MEM/SAS: A Tapestry of Turnovers (or: the Fabric of the Game)

Posted on Thu 17 January 2013 in Features by Alex Dewey

bob knight

According to A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein, legendary Indiana coach Bob Knight once had a sign in his locker room reading "Victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes." Knight loved it. I do too. If you think about it, in a situation of uncertainty, that's all we can do. Try to get better, and try to make fewer mistakes than your opponent, if there are opponents involved. More broadly, coaches seem to understand at all times something that fans, commentators, and bloggers all at times seem to forget: you're in a game to compete with the other team, not to look competent, even if that's only a few letters off. Whether or not that's always possible with political and organizational realities is another matter altogether, but that's the job description, right after acting as leader and manager and putting the best sporting product on the floor. You have to compete. And competing means looking carefully at the levers by which wins are raised, and attempting to aggregate as much leverage for your team in a given match-up as possible, and denying the same to your opponents. That's -- in a nutshell -- what it means to compete.

Let's talk about mistakes.

• • •

While there are players that are simply mistake-prone by nature or inexperience, there's generally some sort of consistent schema or a mechanism in the sport by which players and teams make their various types of mistakes. For instance, "you don't know how to pass out of a post-up when they bring a certain type of pressure" or "you don't have the ability to score or shoot so they can play off you and pack the paint every single time." These schemas and mechanisms form much of the strategic calculus underlying competition. Simply stating "that's a mistake" may be accurate but it says very little. How something is a mistake, is far more important. It's not that the mistake occurred, it's how a team tilts the odds in its favor, how teams force mistakes, and how teams get themselves out of the situations that demand mistakes. There are little mistakes that can be corrected on their own terms, but to go further, to fix the mistakes that plague your team day by day, you have to solve the mechanisms by which the mistakes come about: the misconceptions about spacing, the troubles your team has against a press, the trouble you as a player have against back-door cutters. And so on and so forth. And the trouble your team has with turnovers.

As the title of this piece probably suggested, this is really about turnovers. Turnovers aren't just mistakes, and even to the extent they are, they need to be examined as part of the strategic fabric; after all, the absence of turnovers happens only in a simplified strategic situation. A turnover is not some nebulous failure of execution that happens when a certain neuron doesn't fire in the non-idiot section of the brain. Oh, sure, a turnover can be like that, or a young player that just whiffs on a pass. But most of the time we have to delve deeper, just the same way we wouldn't automatically dismiss bad shooting on a given night as either bad luck or horrible players or horrible shooters. Good players miss good shots, and a turnover, like a missed shot, can simply be the negative residue of a good decision made by players in a position of uncertainty.

We're no fools, generally speaking, in basketball. We get that there are "good and bad shots" that happen to miss because of random chance, even if the NBA is a "make-or-miss league". What's more... and this is key, there are shots that both the offensive and defensive team will live with in the competitive fabric, essentially saying "Good if it goes. Bad if it doesn't." or, more precisely, "Serge Ibaka taking that shot? Well, gee, we could both do better, but we could both do worse. At this point there's no point for the defense to contest it, and no point for the offense to go for a better shot. Serge Ibaka, this is your lucky day. Take that shot, Serge, so we can all stop standing around like idiots while essentially nothing unfolds but the slow march of seconds." (Much of the variance in a game comes from the outcomes of such shots that both teams decide to live with; in some sense this is the largest source of variance in the strategic calculus of a game, though I'm not sure yet how to phrase that constructively.)

Like good shots, we observers tend to be attuned to good plays and good decisions that simply don't work out, too: LeBron passing to an open Udonis Haslem instead of trying to drive on a lane-packing zone, for example. And turnovers can be part of those good decisions and good plays. This isn't universally the case, but I often see turnovers as just an unfortunate residue of a creative team and creative players that pass and create before they have perfect control of a situation (against defenses whose goal is to deny them this control). And if you accept all of this, then we as a group of observers need to have the discipline to live with those turnovers as fans if they're part of a decent plan, just like we live with missed open 3s by shooters from the wing and corner. I'm saying this because I'm a Spurs fan that watched San Antonio come up a bit short in Memphis last Friday night and dominate the Grizz in San Antonio Wednesday night.

In both games, turnovers were right at the center of things, present in one and absent in the other.

• • •

gary neal turnover

Fortunately for me, I actually wrote this piece about the Memphis game and turnovers last Friday, and had the opportunity to sort of soak up what I'd written and reconcile it with the rematch in San Antonio, and the ensuing adjustments. So let's start with Friday. The first item of note is that the overtime Memphis win had a nice ebb and flow to it. Great execution from beginning to end. Ultimately, Friday saw a very close game that the Grizzlies won on some close calls, and a phenomenal performance by Darrell Arthur late. The important thing to remember is that the Spurs (and Duncan specifically) had a lot of harmful turnovers, and with Memphis' personnel, those turnovers led (rather predictably) to:

  1. A lot of friggin' points. As well as...
  2. An understandable "all these turnovers make me sick!" reaction by Spurs fans.

I wanted to address that. Speaking personally as a Spurs fan, it's viscerally infuriating to see Tim Duncan lose the ball again and again against the Grizzlies, looking old and tired and mistake-prone. But the fact remains that on Friday, Duncan wasn't just making idiotic plays: Memphis was swarming him with their lengthy, athletic wings and guards. Since 2011, this has been one of the themes: Memphis has ably recognized Duncan's individual offensive skill, including his ability to make and receive passes, and to score good baskets from the mid-range despite advancing age. And Memphis, recognizing all of this, decided to cut that lever for their destruction off. If anyone gets the Spurs and Duncan and Popovich, it's the two teams that have co-opted them the most: the Grizzlies and Thunder (not coincidentally their two most recent playoff defeats).

The Grizzlies simply have a better understanding of Duncan's "old man game" than any other team in the league, and they aren't going to give Tim Duncan simple single-coverage where one of the smartest players in the league is given unlimited time to think and the best off-ball offense in the league has unlimited time to operate. So they denied Duncan the entry passes and the dribble on Friday. They didn't let Duncan dribble ("not even once") and they helped on him. They threw looks at him and forced him to react, and sometimes made even reaction impossible, because as soon as he dribbled they were on him. Despite that the whole of a good defense had been calculated to stop him, Duncan simply was not making glaring mistakes and the Spurs team as a whole weren't poorly executing (with perhaps the single exception of Gary Neal). The Spurs had decided to give Duncan the ball at the high post and the Grizzlies had decided to counter by helping off shooters.

This strategic equilibrium, perhaps not ideal for the Spurs (but plausible as an ideal) happened to lead to Spurs turnovers by the bunches. These teams have been stuck in this game since 2011 (and teams in general have been doing this to Duncan since he went to Wake). And ultimately, it wasn't a horrible strategy for either team. The Spurs still managed to score, and Duncan's interior passing (as well as Splitter/Diaw's) anchored the Spurs to a offensive game against a solid defensive team. Also, yes, there were turnovers. Occasional lapses in execution behind the turnovers explain a few of them, but overall the game was an example of excellent execution. Smart coaching, tenacious players on both teams that knew their roles, and the kind of control you get with good teams that don't leave their feet without purpose. That's where I'm coming from. But a lot of the reactions understandably fixated on turnovers as a great plague facing the Spurs. My response is: Okay, but do these turnover woes really justify radical changes? Are turnovers really hugely avoidable against Memphis? If so, does the solution have anything to do with the buzzword "execution"? I doubt it.

• • •

This is a line of questioning we now have a solid answer to. See, everything up to now I wrote on Friday, more or less, including that line of questioning. What was interesting to me about Wednesday's San Antonio blowout is that with Manu out and Parker not having an exceptional game, the key adjustment that the Spurs made offensively was (indeed) simply to limit the turnovers. And let's be clear here. Above I wasn't saying turnovers weren't bad or that they weren't the thing that cost the Spurs in that game. They were bad, and they did cost the Spurs, perhaps the entire game. I was saying that, even if that's true, Tim Duncan is a generational talent and, in a crucial way, still an efficient offensive player, even if his skill is now less of the "get buckets" variety, and more of the "navigate the complex strategic sub-games of an offense to reach win conditions effectively" type.

So, on Friday, it wasn't a horrible strategy by the Spurs to give Tim Duncan the ball on the low block or the elbow to initiate offense against the Grizzlies, a team that can defend all guards effectively and run out in transition off turnovers. The low block, after all, is close to the rim and ideal for hitting cutters and the corner three. And the elbow matches Duncan's midrange game perfectly, and he can also hit cutters and three point shooters from a central location. Guards like Chris Paul and Steve Nash relish the center of the paint at the free throw line on dribble-drives, but for a stationary big like Duncan, the edge of the paint is where he loves to operate. But, as Wednesday proved, the Spurs could certainly do better against a team like Memphis with their respective personnel. Their answer was to deliberately bring Duncan slightly back out of the offense. When he got the ball, Duncan seemed to operate from the space between the top of the key and the wing. Call it the elbow, but maybe take a few steps back. Which is to say that Tim Duncan was operating 20-22 feet from the basket. So not ideal by any stretch of the imagination. But by doing so, the Spurs' calculated adjustment thereby altered the geometry of the situation, in order to deny Memphis the chance to double and trap Duncan.

The adjustment worked; the Spurs ended up with just 13 turnovers, and Memphis apparently got zero fast break points the entire game, one of the many things that left their offense in shambles in the 2nd half. No easy buckets whatsoever. Why did it work? First of all, Memphis couldn't sensibly commit a trapping Tony Allen or Mike Conley to take Duncan off his dribble. In fact, on a semi-related note, when Tony Allen tried to over-help off a shooter at one point, Duncan punished Allen severely with a sharp pass to the open man. Duncan isn't a serious dribble-drive threat from 22 feet, but that simply meant Duncan had an unmolested look at the basket. Second, placing Duncan at 22 feet gave Memphis a much trickier decision even for the single defender (Marc Gasol): while Duncan is only an above-average mid-range shooter this season (Tim shoots about 4 per game from 16-23 hitting 43.5% according to Basketball-Reference), he flirts with the elite in that category regularly enough to make a consistently open shot a dangerous concession. What's more, the Spurs offense is predicated to an extent on avoiding mistakes. So many of their easy looks come from good teams turning their heads for a second while Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard cuts to the rim. Marc Gasol is an excellent rim protector, but he certainly isn't if he's 20 feet from the basket guarding Tim Duncan at the elbow. And so Marc stayed back.

On a related note: the Spurs offense is great partially because even if you deny cutters by staying home in the paint, their open shooters kill you. Memphis being unable to trap Tim Duncan without overhelping off open shooters, then, turns out to be quite a huge deal in the structure of the game. And on Wednesday they couldn't trap or steal from Duncan, and for the Grizzlies' sake, their offense was stuck in half-court mode the whole game, which is where their poor spacing bit them in the 2nd half. The Spurs didn't significantly cut down on turnovers from Friday to Wednesday (18 to 13), but they did cut down on the types of turnovers that the Grizzlies got low-risk, high-reward situations from. And I suppose that's part of what I'm getting at: If your team is coughing up the ball, it's worth it to see if they're genuinely coughing up spots of blood or if they're just getting a good, high-percentage idea out of their system that didn't turn out so well.

That metaphor went somewhere, didn't it?

• • •

gary neal buzzer beater 2011

I'm a Spurs fan, obviously. Less obviously, the 2011 series between these two teams marked a change in the way I viewed basketball. The two teams played in a way that you could really suss out with study and experience, in a series that genuinely came down to minor adjustments and how certain players were playing from game to game. Defensively, Duncan looked about 40 years old for stretches in that series, and likely had suffered an ankle injury earlier that season in silence. Manu Ginobili was at 85% (which is still really, really good, it should be noted) and had broken his arm just a week before. And Memphis was able to obliterate Tony Parker. Still, it was a 6-game, well-contested series, and the Spurs and Grizzlies traded often brilliantly-executed, gritty, tough basketball. Although Zach Randolph had the series of his life, anyone that watched that series had to gain a lot of respect for that whole Grizzlies team as competitors, and if nothing else, for the Spurs as competitors.

The Gary Neal shot (and the preceding run of buckets the Spurs got in the final minute) remains one of my favorite basketball memories of all time, and in a fit of curiosity, I vowed to document every possession of the series on my old blog. I didn't complete that particular project. But I did get an entire six minute stretch done and the insights gleaned to this day help me think through this match-up. Moreover, I gained a strong appreciation for two of the most iconic teams in the league today. Sometimes I look at other teams in the league and just notice something missing. Thibodeau's teams that can't get buckets for stretches, Indiana's own inability to score a bucket, the depressingly baroque Mavericks, the Morey Rockets in the pre-Harden era, the hyper-spaced Woodson Knicks, the post-Ubuntu Celtics, the pre-smallball Heat, and so on. And it just seems kind of shady, like they're trying to manufacture wins with almost cynical efficiency. There's a maddening incoherency to teams that can't score for stretches and a maddening blase randomness to teams that don't defend and don't move off the ball on offense.

As for these two teams? Memphis and San Antonio -- while both having diagnosable issues -- aren't holding anything in reserve, and they aren't being anything but on the level with who they are and what they bring to the table. The Grizzlies are missing good shooters, and the Spurs are missing perimeter defense and a fourth big. They're tired, gritty, methodical teams that get up for the games when they need to. They're smart teams with an ethos and usually bring their best to the playoffs, and sometimes, a six-minute stretch can give you a pretty darn good idea of where the two teams are respectively, a stretch that can make you forget all about sample size and withholding judgments. Look, the Grizzlies are still a bad match for the Spurs. In some sense nothing has changed. But something about the essence of the sport, something more eternal than other games, can be found in the simple matchup of 10 players that know where they are and what they're doing. It's in that spirit that I wrote a piece about the night the Spurs -- somewhat unexpectedly -- made the fewest mistakes. Thanks for reading.