Most people believe that the “Moneyball” theory cannot work in the NBA because of the high level of star maintenance, individual talent, and sometimes the lack of a team concept. Yet what professional sports show time and again is that the reasons for team success are sometimes overlooked. The “money ball” theory is a term conceptualized by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane who uses evidence-based research and knowledge to create a competitive team.
Now in the NBA, building a team with players with high field goal percentages can work to put points on the scoreboard, but players can lack skill on the defensive end. Rather, build a team made up of players who can excel on defense, but who lack the offensive firepower. In other words, there has to be a good combination of attack, defense, and teamwork. These statements shouldn’t be anything new to anyone who wants to build a competitive team, but the only word I forgot to mention is “consistency.” Moneyball theory focuses on objective results but it also preaches consistency and there is no other team in the NBA that has been more consistent than the San Antonio Spurs for the past thirteen years. The Spurs have racked up consecutive fifty-win seasons and four NBA titles, but what is the formula for their success?
After 1996-97, the team enjoyed the success of the regular season, but decided to change the team’s coaching philosophy from Bob Hill to Greg Popovich. Popovich had been in the front office as general manager and saw that while the team was competitive, they lacked intensity and toughness. Across the league, Bob Hill’s coaching style was known as rigid and detail-oriented, akin to a dictatorship, but Popovich believed the team approach should be more democratic and hold players accountable for their actions. In a cooperative environment, players must learn a system that maximizes the abilities of each player and not just the team’s win-loss record. In the 1997 draft, the Spurs selected Tim Duncan, an All-American center from Wake Forest of Wake Forest to team up with David Robinson. Duncan’s writing was very important because it initiated the team’s focus for years to come. Has anyone ever noticed that the San Antonio Spurs seem to always have a collection of the same type of players in their system? Penetrating setters who can take down a wide jump shot, shooting guards who are capable of creating their own shots, versatile small forwards who can defend shooting guards but also possess a high career three-point percentage, flexible power forward who can defend in the post but also to stretch the defense on the perimeter and finally a center that can defend and score on the post. Also, double three to five similar players coming off the bench. This formula was not created by accident; in fact, this strategy is the reason the Spurs are so consistent. From Avery Johnson to Tony Parker, Mario Elie to Manu Ginobli, Jerome Kersey to Robert Horry, David Robinson to Tim Duncan and other players, the Spurs have always focused on being built to last. For any NBA team, it would be easy to acquire the best free agent on the market during the offseason, but it is also evident in the league that every time star players join a new team, the philosophy is likely to change. Coach Popovich believes that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” which is a simple phrase used for a complex system. Also, if you think Greg Popovich became an overnight success and got lucky with his own strategy, you’d be inclined to know that he graduated from the Air Force Academy with a degree in Soviet studies and nearly followed a career in counterintelligence.
In addition to analyzing the general composition of the Spurs team, you should also look at statistics such as the average age of the players and the development of the player, both of which are related to Moneyball theory. Historically, all NBA champion teams since 1999 have had an average player age of less than 29 years, except for the 1999 and 2007 NBA champions Spurs. To clarify, the 1999 Spurs played in 50 short season games, however they were thought to be a very experienced team that eventually finished 37-13 and lost only two games in the playoffs. The 2007 Spurs also had experience, but they were put to the test and went on to sweep the final, four games to zero. The average age of the players on both teams was 30, but why is age so important? Most NBA analysts believe that age and experience are important factors in a championship team, but players can also physically deteriorate during a playoff career. Also, younger, athletic teams can sometimes overcome lack of experience with great intensity. Therefore, a combination of players in a proven system can generate positive results. The fact of the matter is that the Spurs are the only team since 1999 that shows that an average 30-year-old can be beaten not by experience but by system. Also, whenever the average age of Spurs players seems to start to rise, they always reorganize with similar but younger players. This strategy seemed inevitable after last season when the Spurs were outscored by the # 8 seed but the younger Memphis Grizzlies last season. In terms of player development, the Spurs developed Duncan, Ginobli and Parker from their rookie season into the superstars they are today. Additionally, the Spurs were one of the first NBA teams to purchase a development league team for the purpose of managing and developing players. Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics used a similar approach in developing minor league players on MLB’s best farm system. Subsequently, the players would contribute to the team and then go through free agency. Years later the strategy began to be copied by the rest of the league; most notably the 2004 World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
So, I know you are telling yourself that the Spurs are boring or too fundamental and play a small market. However, if you’re a fan of a big-market team, think about the last time your team achieved 50 consecutive seasons with 50 wins without the help of a coveted free agent or a successful trade or the fact that your team didn’t win four. NBA titles with a chance to win a fifth title in less than fifteen years? If you’re an NBA enthusiast and realist, you should appreciate the San Antonio Spurs because while the team is not the most popular franchise, the team is still the most respected.