The San Antonio Spurs stand at the beginning of another potential title run, having won their first game of the post season. They've been here before, so many, many times in the past. It would be foolish to assume their streak of playoff attendance will end in the next few years either. However, despite all the evidence, national media members, writers, bloggers, and even fans count them out at times. Some people have counted out the Spurs as early as five seasons ago, or as recently as a week ago. As a Utah Jazz fan I've learned the very hard way that you should never count them out. In fact, if anything, I've learned to count on the Spurs to win. Basketball fans in their late teens and early 20s have ONLY known the Spurs as a perpetual juggernaut. Us greybeards have seen their historic rise, and know they have earned their place in the history books.
It's an uninterrupted era of not only dominance, but brilliance. For a small market fan, the Spurs are a dream franchise. They have a sensible salary, they have a coach who both has a great system, but also understands his players well enough to adjust the game plan based upon their strengths and weaknesses. The ownership and front office are virtually mistake free, and they have the best scouts in the game. The end result is a professional sports team that is doing it right, and is able to keep the emphasis upon winning. Despite challenges of market size and marketability, they continue to draw in skilled veterans who want to be a part of what they are doing. In a way, players join the Spurs not to make the Spurs better; but for the Spurs to make THEM better. The bottom line is that they win. They don't just win regular season games, or playoff series. They win titles. They get the job done.
I will freely admit that I used to hate the Spurs, and perhaps a small part of me always will. But after really looking deeply at them I've come to understand them better, and admire them. I'm not one for hype, so to win me over you have to produce. You have to be good. You have to get the job done. The Spurs have done all three. This isn't the first time I've come around to really appreciating and liking something I initially hated. Funnily enough, I really didn't think much of the Christopher Nolan movie "Inception" when they started to hype it up before its release. Just because you had a talented director, great stars, and a huge budget doesn't mean that it would all work out. It doesn't mean that it would produce solid results, be good, or get the job done. It was hyped up to no end. It could have failed. It could have been like some of the Utah Jazz teams I've lived through in the past that ended up being lesser than the sum of their parts. I didn't want to love Inception because of its hype though. That really got it a lot of minus points from me. Thankfully, when it was finally released it dispelled all notions that it wouldn't produce, be good, or get the job done. It was a masterpiece.
It's funny though; I hated the Spurs and now see their brilliance. I hated the movie, but now hold it as one of the Top 20 movies of all time. In both cases their inherent qualities, and well crafted, deliberate success have won me over. The similarities don't end just there though. Far from it.
The team from Inception was tasked to do what was previously thought to be impossible, and required a long term game plan of a dream within a dream . . . within a dream (and a few more dreams tucked in there depending on which interpretations of the movie you adhere to, but who's counting?). With a few bumps along the way, they did manage to get the job done and succeed. The Spurs? The small market, former ABA team - being dominant was even more impossible in the new media millennium where the biggest stars and biggest markets were destined to marry. How do you become dominant when all the disadvantages are around? You have to play smart, stick together, and have a long term game plan. The protagonists from the movie went with a dream within a dream. The Spurs have gone with a championship run within a championship run . . . and starting last Sunday . . . within another championship run.
Allow me to go a little deeper.
The World of Inception
Inception was a modern heist movie where a collection of talented people were brought together to do a job while being funded by a powerful, determined man. While the ultimate ending of the movie is left intentionally ambiguous, the events of the movie lead one to believe that no matter what they did see and did not see, that the team was successful in a number of ways. I'm not going to go into Spoiler-ville here, so do not be alarmed. Working against both time and active forces set on stopping the team, they rely on their training, come together, and never look rattled. This is because of long term planning and expertize.
- Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) plays the role of The Extractor. As a character he is a man of much experience and confidence; however, this confidence isn't a product of hubris - but actually a consequence of having done this so many times before. He's the main protagonist in many interpretations of the story. He's not a Mary-Sue character, and his success in the story, and in the dream world, is due to a combination of hard work, talent, and expertize. He's not a God like Neo from The Matrix. He's not a superhero. He's a man driven by a desire to find his way home, while knowing that he is very, very good at his job. You root for this man to succeed despite his imperfections.
- Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) plays the role of The Point Man. He is younger, much younger, than Cobb - but as the story progresses, it is revealed that he is ascending towards being The Man. He can play the part of The Architect, or The Extractor, or if it was needed, the role of The Forger. He's smart, quick, and resourceful; more than anything though, he is dependable. When things go wrong, it's never because of a mistake he made. When things go wrong, the team invariably ends up leaning on him to get them out of a jam. He defers to Cobb; but at times disagrees with him and his methods. It is assumed that earlier on in their careers Arthur gained a lot from being teamed up with Cobb. But now, and this is my feeling, it's Cobb who is consistently saved by Arthur.
- Eames (Tom Hardy) plays the role of The Forger. The first point that needs to be stressed is that Dom and Arthur don't always need a Forger to succeed. You can win without him. However, very complicated or specialized jobs are ultimately unwinnable without him. A mutual respect exists between Cobb and Eames - they both know each other's strengths, and successes. Eames and Arthur have a much more playful relationship, they both think they are better than the other. Part of that may be due to some of the overlapping roles they hold. As a Forger, Eames exists for trickery during the dream/game. Certain plays can't be run without him, and his expertize is to distract, deceive, and destroy the defense. More of Eames' skills lead him to be on his own - be it losing a tail from Cobol operatives in a crowded marketplace, or leading Robert Fischer's (Cillian Murphy) own defenses on a wild goose chase.
- Ariadne (Ellen Page) plays the role of The Architect. She's ‘the new guy' because the ‘old guy' screwed up and needed to be replaced. She's young, bright, and is a surprisingly efficient and effective team mate. Her role is to design the dream worlds which the team runs their schemes in. She acts as a confidant to Cobb, appears to have much greater potential than the previous Architect they used to use, Nash (Lukas Haas). She was handpicked to join this team by Stephen Miles (Michael Cane), a professor of Architecture.
- Yussuf (Dileep Rao) is The Chemist. A number of critics found Yussuf to be the comic relief of this group, but I think that his honest reactions (which can be comical) obscure just how vital to everything he actually was. Cobb is the Extractor, Arthur the Point Man, Ariadne the Architect. Saito paid for everything. And Eames took the team to the next level. But nothing happens without Yussuf. It's his expertize which allows for everything else to happen because, as The Chemist, he's the one who can make the sedative strong enough, but safe enough, to be used to extend a consciousness deep within so many dream level states. His work appears so behind the scenes compared to the more overt actions of the others on the team. But it's really his work that allows for the long term vision, and allows for such complex schemes to develop and come together at just the right time. There could be better Forgers, or Architects out there - but as far as being a Chemist, it appears that Yussuf has no equal.
- Saito (Ken Watanabe) is listed either as The Tourist, or The Employer. Without him there is no job. Without him, no one is being forced to do something no one was thought possible. But it should also be mentioned that without him no one can get what they want. In the movie he plays the role of a powerful businessman who gives the quest to Cobb and his group. He's more than just a regal figure who sends younger men into peril - he joins them directly in it as well. Saito is also helpful along the way in not only helping to devise schemes, but also in facilitating them as well. While there would be no success without Yussuf, there would be nothing to do and no quest without Saito.
- Stephen Miles (Michael Cane) wears a number of hats in this movie. He's directly connected to both Cobb (as his father-in-law, and former professor) and Ariadne (who is one of his current students). It's entirely unclear on just how skilled Miles is at being a dream state operative, or how good of an Architect he is in the real world. What cannot be stated enough is that he has a great eye for talent. He mentors Cobb in life, and introduces him to Ariadne. When Cobb needs more help, he always seems to be right in just who he brings to the team.
- Mallorie Cobb (Marion Cotillard) is hard to explain. She is Cobb's wife in the movie, and beyond the desire to ‘return home', Mal is the main factor that influences his behavior. She's what Cobb loves, and can't ever let go of. She's what Cobb fears, and can destroy his best made plans. She could be his greatest support, but invariably appears to be his greatest obstacle. She's both dead and alive. In a way Cobb wouldn't be Cobb without her influence, and vice versa. For all his experiences, talents, and successes - Mal is really the one thing that can stop Dominick Cobb.
There are a number of other very interesting and important characters from the story, but I am not going to detail them here. There are opposing forces and other non-identified helpers as well. Furthermore, there are a number of themes and concepts that I could go into - but it's not really necessary when writing on a basketball blog about the uncanny success of a small market team.
The bottom line is that this strange group of people each had a fundamental role to play in terms of achieving success. In a way, their success is both historic, and inarguable. People will nit-pick this movie to death for all eternity. It was a good movie, and in the story it's a testament to having an understood direction and solid planning.
The San Antonio Spurs
It's both easy and difficult to make certain connections between the World of Inception and the NBA, and more precisely, link the Team in Inception to the Spurs. There are bits and pieces of each character in different people in the San Antonio Spurs family. I am going to go for the simplest connections here, again, this is a basketball blog - and not some graduate level literature discussion group.
- Dominick Cobb - Tim Duncan: Sustained success over the years, not due to some overpowered, game breaking superpower (like Michael Jordan ‘s athleticism and homicidal drive, or Shaquille O'Neal's size and strength), but because of solid planning and performance. He's great, but you can tell he's really worked on it. He has the experience, but probably is past his peak. He's the leader because he's earned it. He came into the league as the #1 pick, was the Rookie of the Year, and has had a Hall of Fame Career. He started at the top, and has led his team to the top of the mountain four times. Cobb is driven to do what he has to in order to return home. For Tim Duncan, as Cobb, I suspect this means win his fifth title - and find peace in that / retire.
- Arthur - Tony Parker: Younger, slightly argumentative, but absolutely brilliant when it counts? This is Parker all around. Cobb/Duncan has all the experience; but Arthur/Parker is really who this team leans on now. He sets the tone, is fearless in combat/the paint, and hits game winners. Arthur can do it all, and on any other team, may be asked to do that. Parker can do it all, and I am most happy with this Spurception pairing. How do you develop a physical kick in a world without gravity? Arthur found a way to do it. How do you dominate a game and make the defense (a defense mind you that was constructed to try to stop you) look stupid all game long - especially in crunch time? Parker continues to find ways to do this. He is smart, and direct, and gets the job done.
- Eames - Manu Ginobili: The Spurs have won a lot of games on the backs of Duncan and Parker. But the Spurs have won titles with Manu healthy and causing havoc. Cobb and Arthur would probably have a higher success rate in their missions if they always had Eames available as well. Manu anchors the bench, but is good enough to start on every team in the league - which is kind of what Eames does as well. He could have a bigger role, but spends most of the movie having people fall over themselves chasing after him. This is precisely what I've seen defenses do in their comical attempts to thwart Ginobili. He dominates benches, and forces the other team to go back to their starters too soon. In crunch time he wrecks them too. He's not always available, but his ability is undeniable. When Manu is on the floor, he does enough to make sure that Tony and Tim can finish the job and have an easy night. He makes their lives so much easier. He's an asset, and really the ace in the hole the Spurs have. He can do a lot of what Parker can do, but he just does it in an altogether more creative and fluid way. He's the right brain to Parker's left brain in the fantastic back court the Spurs have had over the years.
- Ariadne - Kawhi Leonard: No really, hear me out. Kawhi is 21 year old, the youngest of the entire core. He was overlooked in the draft, but scouted properly and added to the team by the Spurs braintrust. He is the starter on a team of veterans, and gets the job done despite all of this being really, really new to him. I know the role of the Architect just sounds more like some title you'd want to give either a coach or general manager. I get that. I think so as well. But in terms of the character of Ariadne, it has to be Kawhi. Cobb needed help, he went to his mentor to find someone who could do the job. It was someone you least expected and would have overlooked. Dominick Cobb then tested her, and she became an invaluable part of the team. How is this not the story of R.C. Buford finding Kawhi and adding him to the team to help Tim Duncan? This kind of works into the narrative of the recent departure of Stephen Jackson (is he Nash, the other Architect who messed up at the beginning of the movie?) as well. The Spurs start Kawhi in a league of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant types - and they haven't missed a beat at all.
- Yussuf / Saito / Stephen Miles - Gregg Popovich, Peter Holt, and R.C. Buford in some strange combination: Michael Cane plays the part of Stephen Miles, the mentor of Dominick Cobb. So that makes him Pop, right? Well, he's also the one who has the eye for talent, and ‘scouted' Ariadne, so that makes him R.C. right? But couldn't you also argue that Pop and R.C. could also be Saito, or Yussuf? Or is Peter Holt the Saito, because he's the one with the money and the reason for even existing - he owns the team. He facilitates what everyone else does. And he's the reason they even try, it's his team culture that makes them want to win. It's almost as confusing as the movie itself. In the end, I think for simplicity's sake I'd make R.C. the Michael Cane character only because of how vital R.C. has been to building this team / scouting talent / finding the right people with high potential for success. I'm also leaning on making Gregg Popovich . . . Yussuf. It's the long term goals / plans / ability that seem that level of importance here. Also, c'mon, the funny things Pop says and does? If there was comic relief to be found in the Spurs franchise over the years it would have to come from Popovich. Right? And this isn't a disrespecting connection to make. Maybe it's because of my bias from my double major in biology and psychology in undergrad - but I can't shake the fact that everyone dies (not just in the dream world, but the real world too) if it's not for Yussuf. He knows what he's doing, and people probably gravitate to championing the more flashier guys. But what matters the most to me is getting results. I'm a results based NBA fan. I don't care about how slick you dress (Pat Riley), or how many ads you are in and the hype you generate (Phil Jackson). I care about results. And the records show that Gregg Popvich knows what he's doing, and has perfected his craft. 50 or more wins every year, even in lockout years. He knows which buttons to press on the refs, and which buttons to press with his players. He understands team chemistry. Without him, a group of stars or a team that can spend still doesn't win (Hi Los Angeles Lakers!). Without Yussuf, everyone dies on that plane because the dosage is wrong and none of their long term or short term plans succeed. They are either in a coma, limbo, or have a stroke. Yussuf is the guy who sets everything up in the real world, and the first dream state. There is no heist without him. Similarly, there are no championship runs without Popovich. Look at the record.
- Mallorie Cobb -- ???: You can come up with a million answers for this one. There are no wrong answers of course. For me it comes back to Tim Duncan. Duncan is Cobb. Cobb wants to go home. Home for him is his home in the real world, a world where he can finally have peace and stop looking over his shoulder for some shadowy organization. Duncan came into this league at the top, and plays the game to win the championship. He's not doing this for money, or selfish record book statistics. He's playing because he wants to win. For him, I believe, home is where he has that ultimate success. And at the team level, Cobb is trying to win, and get that ultimate success. Mal is that force which hinders him, opposes him, and complicates things.
So what is that one thing that can derail the Spurs?
It's themselves. Sure, if the Spurs play bad, or attract the wrong type of attention, or come up against a more ‘nba darling' team it's possible that they're falter. But it's not going to be about the other team winning the day over them, but the Spurs not doing Spurs-like things. This isn't a cliché either, when you are a veteran club you really only do beat yourself. Your game plan is solid, your experience undeniable. Pop is the best coach in the Western Conference Playoffs. His star player has the most rings in the current Western Conference Playoffs (Kobe Bryant is injured and tweeting from home). In the search to find their totem (which is the Championship), the Spurs can only rely on themselves. But it's the Spurs who can be the only obstacle as well.
Learning, Cognition, Motivation, and Behavior
(I've taken out this really long and boring psychology paper that delved a little too deeply into different theories and the specific biochemistry of the brain . . . again, this is a sports blog . . . and you're all better for having me remove this 700 word section)
A championship run within a championship run . . .
In Inception they pull of a series of ruses to move their target to where they want the target to go. This is similar to on a basketball court when a team shares and moves the ball in the halfcourt with the purpose and intent to move the defense with it. It's pointless to move the ball around if the defense stays in the same place. The Xs and Os of the dreamworld in Inception mirrors the fluid way in which the Spurs move pieces around in the halfcourt with picks, off the ball movement, dribble penetration feints, and passes. Furthermore, the single offense play of the Spurs, and moving things around piece by piece is the microcosm of what they've done over the last billion seasons. The macrocosm of their last few years and all their championship runs is all about moving things around with purpose. The purpose ultimately is to gain the best advantage to make the most deadly strike. That's how a guy like Tony Parker can somehow get the ball going to the basket with little resistance. It's how a team can win titles against teams that have more star power. It's because of their long play.
In any given play the Spurs have 24 seconds to play around with. In terms of the long play from season to season the Spurs have had more than a decade to play with. They make moves from year to year like all teams, but also play around with the players they have. Sometimes Manu will be a starter, other times they'll run their team with defense, and now this season they're an unstoppable offensive team. The Spurs have evolved like a virus, not unlike the more resilient parasite.
The other thing that really needs to be emphasized here is that the Spurs and their works through the years have been inherently cumulative in nature. They don't deal with a down year by firing the coach, changing the main parts of the team, and starting from scratch. Losses are periods of reflection and learning. Just like the team in Inception dealt with the early failure of extracting Saito's secret, they regrouped, and refocused. They didn't scratch everything. That's how the Spurs have done things as well. Players are added, evaluated, and improved. Plays are also being added, refined, or eliminated - on offense and on defense. (Oh yes Utah Jazz fans of the Tyrone Corbin era - there are plays on defense too) Even people in the front office move to new positions after learning from one part of the organization. Everything moves and can change with the Spurs - while retaining the main core values and principles. I could image that the Spurs could still run an Alfense (for non-SLC Dunkers that's an offense where it's just Al Jefferson getting the ball on the left block) with Duncan, but they don't. They are smarter than that and do much smarter things. San Antonio's strength is in maintaining direction while trying new things.
Not everything works out. Sometimes you fail. The Spurs have, if you are looking at the goal of winning the title every year. After all, they *only* have four. But they've been contenders every year since the mid 90s through the 2000s, and now to the 2010s. This is the long play, this is the product of trying new things, and moving pieces around. This is that continuation of success and culture that didn't happen with the Jazz when Karl Malone went to LA, and we didn't get to see him transition into the guy you rely on at the end of games, who takes a step back to more Flex action with Andrei Kirilenko and a younger PG in the first half.
The Spurs have been that dream within a dream / championship run within a championship run (where bits and pieces of each run come together in the big picture - eg. Finding out that Manu was great enough to be the only starter who can run the bench by himself a few years ago - which allowed for him to play off the bench; or finding out that Parker was a great finisher at the rim and being able to run things through him). The Jazz on the other hand crashed the plane a few times. We've also seemed to forget the things it took a long while to figure out. (Remember Mehmet Okur and how many years it took us to figure out stretch bigs are good? Did you see us pairing Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson the last 2.5 years as starters? Yes. Are any of them stretch bigs? Really?)
It pains me to say this but the Spurs are a way better run, managed, and executed franchise right now than our Jazz. They are a small market team that has a direction, which is to win now - and they even develop players faster than we do while being a contender. Part of that is their culture. Another part is how they scout players based on how they'll fit with our team, and not picking the best guys and hoping it will work out. After all, we've never seen a Spurs team where 4 of their top 8 guys were all Power Forwards.
Each championship run for the Spurs has led to more learning, and allowed for future success despite occasional failures. I honestly don't know how many things we learned during that first decade of John Stockton and Karl Malone where they had 5 first round exits and the front office was super slow to make either changes, or build off of the year before. The Spurs modeled their team after us, but now it's high time they we can learn from them.
We're a small market team that has a divided direction. We want to be contenders, and brought in a lot of veterans to get the job done. They failed to do so. We didn't even make the playoffs, let alone contend. And this was in a year where the Timberwolves and Lakers were injured all year long, and the Mavericks were in a funk. We failed at our number one state goal, a goal that was repeated all season long. The other direction is to develop talent, but after crunching the numbers (and I did, believe you me I did), our #3, #3, #9, and #12 picks are all BEHIND the curve when compared to the last 40 seasons of how many minutes the #3, #9 and #12 picks have played after 1, 2, or 3 seasons. I do believe that experience (a product of seeing the floor, which means getting minutes) hastens learning and the return on the investment of getting a young player with potential. Don't believe me? Look at guys like Kawhi Leonard and Daniel Green who start for the Spurs - who are the #2 seed in the Western Conference.
The Spurs have an excellent reputation that's built upon performance and success. That reputation helps them attract the right guys to add to their team every year. What's the reputation the Jazz have built over the last few seasons? We have a push over coach in Tyrone Corbin who favors veterans and will cannibalize the development of younger guys in order to make sure you get your minutes, shots, and points. Defense is optional. Moni wrote a great piece about some of this as well. We're attractive to veterans who don't have any better suitors, and we elevate these guys to leadership roles despite their flaws and failures. We start guys who would not start on any other good team in the league. That's our reputation now.
We're a joke, who runs a nightmare program. The Spurs? They are highly trained operatives who all dress sharply and have well written dialog.
They're the Inception team of the NBA. They are a championship run within a championship run, within a championship run.
They don't have the hype, the overt star power, the market size, the marketability, or droves of young fair-weather fans signing up to root for them. But as a long time NBA fan who has seen the Spurs up close and personal over the 80s, 90,s 2000s, and today - I see how they've done things. And I've seen their success. It's admirable, even if not entirely something we can copy.
That said, we do have Dennis Lindsey as our General Manager right now. And with him we have the hope that we can build a very big thing from a very small beginning. He was someone in the Spurs family, and now part of our Jazz family. He's our hope. He's the guy we hope to be our Michael Cane / Stephen Miles character. He'll be the guy to help make our Cobb better, and train him, and scout talent to build around him with. That's our hope for the Jazz.
It's super early right now, but our Jazz team, if developed properly and build attempt corrected, can be Spurs-like, or at least the Spurs-lite in the future. It starts with having a unified direction though. None of this "let's try to do two things in opposite directions and act surprised when we haven't moved at all" business. The Spurs know that if you have more than one dream you can get lost in dreamland. Everything Cobb did in the movie was with the purpose of getting home. Everything the Spurs do is with the intention of winning the title.
If the Jazz have learned anything at all from the Spurs, I hope to see evidence of that this off-season. As a Jazz fan that's what you have to hope for while watching the Spurs go on another deep playoff run season after season.