Thursday, November 4, 2010

What's Missing? It's Fundamental

by G. Scott

Jacob Riis (1849-1914)
Gregg Popovich has famously posted a quote about a stonecutter in the Spurs' locker room, in the native language of each team member. The gist is that when a stone cracks after 101 blows, it is the work of the first 100 blows that made it happen. It is an inspirational message, and a part of Spurs culture. What most people don't know is that Popovich has another sign in his own office that reads, "The stonecutter needs to play better defense." 

He doesn't really, but he should. It's a mantra that every Spurs player and fan has heard ever since the day Gregg Popovich arrived in San Antonio. So, four games into the young season, it is not surprising that the most commonly-heard critique of this year's version of the Spurs is that they need to improve their defense.

Unfortunately, that term gets thrown around in much the same way that car dealers use the word service. Ask any car dealer what makes them different, and they will say, "Better service". Ask any Spurs' player, or fan, what the team needs to do to improve, and they will say, "Play better defense". Move along - nothing to see here. 

That's okay. There are plenty of other clichés to discuss: They need to take care of the ball. They need to hit the boards, and hustle for loose balls. They need to execute better. They need better ball movement. They need to take better shots. Those may all be clichés, but they are still applicable. And if you memorize them, you're a candidate for any job ever held by Jeff Van Gundy.

If you aren't a fan of clichés, or Jeff Van Gundy, you might be interested in something a little more substantive. A little more specific. And there is one thing that stands out. For four games, the Spurs' passing has been anemic. Pathetic. Downright sloppy. The Spurs need to pay attention to it, and make it a priority to fix in practice. It's not sexy, but fundamentals never are. 

But isn't that the same thing as saying they need to care of the ball? Not really. Coaches talk about ball movement for a reason. The theory is that a team can't play defense forever, without making a mistake. Stay patient, swing the ball around, and wait for that mistake to open up a good shot. But what good is all that patience and ball movement, if the pass is off target, so that by the time the open man reels it in he is no longer open? It usually leads to a player taking a poor shot as the clock winds down. On the stat sheet it looks like just another missed shot, but that's because there is no statistic for wasted effort. 

When the player leading a fast break dishes the ball at just the right moment, but off target, an easy two points often turns into a charging call. (Which counts as a turnover, by the way.) Or maybe it just results in a missed layup, and a loose ball that they get to hustle for. A lot of things that are called poor execution boil down to nothing more than one careless pass.

The Spurs have also gotten into a bad habit of believing that certain passes are "gimmes". Tony gets cut off at the top of the circle, and passes to the wing so he can re-set. That player casually lobs the ball back to Tony, and a defender intercepts the pass for a quick score. Or, after pulling down a rebound, one of the bigs tosses the ball weakly, in the general direction of Manu, who is waiting near the mid-court line. Same result. The lesson? There are no gimmes in the NBA - every pass is important. 

The Spurs had 23 turnovers against the Suns, and 18 against the Clippers. A significant number of those could have been avoided by paying more attention to delivering their passes right on the numbers. And a number of their possessions would likely have ended in better, higher-percentage shots.

Bad passes are unforced errors. You don't have to give credit to the other team in the post-game for making you carelessly throw the ball away. It's a mental thing. And in that department, the Spurs should have a decided advantage. If the Spurs really want to win another championship this year, they have to commit to tightening up their passing game. 

And they need to play better defense.

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