One Team, One Stat: New Lineup Helped Spurs Re-establish Defensive Identity

From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next are the San Antonio Spurs, who were seconds away from a fifth championship.

The basics
SAS Rank
W-L 58-24 3
Pace 96.4 6
OffRtg 105.9 7
DefRtg 99.2 3
NetRtg +6.8 3

The stat

87.7 - Points allowed per 100 possessions by the Spurs’ starting lineup – Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter – in 364 minutes together last season.

The context

That mark was the league’s best among 58 lineups that played at least 200 minutes together and was over 15 points per 100 possessions better than the league average.

After eight years of defensive regression and two straight seasons of being ranked 11th on that end of the floor, the Spurs improved to third in defensive efficiency last season. And as beautiful as their offense has been over the last few years, it was the defensive improvement that got them back to The Finals.

San Antonio ranked sixth defensively on Dec. 23, when Gregg Popovich went to this starting lineup permanently (or at least, in games in which guys weren’t injured or resting). So they already were improved, and they basically allowed the same number of points per 100 possessions after that point (99.1) as they did before it (99.3).

But having a lineup that consistently holds opponents under 90 points per 100 possessions is a great way to start games. The new Spurs starters did just about everything well defensively.

Spurs starters defensive comparison

Lineups/league DefRtg Opp2PT% Opp3PT% DREB% OppTOV% OppFTA/FGA
New starters 87.7 42.6% 32.8% 80.9% 13.8% .148
All Spurs lineups 99.2 46.6% 35.3% 74.9% 15.3% .235
League avg. 103.1 48.3% 35.9% 73.5% 15.3% .270

OppTOV% = Opponent turnovers per 100 possessions

The lineup didn’t force a lot of turnovers, but it defended shots at a rate that would have led the league, rebounded at a rate that would have led the league (by far), and kept opponents off the free throw line at a rate that would have led the league (by far).

Among 67 players 6-10 and taller who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season, Duncan (2.03) averaged the fourth fewest fouls per 36 minutes. Splitter (2.90) was also below that group’s average of 3.38. Roy Hibbert, aka “Mr. Verticality,” averaged 4.43.

The playoffs brought new challenges, however. After Splitter sprained his ankle in the first round, he returned for Game 2 of the conference semifinals and that Spurs lineup struggled to defend the hot-shooting, small-ball Warriors.

But San Antonio survived that series and the lineup went on to allow the Grizzlies and Heat to score a paltry 78.0 points per 100 possessions over the next eight games. Here are some defensive possessions from those two series…


Spurs playoff efficiency with Parker, Green, Leonard,
Duncan and Splitter on the floor

Opponent GP MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
L.A. Lakers 3 40 99.8 95.9 +3.9 +5
Golden State 4 43 96.5 110.3 -13.8 -10
Memphis 4 51 98.6 80.8 +17.8 +16
Miami 4 33 93.1 73.9 +19.3 +12
Total 15 167 97.3 90.9 +6.4 +23

The defense wasn’t enough to convince Popovich to keep the band together though. He inserted Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup for Game 5 of The Finals, a moved that helped Ginobili play his best game of the postseason and helped the Spurs get to within one win of their fifth championship. Splitter played just 23 minutes over the final three games, almost entirely as Duncan’s back-up.

Playoff series are small sample sizes and certain matchups can take what was a great lineup in the regular season and render it useless. And though that lineup defended well all year, it did struggle offensively in the postseason. The Spurs’ offense was much more efficient with an additional shooter on the floor.

But this lineup will be back on the floor to start this season. While the big three is a year older, Green (26), Leonard (22), and Splitter (28) have proven that they can pick up some of the slack. More importantly, the Spurs have reestablished themselves as a top-five defense.

If they stay relatively healthy this season, the best defensive lineup in the league could be on the floor for a lot more than 386 minutes. And that can make up for any offensive slippage.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

9 Comments

  1. N.1.A.K. says:

    Wow, the Warriors were good in last year’s postseason.

  2. Willy Spurd says:

    Being a long time Spurs fan I am still confused why Duncan was removed late in the game. Maybe Pop doesn’t know that stat? Well he does now! Not bad for a group of old guys who should have retired 3 years ago?

    • Marco29 says:

      Probably the biggest mistale in Pop’s carreer. I don’t knoiw what he was thinking but had Duncan been on the floor, the Heat would certainly not have grabbed 2 offensive boards in a row. Too bad, Let’s hope they get another shot next spring. If everybody stays healthy, it could be feasible even though the competition will be tough.

      • Viriilink says:

        First mistake was having Duncan inbounding the ball instead of on the court looking to catch the ball and shoot free throws. Popovich stayed in character and played the possession same way he would always when the team doesn’t need to score. When the Spurs are the losing team in those type of last posessions, he would have Duncan on the court and Kawhi inbounding instead. Should’ve opted to having Duncan on court and Kawhi inbounding instead in Game 6. Duncan was like 80% free throw shooter while Kawhi was 50% when he was at the line.

        Second, the defensive lineup. I believe he had Gary Neal and Tony Parker in there. Parker was tired and he should’ve took him out and they could’ve done better than Neal. Perhaps Ginobili, Green, Leonard, McGrady, and Diaw if no Duncan, or Splitter. I forgot the circumstances in those Miami’s possessions.

        Third, IMO I think they should’ve protected the three and allow Miami the two. Now, they missed their three point attempt, but no way you could predict that beforehand. You saw the Spurs defending behind the three point line during those defensive possessions..

  3. chiell spurs fan says:

    Duncan is the weakness of the spurs goldinboye??what planet do you come from??

  4. goldinboye says:

    but duncan was way overrated all his career, he was the weakness of the spurs…. (troll, tim is the best PF ever, by far)

  5. goldinboye says:

    coach pop knows what need to be done, and the players know that he knows. great minds, great efforts, always behave, no hype, defense, and victory. legendary franchise, pop, parker, ginobili