In 2011 the Raptors purchased a 1,300 pound rock and placed it outside Toronto’s locker room. At the time new Head Coach Dwane Casey tasked his charges to focus on the theme ‘Pound the Rock’ as the squad sought to establish a new identity.
Seven seasons later the Raptors are in the midst of their most successful run in franchise history. Moreover, Toronto are on pace for another 50 win season (57 to be exact), rank top six in the three main stat categories and boast a seemingly perfect roster balance of developing youth and star talent in their primes. One might say the Raptors are bordering on emulating their role models – the San Antonio Spurs.
In fact the “Pound the Rock” theme is associated with coaching savant Gregg Popovich who adopted the quote as a theme in the early 90’s. Popovich wasn’t moved or amused by the typical locker room motivational themes found the Jacob Riis quote and quickly adopted it as the Spurs’ motto.
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” -Jacob Riis
Clearly the Spurs are the definitive example of franchise success having produced 19 consecutive 50 win seasons (ignoring the strike shortened 98-99 season when the Spurs 74% win percentage equated to 60 wins). In the same period the Spurs played in 10 Western Conference Finals, six NBA Finals and won five titles. Suffice to say the Raptors set the bar high when selecting a role model.
Like speaks to like:
Although reaching the loftier accomplishments of the Spurs brilliance still seems far off, the Raptors have successfully replicated much of the quality aspects of the San Antonio Spurs system.
Home cooking: The Spurs and Raptors own the best home records in the NBA; San Antonio is 19-2 at the AT&T Center while the Raptors are 16-3 at the Air Canada Center.
Defensive prowess: Both clubs rank in the top ten on the defensive end of the court with the Spurs second (101.0) and the Raptors sixth (103.1) respectively.
The 30-win club: Only five teams have won 30 games: Boston (34) and Toronto (30) in the east, with Golden State (37), Houston (31) and San Antonio (30) in the west.
Leading up to this season the Spurs consistently had the top reserve unit in the NBA. This season the Spurs have been hard pressed to replicate this dominance given the copious njuries they’ve had to navigate.
- 2013-14: Spurs (1st) plus +16.6 differential | Raptors (17th) minus -1.6
- 2014-15: Spurs (1st) plus +13.0 differential | Raptors (5th) plus +6.8
- 2015-16: Spurs (1st) plus +11.4 differential | Raptors (7th) plus +3.0
- 2016-17: Spurs (1st) plus +11.8 differential | Raptors (13th) plus +1.4
- 2017-18: Spurs (12th) plus +3.9 differential | Raptors (4th) plus +7.0
As per John Schuhmann’s chart the Spurs also had the best aggregate bench net rating in three of the past four seasons.
To reiterate, decimated by injuris it’s remarkable the Spurs remain in the top five of aggregate net rating. An interesting side note is the Raptors bench (which the majority of pundits expected to be Toronto’s key weakness) rank third. Additionally, of these top five net ranked benches the Raptors reserves have the best defense (third in NBA) and rank third offensively (4th in NBA).
Factoring into the Spurs reserve rating is the copious man games lost due to injury, particularly of their starters. Kawhi Leonard has only played in nine games. Additionally core players Tony Parker (26), Danny Green (11) and Rudy Gay (12) have all missed significant time. This meant Popovich had to dig deeper into his reserve unit. Recently the Spurs bench rating improved no doubt due to the return of Parker, Green and Leonard briefly. The other factor not to be ignored is the inimitable Manu Ginobili who is like fine wine (maybe that’s why Popovich is so endeared to him). Ginobili runs the bench unit with a steady hand and continues to impress despite his 40 years.
The Jerry West Theory:
A scan of the Spurs roster reminds of Jerry West’s theory of how to comprise a title winner. In essence West believed in an equal distribution of roles. Breaking it down further West likely imagined a team featuring three to four players who fell into the category of star, vet, youth, or specialty role player. The latter could be a glue guy, three point/defensive specialist or an energy guy.
A look at the Spurs offers pretty much precisely that:
- Stars: Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay
- Vets: Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol. Danny Green
- Youth: Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Joffrey Lauvergne, Derrick White, Brandon Paul
- Specialty: Patty Mills/Davis Bertans – 3 point specialist, Kyle Anderson (all around game)
Comparatively, the Raptors stars are also their vets and they are heavier in the youth category. There is an argument to be made in the new era of position-less, fast paced basketball this may be an advantage. Especially when squads can marry that with deep playoff runs to gain experience.
Heading into games on January 18, how has your favorite NBA team fared on both ends of the floor throughout the 2017-18 season: pic.twitter.com/H4Yock4lQg
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) January 18, 2018
Battle to avoid Warriors:
As much as the Spurs have battled without key players remarkably they remain in third and are on pace to win 53 games. Earlier this week the Wolves passed the Spurs to momentarily take over the third seed, but subsequently lost two games and now trail San Antonio by 1.5 games. Coincidentally the Raptors could play spoiler by beating both squads in this weekend’s back-to-back set.
The Rockets, Spurs and Wolves appear destined to capture home court seeds, but it will be a battle to finish second or third in an effort to avoid the Warriors until the Western Conference Finals.
Upon completion of the regular season the Spurs trump their opponents (other than the Warriors) in one category — playoff experience. Regardless of what Leonard, Parker, Ginobili, Green and Mills do on the court their 11 rings and multiple trips to finals are a massive advantage. Teams often search for one player with title experience and in the end perhaps this is why the Spurs never look nonplussed in stressful situations or clutch time.
In the squad’s first meeting this season Toronto held their own with the teams deadlocked until midway through the final frame. The Raptors were still adapting to their pass friendly system and fell into old iso ball habits late in the game. Jonas Valanciunas was out injured and Norman Powell was still starting. Obviously, 40 games later the teams have progressed.
Despite their roster shuffles and offensive growth the Raptors will undoubtedly be hyper focused on containing Raptor killers LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Both Spurs big men have made a living feasting on the Raptors throughout their careers. Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker didn’t play in the first match. Rudy Gay, Manu Ginobili and Leonard won’t play in this meeting. But, much like the Raptors the Spurs have capable youngsters who adeptly run Popovich’s system.
Aside from finding an answer for Aldridge the key focus will be navigating the Spurs stifling defense and variety of youthful talents. X-factors for the Raptors could be Jakob Poeltl who registered a double-double of 10 points and 13 rebounds in the first meeting and Delon Wright who will offer an answer to some of the lengthier guards on the Spurs.
Rebounding will be another area of focus as the Spurs killed Toronto on the glass 56-33 in the loss October 23.
Spurs Seesaw Trend:
Working in Toronto’s favor is an odd trend the Spurs have been experiencing through their past 11 games. Going back to December 28, 2017 the Spurs have alternated wins and losses. The last game kept to this pattern with the Spurs defeating the Brooklyn Nets, so if San Antonio stay on trend this should be a loss for them and a win for the Raptors.
Pound the Rock:
Staying focused, building consistency and growing over the 39 remaining regular season games is the Raptors current priority. A lack of appreciation (or awareness) south of the border is another area the Raptors could emulate the Spurs. Toronto should use it to fuel their efforts, but also be appreciative for the absence of a daily spotlight which would constantly dissect the team. In Casey’s era the Raptors have performed better in the underdog, underappreciated role; perhaps they should be thankful to be in that position.
Ultimately, for the Raptors to complete the goal of transitioning into their doppelganger they’ll need to earn a final’s berth. In this scribe’s opinion the 2017-18 squad has the best opportunity in franchise history to check off that box.
Long before that can become a reality however, Toronto must take each regular season game one at a time. And, while that huge boulder now sits in Dwane Casey’s office the pound the rock theme is no less relevant.
Capturing a victory tonight won’t split the boulder in two, but it will serve as a benchmark for this young Raptors squad.
- Fred VanVleet missed the Pistons game with a right knee contusion and is questionable for tonight.
- *C.J. Miles tweaked his ankle in the Pistons game, but finished game and no reports have noted hims as a concern to this point
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) January 18, 2018
(of note: in the above TPA breakdown that is OG Anunoby hiding directly under Kawhi Leonard!)
SAN ANTONIO SPURS STARTING 5:
Point Guard: Tony Parker
Shooting Guard: Danny Green
Small Forward: Kyle Anderson
Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge
Center: Pau Gasol
SAN ANTONIO SPURS RESERVES:
Point Guard: Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, Derrick White
Shooting Guard: Bryn Forbes Brandon Paul
Power Forward: Davis Bertans
Center: Joffrey Lauvergne
- Rudy Gay: has missed the past nine games nursing brusitis in his heel and will not dress this evening.
- Kawhi Leonard the quadricep tendinopathy which kept Leonard out the first 27 games of the season (and along with a shoulder injury another 10 games) has returned him to the injury list with no time frame for a return.
- Manu Ginobili: sadly one of my favorite all-time players will not play this evening as he deals with a thigh contusion.
Venue: Air Canada Center, Toronto, Ontario
Game Time: 7:00 PM ET
TV: TSN 1, 4 and 5
Radio: Sportsnet 590 The FAN
The line: Raptors are favored by 5.5 with an over/under of 206.5 points.