The San Antonio Spurs kick off a hellish section of their schedule tonight with a curious opponent in the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets enter the AT&T Center straight off the ending of a 15-game winning streak that had some observers considering them darkhorse title contenders.
What makes the Nuggets a curious case is that they operate just outside the fringes of being an elite basketball team by unconventional means. Namely, the lack of a full-fledged superstar.
The accepted ground rule for contending is elite players win championships. The popular train of thought is the three star model that currently holds the NBA champion title in Miami, though the right team can get by if it positions itself intelligently around just one, as the Dallas Mavericks did in surrounding Dirk Nowitzki with Tyson Chandler and a slew of highly specialized role players.
The problem is that there aren’t enough such players to put on every NBA roster; Nuggets head coach George Karl estimates perhaps four or five such elite talents in the entire world, though cases can be made to extend or shrink that number.
Truly elite superstars are the rarest commodity in the NBA, which is why the balance of power in the league tends to hold steady from year-to-year until one of these game changers decides to take their talents to a different location.
Building a quality roster is such a complex process. Basketball has such a rich and diverse variety of skill sets, between defenders, rebounders, finishers, playmakers, scorers, etc. And each of these skill sets have to be extremely refined to meet the high standards of quality at the NBA level, which is why most role players tend to hone in on one or two facets of their game in order to sharpen them at a level needed to stay and succeed in the NBA.
NBA teams have finite resources in terms of roster and cap space, as well as within the five-man units teams are allowed to put on the court. Success depends on a front office’s ability to provide the right skill sets to mesh with their coach’s system, and that coach’s ability to find the right balance and blend of these skills within the limit of minutes, fouls, and five-men lineups.
Over the long haul of an NBA season, or even a playoff series, components of a roster will misfire. Shooters will go through cold spells, playmakers will get bottled up by the wrong matchup, and injuries will occur. Quality systems can compensate for one or two struggling components in brief stretches, but eventually that system will degrade .
Superstars then simplify the whole process by providing several of these skill sets at elite levels from just one roster spot on the court. It’s their ability to take on added responsibilities in multiple areas that allow a team to be operating near peak efficiency even as their team goes through the ups and downs of an NBA season or playoff series.
The Denver Nuggets are saturated with quality skill and athleticism throughout their entire roster, though even the most notable pieces fall just on the border of being All-Star quality. The San Antonio Spurs also have quality play throughout their roster, with the Nuggets likely proving to be just a little deeper and the Spurs being a little more top heavy.
In Tim Duncan and Tony Parker the Spurs have stars, though their title runs ended when Duncan’s game slipped past being one of the four or five best players in the world. Any future title hopes largely rest on Parker’s ability to play like one of the top five players in the NBA.
Parker is certainly good enough to live up to the task, as he’s played the point guard position better than any other this season, but his size and lack of explosive athleticism make it hard to single-handedly dominate a series against certain matchups; at least historically, though it will be interesting to see how it plays out this year .
What makes tonight’s matchup intriguing is how differently each team compensates for the lack of a top-five player.
Athleticism, length, and defense are the most consistent assets on a basketball court on a night-to-night basis, especially when that athleticism is backed by the considerable energy of youth. And the Nuggets leverage theirs well, recreating some of the perks of an NBA superstar they lack on the court.
Their transition attack is probably second only to the Heat when their three stars are on the court. The Nuggets create turnovers and leak out on shots in an intelligent way that transforms every transition opportunity into a dunk without compromising their team defense.
In doing so the Nuggets supplement their base offense with the type of easy shots a superstar would normally generate.
That base offense often lacks spacing, though George Karl aptly combines the abilities of Ty Lawson (who is out) and Andre Iguodala in breaking down defenses off the bounce, Andre Miller’s passing genius, Danilo Gallinari’s floor spacing and versatility, and constantly active big men to keep his offense near elite levels.
The Spurs are largely a star-driven team, though not one that relies on heavy doses of isolation. Though the Spurs have survived brief stretches without one or more of their three stars, their system isn’t meant to replace a missing superstar, it’s meant to enhance the ones on hand.
The Spurs role players are a highly skilled combination of shooting, passing, and cutting, though few work well in creating shots against a set defense. They rely on Parker, Duncan, or Manu Ginobili--when he’s playing well--to provide open shots and driving lanes.
In return they afford the three stars the spacing needed to operate efficiently, as none of them are ideally suited anymore to operating in tight spaces for prolonged periods of time. It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship that sustains the Spurs stars near elite levels and raises the play of the rest of the team.
Neither team should be favored in a series versus the Oklahoma City Thunder or Miami Heat, though it shouldn’t be a surprise to see either team pull off a victory. That alone is enough reason to give pause and appreciate the fine work of Karl and Popovich, and both teams front offices, in seeking unconventional routes towards a championship.