A blowout is a blowout right?
Then why is it that we are so fascinated by the Warriors destroying the Suns or Nets but not the Spurs obliterating the Jazz or Hawks? I mean let’s think about it, let’s take a look at the last 5 games where both the Spurs and Warriors have the same exact record 4-1. The Warriors played the Nets, Pacers, Celtics, Bucks, and Suns. The score differentials were +16, +8, +5, -13, +25 respectively. Sure, we can give them some slack for most of those games being away, sure we can say that they had a back-to-back (and their loss came on the second night of one), but I don’t think those things are huge mitigating factors, and besides, if you are gassed on the second night of a back-to-back after going to double overtime in the first game, it’s both a credit to the opposing team and kind of your own fault that you got the two extra periods anyway. The Spurs played the Raptors, Lakers, Hawks, Jazz, and Wizards. I would posit that the strength of schedule based solely on the opponents is comparable. The point differentials were -3, +22, +25, +37, +19. I mean, that’s crazy. Look, I think both teams are great, the margin of difference in point differential is less than 0.2 so I don’t want to take anything away from either team, but I am curious as to why people would be more willing to watch a Golden State 50 point victory over a San Antonio 50 point victory.
This kind of came up for me because Mike Prada and Ben Epstein, on an episode of the Limited Upside podcast, speculated a couple of reasons. Everything from the Spurs’ consistency of excellence (they’ve won almost 60% of their games since their inception in 1967 in the ABA as the Dallas Chaparrals and have not had a season with a win percentage lower than 61% since 1996 which incidentally landed them Tim Duncan) to the color of their jerseys (the Spurs’ “boring” black and silver to the Warriors’ yellow) came up. Additionally, there has been a recent slew of articles talking about how nobody is talking about the Spurs, but should be. Yet there still seems a general consensus that the Spurs are playing the same boring old basketball for the past 19 years of Tim Duncan. Granted, there was some exposure to a brilliant and beautiful game when the Spurs showcased a precision machine that summarily dismantled the reigning 2-time champion Miami Heat in 2014, but even despite all that, the Spurs still cannot get much more than basketball junkies and color commentators (I see you Jeff Van Gundy) to appreciate what they are doing.
I think there’s something to be said about what Ben Epstein brings up regarding consistency. As is commonly said, “familiarity breeds contempt”, so being consistently at the top of the NBA, it’s sort of become the norm for the Spurs to win. I have a friend, who (not a Spurs fan), whenever asked at the beginning of the season how he thinks the season will pan out will always say, “The Spurs are going to win it all. Because that’s what they do.” So I think there’s something to that. However, I think there are other pervasive reasons that can be found as well.
1. Quietly, consistently good
So this goes back to the whole, “they’re the Spurs, they should win” sort of mentality. But if you look at their consistency, it’s built occasionally at the expense of short-term success and accolades. In a 2014 championship video there was a pretty cool series where Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili sit in a circle and talk about what got them to where they are. There is a bit in that series where Pop apologizes to his “Big 3” for ruining their individual statistics and thanks them for allowing him to do so for the success of the organization. If we’ve paid any attention to the Spurs in the last few seasons we know that’s entirely true. We also know that’s why Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili can still play effective basketball as they push 40.
Yet what this quiet consistency means is that they don’t really go out to break any big time records. If they do, then they do, but they don’t really care or talk about it. While they do break records, they break quiet ones like a franchise record for consecutive home wins. They don’t try to build up giant winning streaks or a tremendous record. They just try to get to the playoffs with as healthy a roster as possible and hopefully with homecourt advantage.
When you watch enough Spurs’ games there’s something you’ll notice. Generally speaking, you don’t see big runs where their players just can’t seem to miss. However, you’ll hear a lot if you listen to the commentators something along the lines of, “and that’s an 8-2 run for the Spurs” or something like that. The Spurs aren’t really interested in that 30 point comeback but they quietly put together a string of small runs that in the end ultimately wind up as the 100-80 victory that they are looking for. Their approach to the season as a whole is somewhat similar. While they occasionally might rack up that 10+ game winning streak, but rather with a bunch of little 5 game win streaks they quietly end the season with their 55+ wins.
They don’t seem to react to anything. Yes, there are some crazy moments when you have to celebrate, but the bench seems to get more excited about things on the floor than the players on the floor. You look at players like Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry and they’re always screaming and pounding their chests (or at James Harden who looks like he’s preparing to put on his make-up or something), but the Spurs react to a thunderous dunk the same way they do a clutch three the same way they do a layup.
When they speak to the media, the only person of any real interest ultimately is Gregg Popovich, because he’s mean to journalists that ask dumb questions, and I guess journalists love trolls (to be honest, a lot of his wry and cutting observations are not unfounded). When the players are interviewed it’s a lot of the same, “I think we did pretty well, but I think we can do better” jargon. When asked about their successes the players (and Pop) seem ignorant to a point of surprise. The message is pretty clear, no one in this locker room knew (until the media brought it up) or cared.
3. Good to great, it looks too easy
I’m not a great basketball player. I went to a couple basketball camps as a kid and I recall teammates that cheered when I scored a single bucket, all camp. My brother thought I was going to be 6-5 (which in pickup basketball is monstrous, plus I’m Asian, so also in that context is also monstrous), so he taught me a couple of basic post moves he picked up from watching Vlade Divac. When I did play some friendly basketball in college with friends I would tell them simply, put the ball up, I’ll get it if you miss. Since, I played volleyball, my timing and anticipation for where the ball would be was decent and I could get a fair share of rebounds. That’s kind of the beauty of the game of basketball, it’s pretty simple. However, in short summary, my shooting is shaky, I can’t really dribble, I’m not very fast, and I don’t jump very high, I’m just kind of big and relatively tall.
Where is this going? Well, if you’ve ever played basketball (or any sport for that matter) you come to realize the difference between a professional athlete and an average person. For example, in my limited basketball circles, I don’t really have to worry about people dunking. For most people, there’s a certain amount of appreciation for someone else that can do something that we can’t. For all the things we can do, it just seems mundane. When the average person watches sports they want to see amazing.
Ben Epstein, in his conversation with Mike Prada, brings up something interesting, in discussing how sometimes if someone makes something difficult look effortless, we lose appreciation of it. I think that’s kind of true, but I don’t think that captures the essence of it. I would argue that we can’t appreciate how difficult something is because of how easy other people make it, and therefore we can’t really appreciate what they’re doing because we think it’s mundane.
Allen Iverson was such a compelling player because he was good, yes, but also because he made scoring look so effortless. Yet it didn’t diminish his scoring, why? It was because he was a small guy. It would be like some 5 foot middle schooler lighting up an adult YMCA league. We get that with that size disadvantage, the ease with which he did what he did is extraordinary. Likewise for Steph Curry, he makes making 3s look easy, in fact, he makes hard 3s look easy. Part of that appreciation is because we know that we cannot make 1 out of every 2 pull up 40 footer. We might get lucky and make 1 out of 10 but the consistency with which Curry pulls it off is what wows us. Likewise, players like Lebron James, Blake Griffin, and Paul George make dunking look easy, we know we can’t do that, and so when they do it effortlessly it’s a sight to behold. When we look at someone like Nate Robinson, we are even more wowed, because he’s as tall (or short) as the rest of us, and he can dunk. The reason Kobe Bryant is so compelling is because he takes and makes hard shots.
When we look at the Spurs we aren’t awed because we don’t see that flair. Sure, we might get a fancy Tony Parker spin move here and there, we might see a crazy Boris Diaw or Manu Ginobili pass, or a solid dunk from Kawhi Leonard, but in all honesty spot up open jumpers and open layups aren’t that exciting. The Spurs’ mantra (especially these past few seasons) has been going from good to great. Giving up a good shot for a great one. What is a great shot? It’s not a fall-away 20 footer with a man in your face. It’s an open layup or a catch-and-shoot situation with nobody within 4 feet of you. Nobody pays to go watch layup lines and shootarounds. Yet that’s what the Spurs’ offense generates and that’s what their defense takes away. They’re not jumping over people, they’re not really shooting from the other end of the court, they’re just doing all the things that a high school coach tells his kids. Set solid picks, get to your spots, find the open man. Sure that’s kind of an oversimplification of the Spurs’ offense, but I think that’s what it boils down to. We can’t appreciate the Spurs because we don’t understand how difficult it is to put players in a position where scoring is as easy as a shooting drill or layup line, consistently.
When people watch basketball, they are awed by players that are good at what they do, but less so by a system that is good at what it does. That’s not to say you can randomly plug anybody in there and it would work, but if we look at the Spurs personnel, outside of Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, and Kyle Anderson, we can’t really say that other teams haven’t had their shot with these players (I’m also not really counting all stars like David West and LaMarcus Aldirdge). The Spurs’ bench wins games, teams see this, but let’s be honest, a lot of the Spurs bench players have been around. Boris Diaw, for all his passing acumen, played with Atlanta, Phoenix, and Charlotte before ending up at the Spurs. How did he end up a Spur? By being cut by a historically bad 7-59 Charlotte team. Patty Mills played 2 seasons in Portland before coming to the Spurs, subsequently becoming one of the better backup point guards in the league. Danny Green was cut multiple times before solidifying himself as a 3 and D player comparable to guys who get paid more than him to do the same thing (e.g. DeMarre Carroll, Khris Middleton). If we look at other players, nobody knew about Garrett Temple, Alonzo Gee, or Gary Neal until the Spurs got a hold of them. George Hill is a solid starting point guard that nobody expected to be drafted where the Spurs took him (solid enough to trade away the pick that ended up as Kawhi Leonard for him). Matt Bonner has been around as has Rasual Butler. But I think most telling are my last two examples, two undrafted players in Jonathon Simmons and Boban Marjonovic. It wasn’t as though the Spurs were hiding these guys, they were undrafted. Yet how are they able to contribute to one of the best bench squads in the league? Because the system knows how to put them in positions to succeed.
I’m not saying that the Spurs are a magical land where you can stick anyone in there and succeed. However, the system is one that understands how to optimize the strength of the players and mitigate their weaknesses for the greater success of the organization as a whole. There’s a certain degree of hubris for the general populace that has never played organized basketball (I certainly haven’t). The game inherently is fairly simple, get the ball in the bucket. We look at the things the Spurs do and we think (somewhat arrogantly), “hey, I could do that”. And there’s a certain amount of truth to that. Almost anyone who has played pickup basketball can set a pick, hit an open jumper or layup, throw a chest pass to the corner. It’s because we find the fundamental actions to be simple, that we dismiss it as dull. We focus on the little individual action and thereby miss the bigger picture. We want to be dazzled by those that can do what we cannot. Yes, the shot at the end that scores the two points is easy. It’s supposed to be. That’s what makes it a great shot. What we have to learn to appreciate is the whole process that gets them there.