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Correlation Isn’t Causation, Except Sometimes It Kind Of Is

By Jeff Koch on February 1, 2012.

A belated congratulations to Bruce Bowen on getting his jersey retired by the San Antonio Spurs. Outside of San Antonio and the Spurs organization and fan base, there is apparently some debate as to whether this should even happen. But to any one who watched the team closely over the years Bowen played and especially during the three championship runs he was a part of, there really is no debate at all. The last championship came in Bowen’s last year of high level production (capped off with his performance against a young LeBron in the 2007 finals), and the two events are not mutually exclusive.

The term ‘role player’ is bandied about, often times as a sort of backhanded compliment. As if playing the role of “high level defensive player” is somehow less a skill than other aspects of the game. I’m not quite sure where I first heard this, but some prominent basketball mind once said that every player in basketball is a role player, even players like Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant. Their particular “role” is to score the ball. Obviously scoring is how the game is won. And many great scorers do so much more than just score. But preventing scoring, frustrating scorers, or causing drastic inefficiencies in offense is also how a game can be won, as those championship teams so often proved. Night after night, Bowen played the best perimeter scorers in the league, who, night after night, would still score on him. But we’ll never know how many points he prevented, or how many offenses he disrupted by taking them out of their ‘flow’, or how tired he made scorers so that, in the end game, they just didn’t have the juice to make the big plays. There are no numbers, no metrics for players like Bowen. Just your eyes and your gut.

And championships. Of which he was part of 3. 3 that were built first and foremost on a smothering defense. One could accurately argue that the 3 most important parts of those championship defenses were the system (Coach Pop), the anchor (Tim Duncan), and Bruce Bowen, the dirty worker. Bowen was the type of player that everybody hates except when he is on your team. Well, he was on our team, and we all loved watching him play. Appreciating what he did so amazingly well is part of what separates Spurs fans from other fans and still helps to give us and the team (and by extension, the city) its identity. 4 years later, we’re still searching for a suitable replacement; 4 years later, his reputation still sticks to the team, despite all signs to the contrary.

Congratulations, Bruce; it was a pleasure watching you play, and I’m glad you were on our team.

Speaking of Defense…

The slow decline of the team since Bruce is mostly a decline in defensive efficiency, even as our offensive efficiency continues to bloom. Secretly, silently, we’ve become a very good offensive team and a so-so defensive team. This got me to thinking about what makes a great defensive team. Is it the system? If so, shouldn’t our defense still be very good? Is it the execution? What makes a good defensive player? Is it simply execution, intelligence, and will? Other than age, what has slipped for the Spurs the last few years? Is good defense more team based or individual based?

The interesting thing about watching this year’s team is that we’re kind of the exact opposite defensive type team that we were 5 years ago. In the heyday, we were smart, crisp in our execution, exacting in our rotations, and we always forced teams exactly where we wanted to them. But we seldom got the ‘flashy’ defensive play, seldom won the athleticism battle. Now, most of our good defense comes from having young players playing their butts off, and getting their hands in passing lanes, reaching down for steals, getting some lucky bounces, winning 50-50 balls, getting blocks, etc. But when those things don’t happen, opposing offenses seem to get whatever shot they want.

So, looking on the bright side, if we can get these young athletic players to learn the system, trust the rotations, and make the execution of it rote, we might yet turn into a pretty good defensive team.

Defending the Decision…Well, Not THAT Decision

I love Pop. I love that, in the Dallas game, he left that second unit in to finish the game out, win or lose. Henry Abbott wrote a very good piece on it, so I won’t retread too much of what he wrote. Few coaches could do that and get away with it. But Pop’s one of them. As bitter as that defeat was, it was kind of a win-win situation for us. We win, and it’s a huge upset, the bench beats Dallas, and the Mavs suffer a huge defeat. Even in defeat, though, the bench got a ton of confidence, Dallas had to fight tooth and nail with their stars to beat our second unit, the starters got plenty of rest (which surely helped get the win the next night in Memphis), and the loss wasn’t that big of a deal because, let’s face it, we were well on our way to losing that game anyway.

The 2nd Unit

My favorite part of the season has been watching the second unit play. Green, Neal, Splitter, and Bonner bring a tremendous amount of energy and fervor to the game. They play that swarming, frenetic D I was talking about earlier, and, when their strokes are falling, all can be deadly offensive threats. This was evident in the Dallas game, obviously. But in the Memphis game and even in the Houston game, all players contributed quite a bit to the big runs that helped to ice and win those games.

Not Quite Dead Yet

Tim Duncan is no longer groundhog’s day, bringing the same perfection every night. But don’t start throwing dirt on his grave just yet. He’s still probably one of the 2 or 3 smartest players in the league. And he’s still got some of the old juice left. His 3rd quarter against Houston tonight was amazing. He put the team on his back and willed us back into the game, which carried us all the way to the win. I’ll go to war with Duncan anytime, anywhere.

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