Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Spurs Are Now Elite Offensively- Have They Forsaken Defense?

One of the interesting and unexpected developments of the 2010-11 season has been the emergence of the Spurs as one of the league’s highest-scoring teams.

Following Wednesday night’s 111-94 win over the Golden State Warriors, they rank fourth in NBA, at 106.9 points per game, and are second in assists, with 24 per game. Racking up huge scoring numbers has not been the Spurs’ M.O. under Popovich, but with Duncan impact at the offensive end waning and the rest of team’s best players now all residing on the perimeter, a shift in styles was called for.

And has it ever taken!

Tony Parker (17 ppg, 7.1 apg) is still one of the NBA’s top-seven PGs, though his name is seldom mentioned as one of the best at his position. Manu Ginobili is healthy and having his best season, averaging 20.1 ppg (his first time over 20), 3.6 rpg and 5.1 apg (a career high), cementing himself in the NBA’s elite once again.

Also, heading up the supporting cast, Richard Jefferson (14.6 ppg, 4 rpg) has thrived this season. While he’s averaging just a bucket more per game and shooting almost the same percentage from the field (though his 3-point percentage is way up; 43% from ~32%), thanks to a summer spent working with Popovich, Jefferson’s now draining the Spurs’ patented “corner 3” and has transformed himself from an eight-figure albatross to an indispensable rotation player and glue guy.

So, yeah, the offense has been reinvented, and is clicking.

Meanwhile, at the defensive end, the Spurs are allowing 97.6 ppg, 11th in the NBA and the most in the Duncan era (for the second straight year), up from 96.3 a year ago. What's up? Is Gregg Popovich slowly morphing into Don Nelson? Are the Spurs the same elite team defensively that they’ve been for the past dozen or so years?

At first glance one would be tempted to say that they’re not, given the upticks in points against and the visible effects of age on Duncan’s game. However, it’s important to remember that playing at a faster pace creates more possessions per game, for both team, and that the increased points scored against the Spurs is partly a function of their new-look offense.

Additionally, much like they did on offense, the Spurs have reinvented themselves defensively and are playing aggressively (9.1 spg; 2nd in the NBA) and excelling in a handful of areas that suggest the added points there are scoring are not coming easily.

First off, they are the best in the NBA in Opponents’ Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA) at 25.1%, meaning Spurs’ opponents only shoot one free throw for every four shots attempts (league average is 31.6%).

They are top-shelf in terms of making plays on D (4th in the league with 16 blocks+ steals+ charges taken per game) and are a top-10 defensive rebounding team, grabbing 75.1% of available defensive rebounds, limiting the opposition’s cracks at their basket.

The Spurs rank fourth in the NBA in lowest Opponents’ Assist Rate (% of opponents’ baskets that are assisted) at 53.74%- this is significant because it suggests that opposing teams are relying on lower-percentage isolation plays for their hoops and aren’t setting up a lot of easy buckets through efficient ball movement. On a related note, 19% of opponents’ possessions end in an assist (league average is 19.9), while 14.8% of opponents’ possessions end in turnover (v. 13.8% league average). For those keeping score, the average ratio of opponents’ possessions ending in assists/turnovers is 1.44, while the Spurs’ ratio is 1.28. (Thanks to HoopData for the, well, data)

So, the Spurs are now near the top of the NBA in scoring and are allowing more points than they have in years past. But make no mistake, defense is still a priority for the Spurs, who remain among the NBA’s elite at making opponents work for their points.

What did I think of the Spurs heading into the season? Check out the Hardwood Hype 2010-11 San Antonio Spurs season preview


Marty said...

Excellent post. You covered a lot of statistical ground but the one other stat that certainly supports the fact that they are playing just as well defensively, if not better, is this - they are allowing 102.4 points per 100 possessions. That's good for eighth in the NBA. More importantly, it is an improvement over the 2009-10 season when they allowed 104.5 points per 100 possessions.

Emile Avanessian said...

Marty, great addition! That is a valuable piece of information that frankly slipped through cracks amid my other number crunching.

Thanks for the contribution!