Friday, April 11, 2014

Guest Post: The Grizzlies and the Spurs Blueprint

Posted By on Fri, Apr 11, 2014 at 9:33 AM

Note: I'm out this week and probably some of next with a newborn, so I've rounded up some guest posts from some of my Griz writer friends to make sure you still have good stuff to read. Today's post is from Matt Hrdlicka (@TheRealHrdlicka on Twitter) of SB Nation's Grizzly Bear Blues.

Mike Conley and Tony Parker are two elite point guards with similar games.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Conley and Tony Parker are two elite point guards with similar games.

Professional sports leagues are inherently plagiaristic. The Have-Not’s are constantly inspecting the Have’s to answer the question: “How did they beat us?” Sometimes, the answer is simple (have Lebron James or Michael Jordan). Sometimes it’s a bit more complex (synergy between scheme and personnel, reliance on analytics, dumb luck, exploitation of matchups, voodoo dolls buried beneath center court, etc).

The Grizzlies Front Office seems to be borrowing the blueprint of success from one of the NBA’s most successful franchises, the team that dispatched them in last year’s playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs. Let’s take a look at how the Grizzlies have borrowed from the Spurs blueprint to attempt to build success for the long-haul.

The Roster

The main problem with trying to structure your roster based on another team’s roster is that the most successful teams have the rarest players. As such, I’m not suggesting that Marc Gasol “is” Tim Duncan. But taking a look at how great teams blend players, and how they blend the roles on a basketball court, is instructive when searching for a competitive advantage.

And in terms of roles, the Grizzlies and Spurs have a ton of similarities.

Marc Gasol = Tim Duncan - Both players facilitate offense from the high post with a blend of post up game, passing and slick shooting, while also anchoring their team’s interior defense.

Mike Conley = Tony Parker — Smallish point guards whose offensive games are predicated on speed and crafty use of screens. Parker is the far better penetrator, while Conley is the better defender and long range shooter.

Jon Leuer = Matt Bonner — Big men whose primary offensive weapon is a sweet jump shot.

Courtney Lee = Danny Green — Shooting guards who tirelessly run around screens and don’t need the ball to score. Both provide vital movement and spacing.

Kosta Koufos = Tiago Splitter - Until Splitter signed his extension last summer, both bigs had games that outperformed their contracts. Both guys fill the vital role of a secondary big man: play good defense, rebound, and protect the rim.

Mike Miller = Marco Belinelli - Two sharpshooters who thrive off of open looks.

Tayshaun Prince = Kawhi Leonard - Naw, just fooling! Just wanted to make sure you weren’t skimming.

James Johnson = Kawhi Leonard - The Grizzlies fell into this one. Though Leonard is the far superior player, both of these guys do a bit of everything.

??? = Manu Ginobili - Aye, there’s the rub. The primary difference between the Grizzlies is not that Tony Parker is that much better than Mike Conley, or any other individual matchup. It’s that the Grizzlies have no secondary perimeter player the caliber of Manu Ginobili.

While the Grizzlies have aggressively added shooters like Miller and Lee to bolster their offense to championship standards, the less publicized (and harder to fill) gap is finding another player capable of breaking down the defense.

Inside the parameters of this analogy, the Grizzlies Ginobili is currently Zach Randolph — a satellite offensive player capable of taking over a game for stretches. The problem inherent in this comparison is that it is far, far easier for a defense to account for a post threat (through both ball denial and double teams), even one as skilled as Randolph, than for a perimeter scorer like Ginobili.

I’ve never been to Argentina, but I assume Ginobilis don’t grow on trees down there. Adding a Ginobili-type player is very difficult, but it is the next step to winning a championship. The Grizzlies have been linked to players like Eric Gordon who, in theory, fill this role.

Of course, there are worlds parallel to ours in which the Grizzlies have their Ginobili, and are perennially talked about in the same breath as the Heat and Spurs. In these worlds, the ’09 NBA Draft unfolded differently. The Grizzlies, with the promising Marc Gasol on the roster, did not draft Hasheem Thabeet second overall. They selected James Harden, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio or Stephen Curry (four of the next five picks in this world). Missing that badly on a draft pick still looms large five years later.

More or less every team has a sob story like this. Even the Spurs have missed occasionally, if not quite as spectacularly. The silver lining is that the Grizzlies missed that badly and are still pretty darn good. In truth, they may just be one player away.

Minutes, minutes, minutes

Tim Duncan is still rolling at age 38. Will Zach Randolph?
  • Tim Duncan is still rolling at age 38. Will Zach Randolph?

The Grizzlies have been riddled with injuries this season, so much of Coach Joerger’s rotation has been built out of necessity. But there have been little signs that the Grizzlies are looking at minutes and rest a bit differently than they were. In early December, already missing Marc Gasol with a knee injury, Zach Randolph missed two games with an ingrown toenail. If Lionel Hollins was still the coach, there’s no way Randolph misses those two games.

The Grizzlies have been similarly careful with other players returning from injury. Tony Allen missed nearly two months when the original prognosis put it closer to one month. James Johnson has found playing time hard to come by after returning from an injury.

The Spurs have drawn the NBA’s ire for blatantly resting key players — famously flying players home early from extended road trips — in an effort to keep players fresh, minimize injury risk, and extend careers. The Grizzlies are executing a similar, albeit less obvious, plan. It’s a good bet that we never see a Grizzlies starter play all 82 games again. If it is not an in-grown toenail, it may be back soreness, or some other equally plausible reason to rest a player.

Perhaps the Grizzlies aren’t even thinking about playing time strictly in terms of minutes played anymore. After all, not every minute played is equal. Obviously, standing in the corner for 40 minutes requires less effort than guarding Lebron James for 40 minutes. Public SportVU data tracks how far and fast a player runs (starters can run, jump and defend the equivalent of a 5k over the course of a particularly strenuous game). Imagine what proprietary team data that we cannot see may show: how high a player jumps in the 1st quarter vs the 4th? How quick their second jump is? How far a player lags behind his defensive rotation? Each of these factors is far more important to a coach than knowing how many minutes a player has been on the court. Perhaps “minutes played” is already an outmoded statistic, and will be viewed like “points per game:” only a fraction of the story of what happens on the court.

All these little edges add up. Tim Duncan is nearly 38 years old. He is, only occasionally, the offensive hub for the Spurs these days. The fact that he is still able to play at a high level is a testament to both Tim Duncan and the Spurs organization. Remove either the player’s willingness to fight through age, or the team’s plan to pare back both Duncan’s minutes and in-game responsibilities over a decade ago, and Tim Duncan would be retired right now. Six years ago, at age 32, Tim Duncan played 33.7 minutes per game. It would be the last time he played more than 31.5.

Zach Randolph is 32 this year, and playing 34.2 minutes per game — down a couple minutes from his peak, and nearly in line with Tim Duncan at age 32. In the offseason, when Randolph is faced with the decision to opt out, part of the Grizzlies sales pitch has to be the Tim Duncan plan. They should be selling Randolph on the idea of being an elite big man, not just next year, but four years from now. It will take both the player and the organization to get there. The organization will be willing. But will the player?

International Edge

One draft pick does not make a trend. But there are several reasons why Grizzlies fans should expect more Janis Timma’s in their future. The Spurs have thrived by drafting international players for the last decade, and there are several reasons why internationals are preferable to domestic players.

Drafting an international prolongs the life of a cost-free asset. Draft picks are the main cost-free trade currency in the NBA. The only problem is the cost-free part of a draft pick has an expiration date on it, and that date is the NBA Draft.

Once a draft pick is made, the resulting player eats up the two most precious commodities in the NBA — a roster spot and salary. Both are finite and fixed resources. You cannot trade for more salary cap room nor more roster spots.

But drafting an international can be the next best thing. The player may not come over right away. In the meantime, the player gains more experience, and hopefully improves. Hopefully, the player appreciates as an asset without taking up a roster spot or counting against the salary cap. Teams like the Spurs, Thunder and Bulls have valuable assets stashed in several countries. In essence, they’ve annexed roster spots all over the world

Editor's note: For a more in-depth look by Matt Hrdlicka at the benefit of drafting an international player, click here.

A Commitment to Player Development

Some teams are just better at developing players. The Spurs are one of the best. There is a difference between how the Spurs develop players and how most teams develop players, and that difference lies in understanding the natural age progression of lottery picks.

There is an enormous talent gap between players drafted in the top half and bottom half of the first round of the NBA draft. Speaking in broad terms, most lottery picks naturally improve from their rookie year through the life of their rookie contract. This is not the case for players chosen in the back half of the first round. Whether it be lack of playing time, or talent, or — more usually — both, few of these players end up sticking in the NBA.

For instance, do the Wizards deserve credit for “developing” John Wall? He has improved every year of his career, and is now a good bet to be a multiple all-star. Unquestionably they deserve credit. But that isn’t the correct way to think about developing players. The real question is has John Wall become the best player he can be through four years in the NBA? The answer to that question is much murkier.
Now look at the collection of players on the Spurs. Tony Parker (drafted 28th overall) has reached the Platonic Form of Tony Parker. Ditto with Manu Ginobili (drafted with the fourth-to-last pick in the draft). Danny Green played an unspectacular 115 minutes over twenty games with Cleveland. He signs with the Spurs and two years later he is magically one of the very best three point shooters in the league.

If anyone claims to fully understand the alchemy behind how the Spurs turn Danny Green into the man with the most three pointers made in an NBA Finals, they’re lying (obviously, Gregg Popovich is a warlock). But part of the equation lies in the Spurs organization-wide commitment to making every player as close to the best version of themselves as humanly possible. Without that, their results would be impossible.

More than the publicized friction between Lionel Hollins and the Front Office, this is the main reason why Dave Joerger is now the coach. Coach Hollins would never play guys who were still figuring it out, or if he did, there was a pretty good chance he would crush their souls for making mistakes. Hollins received national plaudits for taking a young team to the playoffs. But a careful inspection of the roster at that time reveals a slew young players who either never figured it out (Jeremy Pargo, Josh Selby, Hamed Haddadi), regressed (Gay, Rudy; Mayo, OJ), or went on to become better players elsewhere (Demarre Carrol, Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, etc).

The notable exception to this trend is Mike Conley, one of the very few players Coach Hollins ever seemed to trust. I suspect that Mike Conley’s career, and his relationship with Coach Hollins, is instructive.

Grizzlies fans remember when Nick Calathes looked like he didn’t belong. It was only a few months ago. But Coach Joerger kept throwing him out there, and Calathes began to realize that he couldn’t throw cross-court passes from impossible angles. He began to learn how to use his long arms and quick hands to generate steals. And he has learned that if he keeps moving on offense, he can get a bunch of layups with guys like Marc Gasol around to pass him the ball.

Other Grizzlies like Jon Leuer and James Johnson have benefited from the Grizzlies’ organizational commitment to playing young players. But to approach the Spurs’ level of sustained brilliance, the successes of this year cannot be an isolated event.

A Fluid Identity

This may not be the most important aspect of the Spurs success, but it is the most overlooked. The Spurs have played every brand of basketball during the Tim Duncan era. When Duncan entered the NBA, he was paired with David Robinson to be a dominant Twin Towers. In 97-98, the Spurs upped the ante and played a Triple Towers frontcourt — playing seven-footers, Duncan, Robinson and Will Perdue across the front line together.

The early Spurs run was dominated by defense, and post play. Then the NBA changed, cracking down on clutching and grabbing on the perimeter while also relaxing zone defense rules. Post play became much easier to double while guards had an easier time getting to the rim.

The Spurs and Popovich changed with the tiems. They drafted Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, transforming into a more dynamic team predicated on offense. This year, they are so dominant, they field a top six offense, top four defense, and while playing a faster than average pace with a roster whose key players are all over thirty years old.

One day, perhaps soon, the Grizzlies will no longer have Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the post. The Grizzlies Front Office, and Coach Joerger, can’t wait until that date to implement Plan B. They’ll need to be in year two or three of Plan B to maintain a fifty win team.

Maybe James Johnson or Nick Calathes will be ready by then to be the next star. Maybe the Grizzlies will have an international ready to step in and plug the gap. Maybe the extra rest built into the Grizzlies season will ensure Marc Gasol is still an All-Star center in five years.

Whatever the future holds, the plan is happening right now. As this injury-riddled team limps towards the end of the regular season, the players are only thinking about making the playoffs. But that isn’t good enough for the Front Office, and maybe not even Coach Joerger. The fate of the 2017-2018 Memphis Grizzlies is being determined right now.

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