VIDEO: How LaMarcus Aldridge is slowly fitting in more with the Spurs
By Will Laws, Special to NBA.com
Despite their historic 24-1 record, the Golden State Warriors are not the most dominant team in the NBA today. That title currently belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, who have quietly accumulated the league’s best scoring margin (+342) and average point differential (+13.2) while winning 21 of their first 26 games.
How have Tim Duncan and Co. managed to stave off Father Time and team up with the Warriors to create a clear two-team hierarchy at the top of the once crowded Western Conference? In NBA.com’s first editorial collaboration with data visualization site PointAfter, we’ll explain why we should seriously consider the Spurs as Team 1-B (or 1-A) in the West.
Leonard raises his game — again
Kawhi Leonard has taken yet another step forward on offense while maintaining his attentive work rate on defense.
Leonard is averaging career bests in points (20.8), rebounds (7.6) and assists (2.6). His PER has increased for the third successive season, from 16.4 in 2012-13 to 27.5 today. That’s good enough for fourth in the league, behind only Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Put simply, he’s blossomed into San Antonio’s most consistent scorer and finest perimeter defender. He’ll be competing for Kia MVPs as soon as Curry comes back to Earth.
The most surprising development has been Leonard’s improved 3-point shot, which is suddenly rivaling Curry’s.
Leonard’s shooting stroke has come a long way since his college days, when he only made 25 percent of his 3-pointers (at the shorter collegiate distance, mind you). Heck, it’s even markedly improved since he shot 34.9 percent last season.
A noted gym rat and favorite pupil of Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, Leonard has made a whopping 48.9 percent of his 3-pointers, tops among all qualified players.
And these haven’t just been the corner treys San Antonio loves to exploit. Nearly one of five Leonard’s shots are 3-pointers above the break. He makes 47.9 percent of them, while the league-average for that zone is 34.3 percent.
Note: You can hover over different zones to see Leonard’s conversion rates compared to the league average.
Parker brutally efficient
Tony Parker’s career-high 57.1 field goal percentage is unheard of for a guard. He is fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage, a category usually reserved for bigs who play near the basket.
The next closest guard to Parker? Curry (51.7 percent), who ranks 16th.
The Spurs have been their usual efficient selves on offense under Parker’s guidance, ranking second in assists per game (25.1) and shooting percentage (48 percent), including fourth from 3-point range (37 percent).
It is true Parker has stepped back as a scorer this season, with his 12.8 points per game average the lowest since his rookie season.
But that’s been his choice. He has instead found a way to lead San Antonio’s gorgeous pass-heavy scheme to new heights.
Duncan-Ginobili remains a great 1-2 punch
Duncan and Manu Ginobili are a combined 77 years old. And yet, they still school players barely half their age when they play together.
No two-man combo with 100 minutes played this season has posted a better net rating (+35.0) than the longtime teammates. Oddly enough, the next-closest duo is the Toronto Raptors’ Cory Joseph and Jonas Valanciunas (+29.7 net rating).
Both Duncan and Ginobili have their floor time limited by coach Gregg Popovich during the regular season to keep them fresh. But this pair should be deployed as often as possible during the playoffs whenever the Spurs need to go on a run.
Ginobili has an especially profound effect on San Antonio’s offense. The team’s offensive rating improves by 13.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Some great home cookin’
Popovich’s crew is 13-0 at home this year, and hasn’t lost a regular season at the AT&T Center since March 12.
They only have one loss to sub-.500 teams — a road defeat to the New Orleans Pelicans as they welcomed star Anthony Davis back from a sore shoulder — and are 11-4 against teams over .500, with only one double-digit defeat on their schedule.
They’re not too shabby on the road, either. On Saturday, San Antonio dismantled Atlanta by a score of 103-78. The Hawks were held to 25 first-half points, the worst effort by any team this season.
Defense gets even better
Speaking of San Antonio’s defense: the Spurs were already quite stingy on that end last season, logging the NBA’s third-best defensive rating with 99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. This season, however, they’ve discovered a new level of defensive proficiency.
San Antonio is first in defensive rating (91.8) by nearly five points over second-place Miami (96.5), who are closer to 15th-place Atlanta (101.0) as they are to the Spurs. They’re second in opponents’ field goal percentage (41.8 percent), and are the best in the league at defending 3-pointers (30.6 percent).
With big, rangy defenders like Leonard and Duncan limiting penetration and controlling the boards, San Antonio also has the league’s highest defensive rebounding rate (80.9 percent) and rank in the top five of points allowed in the paint.
Popovich has constructed perhaps his greatest defensive team, which is quite a feat.
What about that Aldridge fella?
The scariest part about all this is that the Spurs’ shiny, new offseason acquisition, LaMarcus Aldridge, hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet as much as he did in Portland. But, then again, he doesn’t need to in his new digs.
Popovich told ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright that Aldridge has been “deferring” on offense to fit in, but is “getting used to this system more and more every game.”
Does that mean this Spurs squad hasn’t even peaked yet? They’re certainly coming on as of late, claiming seven 20-point victories in their last 10 games. They have an NBA-best nine such wins this season after recording 11 all of last season.
If San Antonio truly can stand to improve, the Warriors can’t afford to pull a Jimmy Butler and remove their rear-view mirrors. Because the Spurs are closing the gap between themselves and the defending champs — if they haven’t done so already.
Will Laws is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA players, NBA historical teams and dozens of other topics.