For years, the San Antonio Spurs have been an exemplary franchise.
When Ime Udoka was named the new head coach of the Boston Celtics this summer, the organization landed a bright young mind. Like many Spurs assistants before him, Udoka slides into the lead chair while his new team hopes he can sprinkle in that special sauce from San Antonio.
It isn’t just culture that has made the Spurs great though. Gregg Popovich has been a fantastic tactician for over twenty years, evolving with the game and running one of the deepest playbooks in the league. Any coach (or player) under him leaves well versed in how to design a system that stands on its own with wrinkles that fit their best players.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Udoka will run with this team. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown present different building blocks than he’s been around in his career. What we can do, however, is surmise what elements of the Spurs playbook he could bring with him to complement the current stars on this Celtics roster.
Tatum and Brown aren’t the first wing scorers who thrive in isolation that Udoka has coached. DeMar DeRozan thrived with the Spurs the last two years in one-on-one situations, and the San Antonio coaching staff found simple but effective ways to get him to his spots.
The most simplistic was using a common Iverson screen to get him onto the wing, allowing him to turn those plays into quick-move ISO looks and jumpers or more patient, back-down attempts:
Imagining Tatum operating off these actions is really not that hard to do. Part of the reason: he’s done it before. Brad Stevens would sprinkle in some counters out of the same formation built around Tatum and Brown:
Udoka was one of Popovich’s prized disciples before moving on to both Philadelphia and Brooklyn. In those spots, he’s worked under some great coaches. Brett Brown, a member of the San Antonio coaching tree himself, helped the Sixers achieve regular season success. Steve Nash, who learned from offensive wizard Mike D’Antoni, brought some pace-and-space principles to Brooklyn that should rub off on Udoka moving forward, as they do with nearly any D’Antoni disciple.
We saw elements of that D’Antoni style in Summer League, when the Celtics ran a lot of 5-out motion. That could be Udoka’s desire, or it could have been Joe Mazzulla playing the hand dealt in Vegas. The C’s lacked strong talent at the big man spots; their team this season will likely feature multiple bigs sharing the floor for stretches of time.
In that sense, the Spurs are a great team to look to. Popovich was one of the last holdovers into the two-big era and built five NBA championships around high-low looks.
A staple of San Antonio’s playbook was always their work out of Zipper sets in the half-court. A handler would start on the side, letting a wing (like Tatum or Brown) shoot up the lane line from the block to the 3-point line. What followed were multiple actions or options, including high ball screens, a baseline triple screen for a shooting point guard (hello, Dennis Schröder) or various counters based on personnel.
What I note most about the Zipper sets, especially Zip PNR, is the ability to run them in one-big or two-big lineups. When the C’s go large with Al Horford and Robert Williams on the floor together, the spacing can work by sending one big to the short corner. If the C’s are a bit smaller, the spread pick-and-roll formation is an easy wrinkle to add. None of this is overly complex, but that’s the beauty: easy ways to get Boston’s best the ball where they need it.
Speaking of Horford, Celtics fans are no stranger to his fantastic playmaking chops. He’s an exquisite passer from the high post and can create atop the key. One classic Spurs set that takes advantage of a big man’s passing away from the hoop is this scissor play, a doozy for defenses to stop:
Over the past two seasons, Tatum and Brown had a lot of success within actions that would get them the ball on the wing by bringing them out from the free throw line and middle of the floor. That screen from an initial big man leading them out could be followed up by a wing isolation, a quick handoff and ball screen combination or some other various wrinkles. They got here a ton out of their “stack” series:
Now imagine tagging that on the back-side with the hammer action, a staple of the Popovich playbook in ATO situations. One of the C’s specialty shooters on the move, such as Aaron Nesmith, would make a killing relocating to the corners:
Udoka cut his teeth under some of the best ATO coaches in the world, from Popovich to D’Antoni. Replacing the value-added that Stevens’ situational wizardry provided shouldn’t be a tall task for the new sideline general. While they’re a small part of the game in comparison to constructing a system and playbook within flow of action, after timeout sets are always a metric to judge coaches by and can swing games in a team’s favor.
Overall, the playbook isn’t the most important part of a coach’s performance. Their interpersonal relations, ability to make their players better and buy into a collective goal are always far more impactful in the long run. The shoes Udoka is filling are quite large, and a strong start with a well-designed offense will go a long way in how he’s perceived out of the gate.