San Antonio Spurs News

San Antonio Spurs: The slow-burn transition to positionless basketball

By Rob Wolkenbrod
MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 22: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs pumps his fist after making a three point shot against the Memphis Grizzlies in game four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on April 22, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
MEMPHIS, TN - APRIL 22: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs pumps his fist after making a three point shot against the Memphis Grizzlies in game four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on April 22, 2017 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Times are changing in the NBA, and it looks like the San Antonio Spurs will adapt in the 2017-18 season.

From David Robinson’s NBA debut (1989) to Tim Duncan’s retirement (2016), the San Antonio Spurs were focused on the big men, with the standard point guard, shooting guard, and small forward around them. It started with Robinson as the center and Duncan as the power forward, and worked its way down the roster.

The game has changed, however, to a quicker, more athletic style of play. That’s taken away size as a top-end factor and made the NBA focused on those who can run circles around their opposition or pull up and shoot from anywhere on the floor. That hinders the typical 7-footer, unless you have the athleticism to match these wings and guards that have dominated the game of basketball.

For the Spurs, it’s been a gradual transition. They used to be the defensive stalwarts of the NBA, with a Defensive Rating that didn’t top 100 from 1997 to 2007, the start of a seven-year stretch between championships.

During that gap, offensive-powered and superstar-laden teams started to take over the NBA. The three-headed monster of Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett and the trio of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum ruled over the NBA from 2008-10. LeBron James followed suit, as he departed for the Miami Heat to form the latest and arguably-greatest “Big 3,” with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Once the NBA saw what Miami did, it changed the landscape of the game. Teams went out of their way to prep, in advance, for free agency to become a noble destination for the top players. Spreading the floor became a top priority for teams, as well, which rose to notoriety when the Heat used small-ball lineups of James, Wade, Bosh, and players like Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, and James Jones — these four, and others were spot-up 3-point shooters.

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By 2013, the Spurs completed their adaption to the new NBA. They rose their Pace Factor from 89.8 in 2006-07 to 94.2 in the title runner-up year — by far their highest of the usually-methodical Gregg Popovich teams. They were full of floor-spacers, too, and matched the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, but thanks to Ray Allen’s Game 6 shot, it took one more year — and the developed of Kawhi Leonard — to climb back to NBA immortality.

Now, it’s 2017 and time for the Spurs to adapt, again. This time, it’s to fully embrace positionless basketball.

While the Heat began this slow-burn transition to positionless play, the Golden State Warriors accelerated the process. No longer were designated positions needed for this team, as they could deploy a lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and an interchangeable part, head to the court and be spread all over the hardwood. It’s three players that can handle the ball, three that can defend multiple positions, and four that can shoot. If that fifth player has 3-point range, then it only makes things more complicated for the opposition.

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Once the Spurs lost Duncan to retirement, it opened up the court. He was never known as a player to stretch the floor, but your old-school big man that worked his way inside on both ends of the floor. It took away the Duncan-LaMarcus Aldridge front court pairing — one that couldn’t stretch the floor — and replaced the former with Pau Gasol, who developed a 3-point stroke in his late 30’s.

Outside of Gasol and Aldridge, there’s the lack of rostered big men. Only Joffrey Lauvergne was brought in on a NBA deal at center, while Matt Costello was given a two-way deal. David Lee wasn’t re-signed, and given the team’s 14 contracts, it seems unlikely he’ll be back.

From the tallest end of the lineup to the smallest, there will be the absence of Tony Parker. He will miss multiple months of the 2017-18 season, due to a torn quad.

Parker is far from a positionless player. At 6-foot-2, he’s been regulated to the point guard position for his entire career and can’t be deployed at another position. That usually left shooting guard, small forward, and power forward with designated players. However, the 35-year-old’s time on the sidelines could gear San Antonio closer to positionless basketball.

Back in May, Pounding the Rock wrote how the Spurs’ answer at point guard may not be a free agent, but Kawhi Leonard as the lead distributor. This came on an answer to the question “Is [Dejounte] Murray a pure point guard?”:

While positional designations are becoming less important these days, at least offensively, I don’t want this question to come across as all too important. And given Kawhi Leonard’s growth as a creator, a traditional starting point guard may not even be that much of a priority.

They notably didn’t sign someone from outside the organization, and brought back Patty Mills, while drafting Derrick White. However, Mills has exclusively been a bench player in his NBA career and White has no NBA experience; as the No. 29 overall pick, that could lead him to the G-League. Murray is only 38 games into his time in the Association, too.

Leonard’s role as a distributor improved in every season he played, but in 2016-17, it took off. He assisted on nearly one-fifth of every field goal he was on the floor for:

Kawhi Leonard's Assist Percentage for his NBA career pic.twitter.com/FQLrw7dum4

— Rob Wolkenbrod (@RealRobWolkey) August 3, 2017

A considerable jump for a player not known as a primary distributor, but that’s developing into one. The 18.9 percent mark was the highest of Leonard’s basketball career, dating back to his San Diego State days.

Add in Leonard’s Usage Percentage of 31.1 — eighth of players that played at least 42 games — and it makes sense for him to be the point guard to open next season.

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Joining Leonard is first-time Spur, Rudy Gay. Known as a small forward for most of his career, Gay stands at 6-foot-8 and is a career 34 percent shooter from the 3-point line. He might not be athletic enough to cover a guard, but can play the stretch four role in some of the smallest lineups Popovich rolls out. If the 2006 draft pick can rebound from a ruptured Achilles, this could be one of the most dangerous stretch four’s in the NBA.

Across the rest of the roster, players can be mixed and matched in handfuls of different lineups. Davis Bertans, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, and Danny Green all aren’t locked in on one position. Their sizes and ability to do different things with the basketball allow them to distribute (Ginobili, Anderson, Green) and stretch the floor (all four).

The transition isn’t complete, however, and may not be until the 2018 offseason. That’s dependant on Aldridge’s player option, and if he exercises it to depart the organization. With up to $54 million in cap space, the Spurs can target an athletic, shooting big man to provide even more lineup options. LeBron James, who’s a free agent next July, would be the ultimate option, but let’s not go there yet.

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At some point, the Spurs will be fully adapted to the NBA’s latest trend. They’ve done this before and pulled it off successfully, but over time. Maybe 2017-18 moves the team to positionless basketball, but 2018 seems more likely for the full transition.

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