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Spurs' vaunted passing game gets some old-school flair

Post-heavy scheme hasn't limited San Antonio's hearty assist game

POSTED: Jan 14, 2016 11:00 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Passing Display In Minnesota

After the Spurs pass it around, David West plays the give and go with Manu Ginobili for the basket and the foul.

— Joe Prunty started his NBA career in 1996 in a job on the bottom rung of the San Antonio Spurs' basketball hierarchy. But he lasted nine years with the Spurs, has been on NBA teams' benches ever since and, after 20 years, can state unequivocally what he admires most about that model franchise's signature style, as coached by Gregg Popovich.

"I love the way they move the ball," said Prunty, the Milwaukee Bucks' interim coach while coach Jason Kidd recuperates from hip-replacement surgery. "I love the way they share it. They'll have multiple possessions throughout the game with multiple passes. For all five guys to touch it on one possession is not an aberration. There's a lot of passing, less dribbling, and that is very good basketball, and everybody feels a part of it."

Easily admired, occasionally imitated and rarely duplicated, the Spurs' brand of ball was one of those long, labor-intensive processes that -- with their dissection of the Miami Heat in five games in The 2014 Finals -- sprang forth on the NBA's biggest stage as a revelation to many. "Beautiful basketball," it got called by many who only began to pay attention then.

But it's a cultural norm that pre-dates most of the players on the active roster and continues despite a significant strategy adjustment this season. Passing is no passing fancy for San Antonio.

"Well, I think that was the turning point," forward Boris Diaw said of the rave reviews heaped on the Spurs in their triumph 19 months ago over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest. "Because we won a championship doing that. People would have called it 'overly passing' before that. And because of the big difference in the style of play between the two teams.

"The year before, we lost because we made a lot of mistakes doing the same thing. The year after, we passed the ball so many more times than they did and won that way. I think that's why people were like, 'Oh, that's a good way to play.' "

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Against Miami in 2014, the Spurs moved the ball as if playing "hot potato," averaging 354.2 passes per game, leading to assists on 66.5 percent of their field goals. The Heat by comparison looked stodgy and grinding, passing 259.8 times with assists on fewer than half (45.2 percent) of their buckets.

The ethos remains, with San Antonio averaging 342.8 passes this season, third-most in the NBA. It ranks second to Golden State in assists, both the traditional (25.5, tied with Atlanta) and "adjusted" variety (34.9).

The shorthand for it is "selflessness," but that suggests a state of mind more than developing certain habits while understanding the strategy behind them.

"I would say, very honestly when we've brought new players in, it's usually been about a year before they really acclimate," Popovich said Monday before his team's 123-98 blowout of the Bucks and old pal Prunty. "Whether it's perimeter guys like Stephen Jackson or big guys like [Fabricio] Oberto or [Tiago] Splitter, it takes a year to take it in and understand what we're trying to do offensively and defensively. It doesn't happen real quickly.

"That's what's kind of surprising about LaMarcus [Aldridge] and David [West]. They've caught on more quickly than anybody we've ever brought in. Maybe that's because they're more veteran-like than the other guys were."

Matt Bonner, 35, has been with the Spurs for a decade. So he has seen, and tried to help, newbies adjust to the learning curve.

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"You have to get used to it," Bonner said. "I've been able to work with some of the younger, newer guys this year -- guys who don't play a lot -- getting in extra work on off days and before practice. Trying to get everybody on the same page and understand it's almost a balance -- we have guys who totally buy in and because of that, I think sometimes they overcompensate and they're trying too hard."

Guys who will pass too much, in other words.

"It's fair to say that happens," Bonner said. "It's finding that balance and comfort level when you're just playing and letting it happen naturally, as opposed to overcompensating and passing too much and maybe even turning down shots you should be taking. Or trying to think while you're out there, as opposed to just letting it happen. That's the adjustment process."

Well, I think that was the turning point. Because we won a championship doing that. People would have called it 'overly passing' before that.

– San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw

While Aldridge, the most coveted free agent in the league last summer, and West have put their wiles to use quickly as willing ball movers, they also have led to a change in San Antonio's offense. Through Thursday, the Spurs ranked 26th in 3-pointers attempted and 25th in 3-pointers made -- significantly lower in both categories than in recent seasons. In fact, you have to go back to 2009-10 to find a year in which their raw numbers were so modest -- shooting 18.9 and making 7.2, on average -- and all the way to 1999-2000 to see them ranked so low within the league.

Which means, while the NBA has gone pace-and-space crazy in following the lead of the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio has shifted back to some old-school stuff focused on its bigs.

"We shifted from a post-up oriented team to a perimeter team probably the last seven, eight, 10 years with Manu [Ginobili] and Tony [Parker]," Popovich said. "And now we're shifting back the other way to more of a post-up situation with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus, Tim [Duncan], David West -- we've got a lot of good post-up people so we get a lot of mismatches in that area."

B-b-b-but Stephen Curry and the Warriors are the darlings of the analytics set...

"I don't care what they like," Popovich said. "I look at the analytics. Some of it is very worthwhile. Some of it is superfluous poppycock."

When you have the league's most accomplished mid-range scorer (Aldridge), a developing all-around offensive threat (Leonard) and warhorses (Duncan and West), you do what works best for them. Or you run the risk of squandering assets.

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This particular shift has brought a learning, or re-learning, curve of its own. Guard Danny Green, for example, has dealt with a decline in shot opportunities and points (7.0 ppg vs. last season's 11.7 ppg). He is taking his fewest 3-point shots in three years (6.0 per 36 minutes) and perhaps as a result, making just 33.5 percent of them.

"It's very different. Something to get used to," Green said. "We're an inside-out team now. There's a reason why -- we've got some pretty good guys who can score. When we have some open ones, we'll take 'em. But for the most part, we'll move it around and where we have an advantage is inside."

So if new Spurs need to learn to pass, some old Spurs have their own habits to break this season. Green might be part of what our man Fran Blinebury refers to as San Antonio's "Next Three," but that doesn't mean he gets catered to.

I don't care what they like. I look at the analytics. Some of it is very worthwhile. Some of it is superfluous poppycock.

– San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

"It's breaking, not rhythm, but just an adjustment mentally knowing we're not going to take as many shots from the perimeter," Green said. "So you find other ways to be effective offensively if you're a perimeter-shooting guy."

Then there's rookie Jonathon Simmons, the former NBA D-Leaguer and 2015 Las Vegas Summer League MVP who of lat e has done playing than thinking in the Spurs' system. Asked how he knows when he is passing the ball just enough for the Spurs, without overdoing it, Simmons -- after scoring a career-high 18 points against the Bucks on Jan. 4 -- said as his eyes widened: "I really don't know."

That sparked laughter from the reporters and from Simmons himself, after which he was informed that on his big scoring night he contributed zero assists. Of the 12 Spurs who scored, he was alone in that.

"Oh wow, I didn't know," Simmons said. "I was just caught up in the game. Everything was at the rim... "

Odds are good Simmons will be looking for others more next time, focusing on San Antonio's most effective weapon.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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