The Spurs most important weapon doesn’t play road games

With his body as protection, Thunder guard Raymond Felton conservatively brought the ball up court with his right hand, using a path Spurs defender Patty Mills, who picked him up the full length, offered. Felton took another shuffle towards the sideline, but in an instant, changed course. The veteran pivoted towards center court and towards a screen set by forward Jerami Grant just outside the three point line. Felton hit the acceleration at just the right time, bursting around the pick and leaving stunned Mills fighting through the wall, and raced towards a softness in the defense. Felton reached the free throw line, rose up from one leg and released a gentle floater that nestled through the nylon for two. The home crowd groaned audibly. The scorekeeper booked two. The lead was now 43-20 in favor of visiting Oklahoma City, their largest of the night, with 9:30 to go in the first half.

The fans in San Antonio weren’t used to an assault like the one they were witnessing. Historically, the Spurs are an exceptional home team. From 2010 to 2017, San Antonio has held strong a remarkable 84% of the time, including an NBA record 40-1 record during the 2016 regular season. Their home success is counter to the NBA trend of home teams losing more in recent years after decades of dominance. (In 1977, home teams won 68.5% of games. In 2015, they won just 53.7%.)

After Felton’s floater, ESPN gave the Thunder a 94.5%-win probability. What happened next was probable—but for different reasons. After scoring just twenty points in the game’s first fifteen minutes, San Antonio went on a 28-12 run to bring the deficit to a manageable seven heading into the halftime break. (ESPN placed the Thunder’s win probability at 69.8% at the start of the third.)

Superficially, the Spurs second quarter run was not exciting: Pau Gasol and Danny Green each scored nine points, LaMarcus Aldridge put in six, and Kyle Anderson chipped in with four. To the casual observer, it was a blend of a concerted offensive effort by the Spurs, a sloppy defensive effort by the Thunder, and the ebb and flow that occurs naturally throughout any basketball game.

After the third quarter, the game was tied. At the end of the fourth, San Antonio again held court with a three-point victory.

When the game was over, nobody seemed surprised that San Antonio was able to pull out the victory. “It was a fine win,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “The guys really dug deep. Pounding the rock. Kept a great attitude, just kept their minds on playing basic basketball and things turned their way.”

Credit went to the Spurs and their veteran formidability, their focused drive, and their sound principles. It was a resounding example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, where no one player carried the team. It was a classic Spurs game.

And in true Spurs fashion, the game’s most valuable player received no credit.

That player? DJ Quake, the Spurs in-arena DJ.

(Seriously.)

In the seventeen possessions from the Felton bucket to the end of the half, DJ Quake played instrumental music during thirteen possessions. During those thirteen possessions, the Spurs scored 23 points, or 1.77 points per possession. For reference, the Spurs average just 1.044 points per possession in general.

In recent years, NBA teams incorporating instrumental music during gameplay has become the norm. But no DJ has made as much difference to his team’s on-court ability than DJ Quake. When reviewing the film, it becomes obvious how prevalent-and important-his music selection is. As soon as the Spurs get the ball—whether taking it out, a rebound, a turnover—music begins playing, and loudly. And it doesn’t stop until the Spurs possession ends.

Is there a correlation between the success of the Spurs offense and whether DJ Quake plays music?

The short answer? Yes. And the results are actually jaw-dropping.

Over the course of five home games, I surveyed the Spurs offensive possessions and charted whether there was music and the points the possession netted.

In 69 possessions, DJ Quake played music on 56 of those possessions, good for 81%, and the Spurs scored 75 points, or 1.34 points per possession. If the Spurs played music on every offensive possession in every arena, they would have the best offense in the league. Unfortunately for San Antonio, they don’t.

This is where DJ Quake’s value rears its importance: There is a striking dichotomy between the Spurs at home vs. the Spurs on the road.

Home Spurs currently boast a 108.8 offensive rating, good for 9th in the league. Road Spurs? 101.9, or 24th. The -6.9 difference in rating between home and away is the largest differential in all of the NBA.

Team Home oRtg Away oRtg Difference
San Antonio 108.8 101.9 -6.9
Denver 111.8 105.7 -6.1
Atlanta 105.7 100.3 -5.4
New York 106.4 101.5 -4.9

I asked DJ Quake if he thought his music selection affects the Spurs offensive ability.

“Sometimes it helps,” Quake said. “I think the fans help a lot as well, music helps too, but not as much as the fans.”

Does Pop ever request specific songs for plays?

“Pop doesn’t but the players do,” Quake told me.

Quake represents sports growing trend to thinking outside the box. Analytics have permeated every facet of the sports world with teams doing anything they can to extend their margins for success. Billy Beane, the posterboy for sports analytics, told the Washington Post in February that it’s increasingly hard to find an advantage in today’s sports because, “now, we’re all valuing the same things.”

DJ Quake, who has been the Spurs DJ for four seasons, was never drafted. Instead, he was discovered by point guard Tony Parker, where Quake used to spin at Parker’s house parties and club before being brought in to DJ for the Spurs. He is not bound to the NBA’s salary cap.

And while most teams employ an in-arena DJ, none utilize music in the same manner as the Spurs. For example, Indiana uses music on 48% of their possessions, but not anywhere close to the 91-decibel level limit the NBA imposes. And Milwaukee? They rarely exceed 30% utilization in any given game.

So how would music effect a basketball game? The logic is sound: while on offense, DJ Quake plays instrumental music for the entire possession at the max volume allowed. The Spurs, a team revered for ball-movement, gains an additional advantage when opposing defense’s calls for rotations, switches, and plays are drowned out against the sound of music. Coaches on the sideline, who act as additional eyes and guidance for players, are negated on the sideline, leaving defensive players alone on an island.

Not everyone is a fan of DJ Quake and the Spurs use of music. As a guest on the Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear’s radio show on Sports 1140 KHTK March 2nd at 5:00 PM, we talked about the Spurs music inclinations.

“It’s the worst in the league. It’s embarrassing, in my opinion, it’s embarrassing,” Napear told me.

“It can make a difference,” Doug Christie, a four time All-Defensive team selection, said on the show. “It’s definitely possible.”

“It can be where communication is tough. But if you got guys who are yelling and talking and grabbing each other, then it depends on how far you are on your communication chain because the higher the level of communication, it doesn’t matter where you’re at.”

(When asked for to respond to Napear’s comments, Quake said everyone is entitled to their opinion.)

*************************************************************************************

Heading into the fourth quarter of their March 3rd game against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Spurs were rolling. Their offense had scored thirty plus points in each of the game’s first three quarters and they held a commanding 11 point lead over a young, yet fiery Laker team. It was a desperately needed performance for San Antonio, who were losers in three straight home games, a rare occurrence during twenty-five years of dominance.

With 6:44 to go and a twelve point lead, ESPN’s win probability model had the Spurs at a 97.4% chance of winning. But no lead is safe during the Spurs tumultuous season. The lead would evaporate behind a barrage of three point shots from Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The Spurs lost the game 116-112, their first four game home losing streak in sixteen years.

For the first 42 minutes, the Spurs offense was fluid. In the final six minutes, they scored just eight points before a useless three pointer with six seconds left.

The difference? The Spurs use of music in the game’s final stretch. In the final 15 possessions, DJ Quake played music just twice, one of which was the Chicken Dance.

“Actually, in the fourth quarter, Coyote used Possession more often than before,” Quake text me after the game. (Possession refers to the Spurs team leading a “Go Spurs Go!” chant in lieu of music.)

Who’s decision was it to play Possession down the stretch? Is DJ Quake starting to feel the fatigue of an NBA season?

“Coyote asks the Game Operations manager.”

The Spurs are in unfamiliar territory with less than a month to go before the start of the playoffs: fighting for their livelihood. Currently the 7th seed, they are tied with the Pelicans, the 8th seed, and just two games ahead of the Nuggets and the Clippers for a playoff spot. In their last twelve games, seven are at home.

I asked DJ Quake if he thought the Spurs could advance deep into the playoffs without his services in crucial playoff games, which the Spurs are almost assured to be playing on the road. There was no response.

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