to emulate that would require both that team’s star player being selfless like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, then that team has to find role players to put around them who share that philosophy. Sure, San Antonio has done it, but good luck trying to follow those footsteps.

Let’s say a team did get those right guys for the system, the next ingredient is patience. It takes time to get everyone on the same page, it takes a consistency of roster.

“You don’t get it until you experience it for quite some time,” Patty Mills said. “It really took me two seasons before I really mentally understood and acknowledged what I needed to do to play a part in this team. You got to be within the group what to expect and what’s expected of you.

“There’s no textbook. You can’t pick up a textbook and read it and go and do it.”

During that time, and with the roster consistency, the Spurs also built up one other key component to making their offense click.

“I honestly think (our success) comes from the trust within each other, trusting the next person that they can make plays or they can have your back and cover you in any situation,” Mills said. “That’s a big factor that goes underestimated about the way we play.”

Would another owner be patient enough to let a GM not only find these guys but keep them together for years to work it all out? Judging from how many 50+ win coaches we’ve seen canned in the last couple years, I think not.

San Antonio is just a unique situation.

Still, should we see more of the Spurs style of play, should it be the model teams emulate?

“It should be, I think,” Mills said. “The way that we get taught how to play the game, we get told it’s the right way to play, we don’t know any other way to play and I think that’s the main thing.”

  1. simonwelds - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:55 AM

    I guess the irony is the Heat have won the last 2 rings… And beat the spurs last year…. Why crown someone before a series is over?

    • tomshoe - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:51 AM

      I’m looking forward to today.

      Today I will be drinking a nice cold glass of your salty tears when the Heat go down. That was last year. This year, Popovich and the Spurs have solved the Heat puzzle, and we all know it. We are the most successful franchise in ANY sport. We have the best record in ANY sport. We’re about to add championship #5 to our history of greatness.

      Your system worked back then, but things changed. We beat the system. YOUR system. And unless you want to come back here next year and give Duncan ring #6 (be my guest), then I suggest you change things up. (No, buying Melo doesn’t count.)

    • theblackrook - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:47 PM

      another person who doesn’t know what the word irony means.

  2. football58 - Jun 15, 2014 at 1:04 AM

    So Melo could not play this type of ball

  3. mackcarrington - Jun 15, 2014 at 1:31 AM

    As the writer himself said. Good luck with that.
    Of course in a copy-cat league it’s just as easy to follow the Miami heat formula and build around 3 A- list star players.
    Which formula is easier?

    • gameisours - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:01 AM

      You mean follow the Boston Celtics formula?

      • jimeejohnson - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:26 AM

        No team is going to dominate like the Celtics did way back when.

      • kindasporty - Jun 15, 2014 at 2:14 PM

        You mean copy the Houston Rockets formula?

  4. touchdownroddywhite - Jun 15, 2014 at 1:35 AM

    These guys are talking pretty big considering they haven’t closed it out yet. I hope the Heat lose, but I did just get a glimpse of of the door opening for them to come back. Lebron: “why not us?” In response to a comment about the history of being down 3-1, while the Spurs are patting themselves on the back for being the model of excellence. As much as Lebron annoys me, he’s a 2x back to back champ and still sounds hungrier than these guys.

    • ocgunslinger - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:02 AM

      He’s just following Wilson’s comments from the NFL. Not even original.

    • kb2408 - Jun 15, 2014 at 1:17 PM

      Dude, really at this point what do you honestly expect him to say, “we’re going back to Texas knowing we’re going to get curb stomped again”?! LeBron is simply being PC, the Heat know this series is over.

  5. antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 2:11 AM

    It would be too difficult for other teams to try to emulate this offense. You’d have to start from scratch and build your team up with, basically, international minded players who don’t mind being told that they’re not good enough individually to beat American players at their own game.

    And trying to run an offense like this would basically mean that you’re committed to saying “no thanks” to any potential MJ or Shaq or Kobe or Durant type – and what GM has the nads to do that?

    And you’d also need to draft an unselfish hall-of-fame paladin like Tim Duncan just to keep things stable from the interior.

    Too many requirements for a team to think they can do it overnight.

    • kavika6 - Jun 15, 2014 at 3:10 AM

      I never thought I’d say this but good comment anti.

      • jimeejohnson - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:27 AM

        You’re a bigger man than most. Good for you.

    • unclemosesgreen - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:54 AM

      You need an unselfish big with court vision and passing ability to make this happen. That’s why LeBron’s new team should start installing aspects of the Spurs’ offense next season.

      • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:36 PM

        Well every team has some aspects of this offense. The Heat certainly do. But I would only try to run this offense if you were forced to, as Pop was.

    • borderline1988 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:03 AM

      People are forgetting how good some of the players on SAS are. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are still arguably 2 of the top-15 players in the game today. They have some of the best 3-pt shooting in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are two of the most underrated and best 2-way players in the NBA..think about it, how many teams have individual defenders who can guard Lebron so well? And the Spurs have good depth at every position.

      It’s not like Poppovich can stick a bunch of D-Leaguers into his system and win the NBA championship next year.

      The other thing you have to remember, is that this SAS team has had trouble with athletiscm in the past. They are gelling at the right moment right now, sort of like Dallas 3 yeras ago, but it’s perfectly possible that in a playoff series next year, OKC blows them out of the water, and suddenly everybody’s singing a different tune.

    • dedalus13 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:34 AM

      I agree, no way this can happen overnight. But to me this goes further than building a team with “international minded” players, it is teaching and coaching young players to play this way (Bonner hits the nail). My guess is e.g. european players have less of a streetball culture and better master play without the ball. Basics of basketball are not teached through 1-on-1 or 2-on-2 but directly 3-on-3 (set a pick on opposite player)

      • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:40 PM

        That will never happen in this country, and I don’t even want it to. I would not want to see the NBA turn into a European league. I am quite fond of our league as it is, with the occasional Spurs/Pistons team thrown in every now and then.

    • kb2408 - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:06 AM

      @kavika6….I think you’re giving the ANTI comment way too much credit. How do we even know that Pop didn’t devise his game plan BECAUSE he had a player like Timmy? I guarantee you had the Spurs drafted MJ, Kobe or KD they all would’ve thrived for the Spurs. Pop would have meshed his philosophy with their talent. Other great players could flourish in his system, not just Timmy. MJ played in Dean Smith’s system and helped him win a title for goodness sakes!! Kobe played in the triangle for Phil, you don’t think he couldn’t have been just as great playing for Pop in his system? The cream rises to the top. All-time greats like Magic, MJ, Bird, LBJ, Wilt, etc., were great not because of any system. They made the system great!!

      • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:42 PM

        Well that’s the point, kb. Pop would trash his system tomorrow if he could have prime MJ. He only runs it now because he has to.

    • kb2408 - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:18 PM

      In another system Manu could be a Kobe, KD, MJ “type.” Not that he is on their level talent wise but he could put up 20 shots a night on a lesser team. My point is he seems to have done ok in Pop’s system.

      • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:45 PM

        Players like Manu grow up being taught how to play a certain way, and only yearning to be MJ. But they do not grow up the way American players grow up, which is why they don’t take it the wrong way when Pop comes on TV and says that they’re not good enough individually. Most American star players (like your boy Kobe) would respond negatively to that.

  6. bigwii - Jun 15, 2014 at 4:14 AM

    Wow, people act like this type if offense hasn’t been around since the beginning of the sport. It’s how the game should be played, all this new school stuff is the problem. People think basketball is nothing but running around and dunking. You can still have star players but if you play as a team you will be better than any one star.

    There can still be flashy street ball, and flashy dunks but the Spurs play just as flashy with nice ball movement and execution of their offense. Many teams won like this back in the day.

    This anti guy must really hate basketball if he thinks it’s all about stars and flashy dunks. Your point of admitting they’re not good enough so they have to play as a team to win is the worst opinion I’ve heard. Just because your Heat is losing doesn’t mean you have to be bitter, the Spurs play real basketball and more teams should play like them. It would make it a lot easier to win games and they wouldn’t have to rely on one or two players all the time.

    • bkbell3 - Jun 15, 2014 at 4:26 AM

      Bigwii, i agree with you but a big part of the problem is teams ask guys to sacrifice but when it comes time to pay them they use their numbers against them. Guys like Diaw aren’t and won’t get paid.Yes Duncan has given up some dollars to help the team at times but it is still a business and if your numbers go down because you sacrifice, at contract time they will compare your numbers to other guys and say your not worth as much as others.

      • johnc44 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:49 AM

        Duncan has done more than give up some dollars at times.He could`ve been a max player but makes less than Andre Bargnani or Javale McGee.The Spurs big 3 made 30.3m combined or less than Josh Smith,Charlie Villanueva & Rodney Stuckey did in Detroit.Miami`s big 3 took their “pay cut” to 19m each or 57m this season.That is the hardest part.Finding players who really care more about winning than maximizing dollars instead of just saying it until it`s time to get a contract.

      • bkbell3 - Jun 16, 2014 at 2:44 PM

        Johnc44 and do you think duncan like dirk isn’t going to have a job for life and a couple of hundred thousand to a million dollars a year when they retire for all those hometown discounts?

    • longtallsam - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:09 AM

      I agree, this is the way basketball should be played, and Lebron would fit well into this type system. Remember, he has been criticized in the past for passing, instead of taking the shot. He would probably average 25 instead of 30, but Lebron would be fine. Someone like Melo, not so much.

    • johnc44 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:22 AM

      What the Spurs do now is what the NBA was before Jordan.If you look at the Lakers & Celtics all 5 guys were involved at all times.Jordan brought the 1 on 1 the isolation`s and the Rodman & Cartwright stand over there out of my way plays.

    • jimeejohnson - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:27 AM

      “This anti guy must really hate basketball…”

      Yes, and that dick, Cheney, isn’t a dick. Yeah, right!

  7. fatcamper - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:06 AM

    Just a thought, but maybe coaches should continue to coach to the pieces they have. At this point, the Spurs don’t have a guy on the roster that is going to put up huge numbers every night even if they wanted him to (unless Leonard develops further). They do have a lot of really good players with high basketball IQs that move the ball well.

    In Miami, it would be ridiculous to ask Lebron to turn down a good shot and move the ball to Chalmers because he has a slightly better shot. A coach has to work with what he has, and if you have Lebron you give him a green light to shoot. Miami needs Lebron as the focal point just as much as the Spurs need ball movement.

    • kb2408 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:48 AM

      Yeah, but as we’ve all seen before, LBJ sometimes reverts back to the tentative LBJ. My point is maybe he already has the green light….but doesn’t take it anyway.

  8. papichulo55 - Jun 15, 2014 at 8:23 AM

    Offense puts arses in the seats, but defense puts rings on the fingers.

  9. kb2408 - Jun 15, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    Other teams should’ve attempted to mimic the Spurs years ago! I find the quote from Ray Allen to be revealing. Perhaps Spo is just an average coach after all?

    • jimeejohnson - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:30 AM

      How come teams never mimicked the show time Lakers of yesteryear? It’s because you need players who can do it, and most teams will never have the kind of team those showtime Lakers had. To mimic the great ones you have to have greatness on your roster. That’s why the Knicks have been unable to play at the high level NY fans had become accustomed to.

      • kb2408 - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:44 AM

        I agree, teams need talent to pull it off.

  10. chitownbrown - Jun 15, 2014 at 10:20 AM

    I don’t think Greg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA because it’s easy for other teams to mimic what he does.

  11. ProBasketballPundit - Jun 15, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    When a Spur passes the ball on offense he immediately runs to the corner or whatever spot he’s supposed to be in next. He doesn’t lollygag to the spot or stand around. That means the guy who was just defending the ball can’t take a moment off because he’ll get burned on a 3. I don’t think that’s a “strategy” that can be copied. That’s just a level of commitment you rarely see.

  12. ranfan12 - Jun 15, 2014 at 12:20 PM

    Nah. Team ball is too much to handle for some players

  13. norcalsportsknowledge - Jun 15, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    I bet Kerr wants Mills to come teach some of that to the Dubs. I could see him on Kerr’s wish list. Bogut wouldn’t mind that either.

  14. bball1950 - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:59 PM

    The SA spurs are playing bball like the old Knicks of the 70’s and Celtics. Move the ball to the open shooter. You do need 5 players who can make the shot.

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