The Warriors in the Shadow of the San Antonio Spurs
Watching the Warriors feels like watching a team that will always win. Watching the Spurs feels like watching a team that can never lose.
Photo by Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
The 2014 NBA Finals were a rematch of the previous year, a seven-game instant classic in which the Miami Heat had prevailed by the barest margins over the San Antonio Spurs. This edition was expected to be similar—as the teams split the first two games. But the Spurs had a strategy especially designed to beat the Heat. Coach Gregg Popovich's Spurs have always been good at moving the ball, but they ramped up their passing even more, cutting down the amount of time the ball stayed in any one player's hand. To facilitate this change, Popovich modified his starting lineup, replacing Tiago Splitter, a traditional big, with the multi-functional Boris Diaw.
The Spurs completely dismantled the Heat. Their offense looked at once perfectly choreographed and completely improvisational, like watching a school of fish dart back and forth in unison. The ball was constantly in motion, yanking the Heat defense from side to side as it sought out the open shot. Those final three games were beautiful, mesmerizing, and almost vicariously painful; the San Antonio Spurs performed a vivisection of the Miami Heat, who were powerless to stop or even impede them. That the Heat, when you looked closely, were not actually playing that poorly was irrelevant. They had made the mistake of playing basketball, when their opponents were playing a sport that looked like something else entirely. If it is not the best team performance ever seen in an NBA Finals, it is close enough to render that verdict a matter of taste: San Antonio posted both the highest effective field goal percentage and highest offensive rating ever in the Finals, and won the last three games by an average of 19 points per game.
The Spurs hadn't just won the series. It was if they had solved basketball, in the same way kids eventually learn to solve tic-tac-toe or game theorists armed with algorithms have solved checkers. And they had presented an elegant, intuitive proof of their solution on the sport's largest stage.
Steve Kerr, the freshly hired head coach of the Golden State Warriors, was watching. He had just been given a mandate to remake the Warriors' stagnant, underachieving offense, and had won the job in part because of his ideas to put them into motion. He found the perfect model in the motion offense—ball movement and the outside shooting—the Spurs used in that Finals. He downloaded the games to his computer and watched them repeatedly, not just to scavenge components of strategy but in search of an overall spirit and style.
The 2014 Spurs weren't the only forefathers of the Warriors offense. Running through a genealogy of its influences is like reading through Steve Kerr's resume. There are elements of Tex Winter and Phil Jackson's triangle offense that Kerr played while on the Chicago Bulls. There are shades of the Suns teams that Kerr oversaw as general manager, both Mike D'Antoni's breakneck "seven seconds or less" squads and Alvin Gentry's more measured rendition. But the most direct spiritual ancestor of the Warriors is the Spurs team in that incredible series of games against the Heat. "It was the epitome of what I'm looking for with our team," he said before an early matchup with the Spurs last season.
The Warriors would lose that duel between master and apprentice, but it served as turning point: Golden State then reeled off 16 wins in a row en route to one of the most dominant regular-season performances ever and an NBA championship.
The Warriors, of course, are not the only ones to see in that series an appealing blueprint. All around the league, teams are seeking to mimic the motion-heavy offenses of those Spurs, and now these Warriors. If imitation is truly the highest compliment that can be paid to a legacy, then Gregg Popovich should have been flattered. There was only one problem: he hated it.
Popovich did not, of course, hate the finesse, the off-ball motion, the precise passing—these are all fundamental principles of good team basketball. What he hated was what had made the Spurs so lethally effective in the Finals, and part of what makes the Warriors so difficult to beat today: the three-point shot.
"To me, it's not basketball," he said of the three-point shot after first game of the 2014 Finals. "But you gotta use it." Popovich has his ideals about basketball, but he is nothing if not a pragmatist. Use it, the Spurs did. They averaged 11 made threes per game in that series, setting a record for the Finals. A record that lasted until the very next Finals, when the Warriors edged it out with 11.2 made threes per game. "I still hate it," Popovich said last month. "I'll never embrace it."
With the acquisition of LaMarcus Aldridge this past summer, Popovich finally had the piece he needed to return the Spurs to a of basketball that he likes aesthetically without compromising their ability to win. It became clear this season that the San Antonio Spurs did not intend to fit into the new order that they had helped usher into power. The counterrevolution had arrived.
The Spurs have reverted to an older, pre-modern style, one that is as methodical as it is brutal. The ball movement and man movement is as crisp as ever, but the Spurs have largely jettisoned the three-point shot, taking some of the fewest in the league. In an analytical age, in which the math says that the mid-range shot is the least efficient shot in the NBA, the Spurs have decided to specialize in that very shot, making it a staple of their offense. They have paired this offense with a suffocating defense that's not only easily the best this season; it stacks up well with some of the greatest defenses the league has ever seen. That they are doing this while still integrating Aldridge is a scary idea to contemplate.
We are 44 games into this season. The Spurs' net rating (their points scored per 100 possessions minus their points allowed per 100 possessions) is the highest ever recorded at 44 games in. The Warriors are fifth. The Warriors have the second best record through 44 games. The Spurs are tied for fourth. Two teams that are this historically good existing in the same season, let alone in the same conference, has few historical precedents. According to Elias Sports Bureau research reported by ESPN, their combined winning percentage is the highest in NBA history by teams that have each played at least 40 games.
The Warriors and Spurs are both terrifying machines, triumphs of team basketball that rely on passing and movement to generate offense and pride themselves on their defense. But where the Warriors are loose and effervescent, the Spurs play with an almost ascetic stoicism. Where the Warriors have the incandescent, inimitable genius of Steph Curry, the Spurs have the apotheosis of workmanlike competence in Tim Duncan, a man so textbook they call him the Big Fundamental. Where Golden State has the jawing, swaggering Draymond Green, San Antonio has Kawhi Leonard, who calmly destroys teams with all the expressiveness of a man folding laundry. Watching the Warriors feels like watching a team that will always win. Watching the Spurs feels like watching a team that can never lose.
If one designed a team to try to beat the Warriors, they might look a lot like the Spurs. In Aldridge and Duncan, the Spurs have two traditional, skilled bigs who have the potential to play a better version of the bludgeoning inside attack that both Memphis and Cleveland deployed against Golden State in last year's playoffs. The Warriors solved Memphis by packing the paint and leaving Tony Allen's broken jumper open on the perimeter, but the Spurs have no such player that can be left open. The Warriors solved Cleveland performing a trick similar to the one that broke open the 2014 Finals for the Spurs: downsizing by inserting Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup in place of Andrew Bogut, and daring the Cavaliers to beat them by throwing it to the hulking Timofey Mozgov in the post. But Mozgov's rudimentary post game couldn't deal with the Warriors swarming defense, and he got run off the floor. Spurs bigs won't be so flummoxed. And even if the Warriors do succeed at forcing the Spurs to downsize, San Antonio has the personnel to be able to compete against the small-ball Warriors.
At a broader level, while the Warriors can win playing many styles, they prefer to play in an up-tempo one that feeds off of their transition game. The Spurs are masters at slowing the pace, and their meticulous, mistake-free offense doesn't allow opponents to get out on fast breaks. The Warriors are the league's best and most prolific three-point shooting team, generating more than a third of their points from that range while shooting a league-leading 42 percent. The Spurs are the league's best at denying offenses three-point shots, allowing the fewest three-point attempts in the NBA.
It is a matchup between the irresistible force and the immovable object—it's impossible to figure out who should prevail in theory. The two must actually meet in the messy physicality of the real world in order to work out the paradox.
Though the Spurs and Warriors will play Monday, they still won't have met, not really. Tim Duncan will miss the game, and while he is nursing a sore knee and could use a game off, it's not a scheduling coincidence that Popovich chose this particular game to rest his aging star. Popovich almost always veils his full strategy against teams he expects to see in the playoffs, and resting Duncan is a strong sign that he's doing so again.
From Steve Kerr on down, the Warriors have been on message about their game against the Spurs. While voicing a healthy respect and deep admiration for both what the Spurs have accomplished and the strength of their current incarnation, to a man, the Warriors rejected the notion that their regular season matchup represented anything more significant than a game against a very good team. And they're right, of course. For championship contenders, there's a low ceiling on how important one regular season game can be. All of four of the games that the Warriors and Spurs will play against each other this season will be feasts for basketball purists and casual fans alike, but they pale in significance compared to the acid test of the playoffs.
To those who will set down the story of the Warriors, their ascendance will be truly complete if they can defeat their spiritual big brother in the playoffs. For the Spurs, knocking off this historically great Warriors team and winning a sixth title in what supposedly is a transitional year might perhaps be Popovich's greatest achievement. There are no guarantees in basketball, and the season has twists that we have yet to see. The playoff matchup that feels like destiny now could be derailed by injury or upset. Still, both as foretaste of future glory and as standalone feast, tonight's matchup between the Spurs and the Warriors is the game of the year.