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The San Antonio Spurs Paradox

Gregg Popovich has overseen one of the most progressive organizations in basketball in the past two decades. So why do the Spurs play like they are trapped in another age? And what does their future look like?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The San Antonio Spurs are 5-5 with the NBA’s 15th-best net rating. They are almost average and right in the middle of the road. Given the loaded Western Conference, this could be the first time in 23 years the Spurs miss the playoffs. They are showing no signs of Languishing for LaMelo or Wising Up for Wiseman or any other fun tanking strategy. But we still write about them: They’re such an interesting clash of styles and philosophies, and they represent the old and the new struggling for the soul of the team.

On one hand, I watch the Spurs play and wonder whether DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are part of an anti-analytics protest. Of players to attempt at least 1,000 shots since last season, only Ben Simmons, Montrezl Harrell, and Andre Drummond have attempted fewer 3s than DeRozan and Aldridge. Teams are shooting from beyond the arc more than ever, but apparently the Spurs didn’t get the message. Does Gregg Popovich also still use cassettes to listen to music? (He probably does.)

Watching the 2019-20 Spurs can feel like taking a trip on a basketball time machine. For instance, these turnaround jumpers from DeRozan and Aldridge look like they were filmed in 2009.

But perception isn’t always reality. Right when I’m about to peg the Spurs as dinosaurs, I’ll see something like this sequence by Dejounte Murray and jump back to the future.

Adaptability is the hallmark of San Antonio under Popovich. He tailors their system to fit the strengths of the personnel, and these days, the Spurs have a paradoxical style that inspires nostalgia for the past, appreciation for the present, and curiosity about whatever might be coming in the NBA.

This is a team at a crossroads. Despite the fact that he has performed ably since arriving in Texas from Canada, DeRozan might not be in town for that much longer. He could even be traded ahead of the deadline. DeRozan can become a free agent in 2020 by declining his $27.7 million player option; he was far apart from the team on extension talks before the season, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick. The Spurs could always deal him sooner rather than let him walk for nothing. Multiple league sources say the Magic are scouring the trade market for scoring help and have already expressed interest in trading for DeRozan.

It would surprise none of the front-office executives I’ve spoken with if the Spurs did move DeRozan. Through no real fault of his own—he is who he is as a player—he’s a symbol of stagnation for the organization. DeRozan is taking minutes away from the Spurs’ young guards. Two years ago, after Kawhi left, San Antonio’s future looked bleak, but the front office has effectively injected youth into the roster. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about Murray, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, and Lonnie Walker IV. But DeRozan is a roadblock to seeing that young talent perform together. Murray and White have played together for only two minutes through 10 games. Murray, White, and Forbes haven’t played a single minute together. Walker IV is buried on the bench. It wouldn’t be difficult for the Spurs to free up some minutes for them and find frontcourt help by dealing DeRozan.

But! It’s not like the Spurs suck on offense. Based on the way we talk about the NBA on Twitter, podcasts, and with our friends, it often seems like the midrange jumper should be banned. But it’s worked out for the Spurs: They ranked seventh in offense last season and are seventh this season. And even though DeRozan and Aldridge live in the dreaded midrange, their passes frequently result in analytics-happy 3s or layups. And the rest of the team shoots a lot of 3s. Since last season, 35.9 percent of San Antonio’s shot attempts have come from 3-point range when neither Aldridge nor DeRozan is in the game, which would rank as the 10th-most frequent rate in the NBA. “We got a good mixture. Our second group has a lot of ball movement, and movement, period,” Forbes told me after a Spurs practice in Los Angeles. “Then we have two premier scorers and we let them do isolations. We have a lot of different sides to us.”

And that’s what makes the Spurs so interesting to watch. For so long, they always looked like a forward-looking organization. They somewhat predicted the Process by successfully tanking for Tim Duncan in the mid-’90s, they invested in international scouting and unearthed Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and they reintroduced a joga bonito style of play in the early 2010s that paved the way for the dominant Warriors teams of the latter part of the decade. They’ve always maximized the talents of their players. Not much has changed in that regard. DeRozan and Aldridge are comfortable from midrange, so they take a lot of shots from that area. Spurs players who like to live beyond the arc, like Forbes and Patty Mills, are encouraged to launch from deep. Murray moves like he permanently has the golden mushroom in Mario Kart, so the Spurs let him run.

The Spurs rank as one of the league’s seven fastest offenses in possession time following turnovers and defensive rebounds, according to data from Inpredictable. A team coached by Popovich has never ranked in the top 10 in either category, and they ranked in the bottom five in four of the past five seasons. In this sense, the Spurs are changing with the times. The entire league is moving quicker than it has in 20 years, posting its quickest pace since the 1982-83 season.

As potent as the Spurs are on the break (they rank second in transition scoring efficiency), they crucially don’t force chances. They are tied for 18th in possession time after made shots, and are tied for the ninth-lowest percentage of possessions coming in transition. San Antonio goes fast after misses and turnovers but slow after makes. I asked Popovich before a Spurs-Clippers game why that’s the case: “We think defenses break down as the ball changes sides with X amount of passes. We hope that defenses let up and you find a great shot, rather than an early shot.”

Popovich’s philosophy aligns with the modern trends toward speed, but goes against the grain by resisting early 3s. In each season this decade, teams attempted more 3s on the break than they did the season prior. In 2010-11, teams attempted 2.2 shots from 3 in transition, and so far in 2019-20 it’s 5.3, according to Synergy data provided to The Ringer.

Popovich would rather his team settle into a half-court possession and get a more considered look, even though the most efficient shots are found earlier in the clock; “seven seconds or less,” the old Suns philosophy, has become the norm. But sometimes going fast can be ugly.

Please raise your hand if you’re a big fan of watching Grizzlies wing Jae Crowder letting it fly from 3 on the break.

Or if that’s not your exact taste, perhaps a bit of Robert Covington ignoring an open drive to take a heavily contested 3?

Change is good. The open, free-flowing style of the league today is generally pleasing to watch. But sometimes it feels like players are playing the odds rather than playing with common sense. It’s an issue that could grow in regularity as 3-point frequency soars and fewer teams like the Spurs resist the urge to shoot early in the clock. I gotta admit, it’s refreshing to watch the Spurs encourage only their good shooters to take a ton of 3s. Forbes’s eyes light up when he talks about shooting the ball. He says Popovich empowers him to let it fly whenever he’s open (and he shoots lots of 3s, at 7.4 per game—14th most in the NBA), even though Pop admittedly hates the 3-point line. “It’s hard to shoot the ball when you don’t feel like you’re free,” Forbes said. “And I think they do a great job of doing that by giving guys different freedoms to play to the best of their abilities.”

Forbes is describing San Antonio’s DNA. It may be statistically beneficial to take early 3s, but the Spurs are led by two stars with old-school games who are more comfortable slowing down to post up or run pick-and-roll. So that’s what the Spurs do. No team posted up more often than the Spurs in the past two seasons, and so far this season they rank third behind the Sixers and Lakers.

San Antonio embodies the extremes of the league—they play fast with Murray and Forbes on the break, whip the ball around the floor with White, and yet retain a love for the post-up and the midrange. While there’s a common perception that the midrange is on its way out, that’s obviously not true in San Antonio or anywhere else (except Houston). Stars still take “star shots” all over the court. High-usage players like Kawhi are taking just as many unassisted midrange shots as they did last decade, as research by The Athletic’s Seth Partnow shows. Role players simply aren’t spotting up from the baseline or elbows, and they’re kicking out to shooters instead of tossing up a floater.

“In the old days, if a big couldn’t shoot it, it was like, ‘OK, at least he’s a great defender, and this and that.’ Now you have to look real hard at guys that can’t shoot, and it’s almost to the point where those guys are almost not draftable.” That’s what Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson told me when I reported my preseason feature on the Mavericks. It’s a comment that stuck with me. The Mavs made their choice to follow the Rockets in modern shooting trends—they shoot the third-most 3s in the league. What type of future will the Spurs choose? Will they keep one foot in the past? Or will they join their Texas rivals? Will they form the Texas Big Three?

“The evolution of the game has been if you can’t really shoot, you can’t really play too much,” Derrick White told me after a Spurs practice. “You can do other things to make an impact. If you can’t be a great shooter, you can be a great cutter or a great rebounder. But with floor spacing, especially down the stretch, shooting is huge. It’s all anyone works on during the summer.”

Rule changes could always lead to an aesthetically pleasing game, which Kirk Goldsberry argued for in SprawlBall. Maybe the NBA could someday move the line back, remove the corner 3, or make the paint slimmer so players could post up closer to the rim without being called for a three-second violation. The game has evolved to accommodate positionless players with jumbo-sized teams like the Sixers and small-ball teams like the Celtics. That the Spurs can exist in the same league as the Rockets is remarkable. It’s bittersweet that the traditional style San Antonio employs is being minimized.

Remember San Antonio was considered boring back in their Duncan–David Robinson heyday? When Manu opted for layups over dunks. When Parker made the extra pass instead of pounding his dribble. When Duncan held a stoic stare rather than letting out a primal scream. With DeRozan and Aldridge leading the squad, they may not win quite as many games as they once did, but they’re anything but boring. The Spurs are a symbol of what the game once was and a contrast to what it’s becoming.