What the San Antonio Spurs Can Teach Us About Building a Competitive Advantage

This week¹ marks the one-year anniversary of the San Antonio Spurs’ 5th NBA championship in the last 20 years, an incredible feat. The Spurs have been so good for so long that it’s almost unfathomable, and last season was the icing on the cake for the partnership of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, who have now been together for 18 seasons, longer than any other active coach-player combo by a mile.

The Spurs have evolved to an incredible degree over time, developing from a post up offense in the early 2000s to a spread pick and roll attack emphasizing motion and ball movement since the well documented rule changes in the mid-2000s.

Over the last decade, the Spurs have built an unbelievably unique and sturdy structure unlike anything we’ve seen in the recent past. Conventional wisdom would lead one to believe that at some point, all good things come to an end. Whether it’s money (OKC), clashing personalities (Kobe & Shaq), or the allure of greener pastures (LeBron, twice), every great team falls apart eventually. San Antonio has been the exception.

~

In the September-October Issue of the Harvard Business Review, Steven Spear and H. Kent Brown published an article about the Toyota Production System. Toyota’s process efficiency is legendary; some would say it’s the key to their success over the better part of the last century.

Spear and Brown wrote,

“Hundreds of thousands of executives from thousands of businesses have toured Toyota’s plants in Japan and the United States. Frustrated by their inability to replicate Toyota’s performance, many visitors assume that the secret of Toyota’s success must lie in its cultural roots. But that’s just not the case. Other Japanese companies, such as Nissan and Honda, have fallen short of Toyota’s standards, and Toyota has successfully introduced its production system all around the world…

So why has it been so difficult to decode the Toyota Production System? The answer, we believe, is that observers confuse the tools and practices they see on their plant visits with the system itself. That makes it impossible for them to resolve an apparent paradox of the system—namely, that activities, connections, and production flows in a Toyota factory are rigidly scripted, yet at the same time Toyota’s operations are enormously flexible and adaptable. Activities and processes are constantly being challenged and pushed to a higher level of performance, enabling the company to continually innovate and improve.”

Looking at the quote above, there are many parallels that can prove useful in examining the Spurs’ extended period of dominance. NBA observers watch the Spurs play and they glean that ball movement is the key, or that floor spacing is the key, or that versatility is the key, but it’s bigger than that. It’s the process itself that matters, and the results stem from the commitment to a long-term strategy, even when it might be easier to do what’s best for today.

The Spurs are one of the league’s most disciplined teams. The offense has rules, their defense has rules, even their informal culture has unwritten rules that the staff expects the players to follow, and vice-versa. However, despite this disciplined culture, the Spurs are arguably the league’s most creative, innovative team; Rigidity and flexibility work together to create a truly rare dynamic.

To date, nobody has been able to truly replicate the Spurs model. Teams are trying, some better than others (Golden State and Atlanta come to mind), but no one has come close to achieving the kind of continuity and evolution the Spurs have enjoyed over nearly the last 20 years. Draymond Green and Paul Millsap are both free agents this summer, and we’ll see if these teams can build on their impressive, now one-year long resumés in the face of their first hurdles.

True competitive advantage means putting your process on display, and daring others to replicate it because you know they cannot. This is exactly what the Spurs have done.

~

It is time to dig further into the details of the Spurs machine, and see what their version of the “Production System” looks like.

The culture the Spurs have developed is unlike any other in the NBA. They share the ball and move around with mind-boggling efficiency and purpose. When you look at the numbers, this system is not inherently the way to go. We assume ball movement is associated with better offense, but that’s not necessarily true.

This graph illustrates the relationship between Assist%² and overall offensive rating among all 30 teams during the 2013-2014 season. As you can see, there is no correlation between the variables. It doesn’t necessarily follow that Assist% is perfectly correlated with ball movement, but I think it’s about as good of a metric that exists and it’s worth looking at.

San Antonio finished 3rd and 5th in the NBA in Assist% in the years of their finals appearances, leading to Effective Field Goal percentage rankings of 3nd and 2rd, respectively. The Spurs have found a way to consistently generate high quality shots through ball movement among other things.

Does More Ball Movement Help An NBA Offense, Or Just Waste Time?

This visual from an excellent Deadspin article written by Reuben Fisher-Baum during the season last year shows exactly how rare an offense like this is. Dallas is the only team that somewhat resembles San Antonio. There are a lot of similarities between these two teams³ but Dallas is no San Antonio: the Mavericks only have one title, to state it simply. The Spurs are a little bit higher than Dallas in both touches per possession and PPP, which oddly enough is representative of the relationship between the two franchises.

Fisher-Baum labels these two red teams as “Good Touch Teams” meaning they get lots of touches and lots of points over the course of a game, an unusual combination.

It’s obvious that the easiest way to get a competitive advantage in the NBA is to acquire a superstar player. If a team gets LeBron James to join them, they’re a good bet for success regardless of the other factors that make up the situation4.

While the Spurs definitely have a talented team, they probably did not have one of the league’s 10 most talented players on their roster last year when they won the championship, although that’s up for debate. Either way, they beat both the Thunder and the Heat in the playoffs, the teams that featured the league’s top-2 players from last season-MVP Kevin Durant, and MVP Runner-upLeBron James.

Offense is about creating good shots, and the ability to make bad ones, and the Spurs have found away to create good shots in an unprecedented way. They move their eventual ball handlers all over the floor off the ball to create chaos, and use a ton of supplemental off ball movement and impromptu dribble drives to break down the defense to an extreme degree.

The video linked aboveshows just a small sample of the Spurs’ offense, but it’s not that hard to see what’s going on. Tony Parker zipped around baseline screens, caught the ball with his man a step behind the play, and immediately ran off a pick.

With the defense scrambling, Parker can shoot, dish to the roll man, kick to a shooter, or dribble into the paint to extend the play. Any player he moves the ball to can shoot, pass, or dribble to compromise the defense even further.After the initial action, players have to feel out their options and simultaneously act on the next logical step.

For example, if the ball swings to Manu Ginobili in the corner after a Tony Parker pick and roll and Boris Diaw decides to come down from the wing to set a pick for him, the other three players have to react immediately and position themselves in spots that will provide the second pick and roll with optimal spacing, meaning the guards need to fill the corner and the top of the key at the three point line, and the big man needs to set up either on the opposite elbow or the opposite block. If all of this doesn’t happen at the exact same time, the action is compromised.

Making these types of plays requires a specific skill set and hyper-efficient decision-making ability. Luckily, the Spurs have built a roster of players capable of fulfilling such demanding roles.

Through this carefully crafted ecosystem the Spurs have developed, they were able to overcome teams with superior players, which is really an amazing accomplishment. Three of the team’s four best players were over the age of 30, and two of them-Duncan (then 38) and Manu Ginobili (then 36)-were well into their 30s, and significantly past their respective primes.

The idea that players aged 32, 36 and 38 (along with Kawhi Leonard) could take down both Durant and James is crazy, not to mention their starting power forward in the Finals was none other than 32 year old Boris Diaw, who had been considered “washed up” two years before, when weight problems and 41-27-63 shooting splits in Charlotte had people wondering if his days as an effective NBA player were over. A frontcourt with greying hair and a balding, injury-plagued sixth man took down perhaps the two greatest players of the new generation7.

They weren’t the most athletic and they weren’t the most talented, but they did have the best team. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Genuinely remarkable stuff.

~

The Spurs did not become the Spurs we know today overnight, and it wasn’t by accident. There are many important factors that ultimately led to last year’s finals victory, and it’s important to put them under the microscope to see what can be learned from the Spurs amazing run.

Finding where to start isn’t easy, and I think the true origin of the Spurs’ success is different then most people think. I believe that it all begins at the top-not Popovich and Buford-I’m talking about the ownership group, led by Peter Holt.

Despite the negative attention Holt has received in the media in the last few years, he’s been a great leader in San Antonio. And by “great leader” I mean someone who put the right people in power, and let them do their jobs.

In an interview with San Antonio Express News about a year ago, Mike Monroe asked Holt, “Was there ever a point you lost faith in the direction the team was headed?” To which he responded, “No, no, no. I’ve been around just long enough to have some understanding. I’m not an R.C. or Pop and I never will be, but I get it now. No, I’m there to support these guys and I encourage them and I believe in them 110 percent.”

This is an unbelievably telling quote. A good owner knows what he doesn’t know, and this approach to ownership has allowed R.C. and Pop to build the team in the way they see fit.

Last summer I attended the Pro Scout School put on by the TPC Sports Group. One of the speakers was Indiana Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard. At one point he asked the audience what the real job of a GM was. The answer? In his words, “To make your owner happy.” And he was right. However, the best owners let the experts they have hired lead, and that is what has happened in San Antonio.

Obviously R.C. and Pop deserve quite a bit of praise for constructing and coaching the team, which is an amazing feat. The fact that the entire organization-from Holt, to Buford, to Pop, to Duncan-is on the same page is pretty amazing, and it’s something that not many teams, if any, have been able to accomplish.

This integration has led to the establishment of a culture that defines the team. The Spurs have had the same three core players for over a decade now, which has a lot to do with their identity. They have all made sacrifices for the good of the team8, and when stars make those decisions, the rest of the team watches.

A big benefit to maintaining a core over a long period of time is the continuity that comes with playing together over the years, both in terms of personal relationships, and the way they play on the court, which are not always mutually exclusive. This is not an effect that can easily be measured, but it’s real. Playing with the same guys in the same system means getting to know their tendencies, developing timing, and building upon established principals.

The players the organization has filled in around their key players have complementary skills that fit nicely into their puzzle. They have shooters (Mills, Green, Belinelli), quality defensive players (Green, Leonard, Splitter) and underrated playmakers (Belinelli, Diaw, and maybe even Kyle Anderson down the line). Additionally, most of their players bring diverse skill sets and versatility to the table.

The Spurs have not had a lottery pick since Duncan, and all of these players have seen their value increase substantially since joining San Antonio. Most of them were picked up for almost nothing at all, ultimately going on to become key players.

That’s the beauty of the system. You don’t necessarily need the best players, but you do need the right players. In their article, Spear and Brown conclude, “Of course, the structures of other companies have features in common with those that follow the Toyota Production System, but in our research we found no company that had them all that did not follow the system. It may turn out in the end that you can build the structure only by investing the time that Toyota has.”

To build an organization like the Spurs you need the right owner, the right GM and the right coach to establish the structure, as well as the right mix of players, and lots and lots of time. Building a competitive advantage in the NBA based on something other than talent is really, really hard. The Spurs have proven that this is a quest for which there are no short cuts.

We should enjoy this Spurs team while it lasts, they aren’t getting any younger. Then again, people have been saying that for half a decade now, and they’re still waiting.

~

¹Monday, to be exact

²Simply the percentage of a team’s field goals that are assisted

³Franchise centerpiece power forwards who have been with the team for their entire career (Dirk and Duncan), excellent coaches (Popovich and Carlisle), strong team culture and vision, and most importantly (and possibly the result of these factors) consistent long-term success.

4As was made almost painfully apparent in the Finals, though the Cavs did lose anyway.

5And 4-time NBA MVP…

6As well as the entire catalog of Spurs videos available on How U’s YouTube channel, which is one of my favorite places to go for NBA video.

7Sure, it’s certainly a little more complicated than that, but still.

8This includes taking pay cuts, playing limited minutes, sharing the ball, etc.

 

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