San Antonio is not usually the first place that comes to mind when you ae looking for one of the National Basketball Association's most disciplined teams. Isn't this the franchise that doesn't like to play defense, split 82 games last year, and had so much trouble winning on the road?
Generally once you've mentioned the Spurs' all-league guard, George (the Iceman) Gervin, who is working on his fourth consecutive NBA scoring championship, you've said it all. Post-game headlines in San Antonio often used to read: "Gervin scores 39; Spurs lose!"
However, this was before the arrival of new Head Coach Stan Albeck, who has the best perm-haircut in the league, knows the secrets of communication and defense, and has occasionally gotten himself involved in the 25-hour day.
Except for an unusual set of circumstances, specifically the sale of the Cleveland franchise to TEd Stepien, who wanted to shake things up with wholesale changes, Albeck would probably still be coaching the Cavaliers. Under Stan, they improved by seven games in the win column last year and practically made the playoffs with a nine-game victory streak at the end of the season.
Now that he is with San Antonio, Albeck has taken the worst defensive team in the league, one that allowed an average of almost 120 points a game last season, and taught it how to make opponents pay a price for every basket.
Stan has his players getting back quickly to defend against the fast break, treating every rebound as though it were a dividend check, and often contesting the man with the ball even before he crosses midcourt.
"Right from our first practive together, I got the idea that these guys were looking for a sense of direction," Albeck explained. "So I decided to analyze every basic offensive play in the NBA and then find a way to defense it. Well, there are about 20 offensive plays and we've got certain rules now on how to handle them all.
"I also decided to break down what my players had done invividually in the past so that I could understand their strengths and weaknesses better," he continued. "For one thing, instead of everybody getting involved in the offense , what we had were too many guys ending up taking jump shots. Instead of getting our share of layups, it seemd like we were always taking the worst percentage shots.
"Defensively the potential was there to play hard and stop other people, only it wasn't being used. Now, of course, we not only do things together but we understand just how important this is."
What the Spurs have become under Albeck is a big, rough, highly disciplined team whose front line would not look out of place in football uniforms. In fact shoulder pads would not be necessary.
Free-agent center George Johnson is 6 ft., 11 in. tall and 220 pounds. The two starting forwards, Mark Olberding and John Shumate, are both 6-9 and in the vicinity of 230 pounds.
Although speed is not one of their assets, all three are capable of either blocking their opponents off the board or going in and getting the rebound themselves. And Albeck has been getting good help from reserves like 6-11 Dave Corzine and 6-9 forward Paul Griffin and Kevin Restani.
The loss of former Spurs forward Larry Kenon, who went the free-agent route and signed with the Chicago Bulls, was considered a severe blow at the time. Kenon is a consistent 20-point scorer, who led the team in rebounds last season. But in leaving, Larry also took his defensive liabilities with him and so far hasn't been missed that much.
Gervin is the human scoring machine who has discovered, under Albeck, that it is possible to play some defense without losing anything offensively. Playing next to George in the Spurs' backcourt is James Silas, formerly one of the brightest stars in the old American Basketball Association, who has proved just the right man to run Albeck's patterned offense.
San Antonio (and this hardly seems necessary, considering the NBA's super pay scale) has also provided its players with a cash incentive bonus that goes into effect as soon as the team wins 36 games.
For example, if the Spurs win all their games between 36 and 56, Gervin would be able to add $300,000 to his basic salary of $600,000 a season, with the rest of the players also benefiting.