Sunday, May 4, 2014

Beyond the Big 3: the Spurs Real Secret to Success

Since the Spurs began their incredible run of success under Coach Gregg Popovich, fans and pundits alike have sought to define the root of San Antonio’s unmatched consistency within the paradigm of a familiar basketball narrative. When the Spurs won their first champion ship in 1999, experts attributed their accomplishments to the popular “Twin Tower” model, which featured the historic duo of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. When the Spurs won again in 2003 with an older (but extremely productive) version of Robinson, the narrative shifted to emphasize the individual brilliance of Tim Duncan, while still highlighting the emergence of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as key contributors. When the Spurs won again in 2005 and 2007, the narrative shifted once more, this time attributing San Antonio’s success to the all too familiar “Big 3” model (Duncan, Ginobili and Parker).

All of this is well and good and makes life easy for lazy sportswriters and prognosticators who would rather recycle a recognizable storyline than uncover a new one. Unfortunately however, any explanation that attributes the Spurs success to simply having the best player in the league or the best "Big 3" is incomplete at best and more likely downright inaccurate. In truth, the Spurs success is owed to a number of factors, two of which are criminally underemphasized, likely because they lack the sex appeal we all covet.

So what are these two hidden factors that enable the Spurs to consistently outclass the competition? Simple: the Spurs don’t allocate any minutes to bad players and consistently surround their stars with stronger supporting casts than those of their opponents’.

Since I’ve already written about the way in which the Spurs avoid giving away wins via playing unproductive players, this post will focus on the Spurs consistently excellent supporting casts.

Is it really the Big 3 or the Big 12?

In order to demonstrate that the Spurs differentiator for success is more attributable to their remarkable depth than their top players simply being superior to those of other teams, I sought to show that the Spurs didn’t typically boast the best “Big 3” in the league, even during their championship years.

As a proxy for demonstrating this theory, I investigated the Spurs three most recent championship rosters (2003, 2005 and 2007) and compared those rosters to the rest of the league. Specifically, I calculated the aggregate average per-minute production (1) of each team’s top 3 win producers, the goal of which was to objectively isolate the teams in the league who boasted at least three highly productive players. I then investigated the production these teams received from their "other" players (e.g. non-top 3 players) in order to determine if those teams couldn’t match the Spurs success on account of employing lesser top talent or an inferior supporting cast. The results show that the Spurs model for success is much more nuanced than simply attaining better top talent than their competitors (2):


According to the data, San Antonio has indeed featured one of the league’s better “Big 3’s” in each of its championship years. In fact, in 2007, San Antonio’s “Big 3” of Duncan, Ginobili and Barry (3) boasted the highest aggregate production rate in the league. That said, in both 2003 and 2005, numerous teams employed more productive “Big 3’s” than San Antonio, both in terms of per minute effectiveness and total wins produced.

However, it should also be noted that, compared to its competition, San Antonio has received more contributions from the rest of its roster relative to other teams who boast three strong performers. For instance, in 2005, San Antonio's "Non-Big 3" players produced nearly 12 more wins than the average of their counterparts on the other teams investigated. In fact, San Antonio’s “Non-Big 3” players contributed more wins in 2005 and 2007 than any of the other teams reviewed.

So what has this little exercise taught us about the Spurs model for success?

In the world of sports punditry, there is no room for humble agnosticism. Each victory or defeat is traced to precise variables, some of which may be as unquantifiable and nebulous as “intangibles,” “team chemistry” or simply “wanting it more.” In the case of the San Antonio Spurs, however, a more nuanced explanation for success is required, and no explanation is complete so long as it overlooks the significant contributions of San Antonio’s “other” players.


1. In this case, average production is measured via Wins Produced per 48 minutes WP48 (WP48).

2. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that is hardly a foolproof methodology: for example, it doesn’t account for instances when a top player may not have produced a top three win total for his team due to injuries. Moreover, defining "top talent" by looking at top 3 players (as opposed to top 1 or 2 players, for instance) is pretty arbitrary, and it should be noted that in each of the Spurs championship years, Duncan was among the best players in the league. Caveats aside, this exercise provides a decent proxy for determining if San Antonio comparative advantage is on account of its top tier talent or its depth.

3. If you substitute Tony Parker (the assumed 3rd member of San Antonio’s “Big 3”) the aggregate WP48 drops to .238 although the absolute wins produced stays roughly the same as Parker played many more minutes (albeit less effectively) than Barry in 2007.

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