Why Spurs might be NBA’s best team


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.

21 Comments

  1. Todd says:

    Dubs for the repeat!

  2. Raptor4Life says:

    I’ll be VERY interested to watch a couple of regular season games between the Warriors and the Spurs to see how they play out. Of course, Pop might just decide to “throw” those games (“resting” key players) to not tip his hand before the games that REALLY matter – the playoffs.
    The Thunder may well be in the mix, but I think 5 excellent players will beat 2 great / 3 good players 4 games out of 7 when it is all done.

  3. Duke says:

    If you’ve followed the Spurs over the many winning seasons, you most likely would have noticed that Tony Parker this season has not had to run at full speed to keep them in games. When Parker’s traditional play is needed in the playoffs, he will give the Spurs the ability to turn it up a notch as the energy against the contenders. Pop every season plays around with many line ups until after the rodeo road trip (Feb) and by then, the Spurs should have a well oiled machine. All the players will be well rested for the playoffs because of their point differential, a league best as of today. …I don’t recall a Spurs team that has so much potential at this point early in the season. It’s going to be a great year and with a lucky bounce or two they should go deep into the playoffs.

  4. Fefe (Nets) says:

    The Spurs will be scary come playoff time. They will again rack up 50+ wins in the regular season (60 wins can happen), the 2nd seed in the West (I think over the Thunder for the 2nd seed) and 2nd seed overall in the playoffs.
    Aldridge is playing better as of late, and the Spurs as a whole are improving. Leonard is in MVP discussion and a surefire All-Star (there’s time, LA can also be this year if he continues to improve and get acclimated to the Spurs’ system).

    They will be better this year than last year.

  5. tekamotz says:

    how about the LA FAKERS

  6. Rumbero says:

    The Warriors are playing great, however i really believe there schedule has been on their side for now. Eventually they will have to play with the bests teams which they haven’t faced yet. eg Spurs 4, Cavs 2, Miami 2, OKC 3, and the West will eventually get better as the season goes by. Spurs are the team to beat.

    • dedefr says:

      You realize that the Spurs have had an easier schedule than the Warriors so far right? Actually the easiest schedule in the league (as of the 13th, last power rankings).

    • dedefr says:

      The Spurs have had the easiest schedule in the league so far (as of Dec 13th, last power rankings). Cannot say anything about schedule for the Warriors without mentioning this.

  7. Mike says:

    Thanks for this, I’ve been looking for someone to write up the stats like this for days now. This team looks scary, knowing they still have upside and those of us that follow the games knows that Pop yanks players to keep them healthier for the post season rather than worry about a loss that night. This also helps the development of new players finishing the game(s).

    Nothing against GState though – what a terrific start to this season and hat’s off to their win last year. Gonna be a fun ride for us SPURS fans!

  8. Defdun says:

    Spurs are lovin this current scenario with GS getting all the spotlight and them coming from behind. They are the only ones who can stop the Dubs and Kawhi Leonard has become an amazing player on both ends of the floor. Whoever will be No.1 seed in the West will have a valuable advantage for the playoffs and will also provide the MVP – Curry or Kawhi…
    Great stats, thks

  9. Defdun says:

    I can feel the Spurs are loving this current scenario with Golden State getting all the spotlight and them getting better by the week and coming from behind. Kawhi Leonard has become such an amazing player – not flashy but super efficient on O and best perimeter defender in the league today. Whoever comes in first in the West will provide the MVP. Curry or Kawhi! Spurs should be the only ones capable of stopping GSW…and as mentioned below, no. 1 spot will be very valuable.
    Great stats – Thanks

  10. Dustin says:

    BIG Spurs fan, but . . . it may be a bit too early to compare the Spurs to the 2015 world champs, who are currently 24-1 (who’s ever heard of that?) . . . I love all of the in-depth stats, but at the end of the day, it’s all about who’s winning. I hope these great stats can pay off big time for the Spurs – and they already have to a certain extent, but let’s just hope that GS starts remembering how to lose, because a 70+ win team will be an incredibly difficult animal to overthrow, come playoff time.

    • hardcore nba casual fan says:

      Why? is the spurs not winning enough?

    • Pmart says:

      Spurs are the only team that can be mentioned with the Warriors. Sure, the Warriors are the defending champs but let’s not forget that the Spurs won it the year before also. These two teams are the champs and elites of the past 2 years. It will be a great match up between them.

  11. Joe says:

    Great work, thank you!

  12. Amitpal says:

    The only three real contenders in the west are warriors, Spurs and thunder. I feel like anyone of those teams can come out of the west. I know the thunder aren’t making as much noise as the Spurs and warriors but they are the only team that has two top 5 players in the league and in the playoffs the stars shine a lot.

    • Jason says:

      You’re absolutely right. There’s really only those three in the West. And amongst them you have a three former MVPs (Duncan, Curry, Durant) and four potential MVPs (Curry, Leonard, Durant, Westbrook). The teams are all in a relative balance health wise, which is always necessary. Finally, they all have radically different schemes. The Dubs are small-ball gods, the Spurs are the beautifully Iron Defense game, and the OKC can kill anyone and everyone with a small-lineup ISO game. It’s going to be a trip at the end of the season. To me, whichever one doesn’t meet the others in the second round will win the NBA championship.

      In the East, the Cavs are very good, but don’t have the right parts for a deep run (as we saw last year, and that hasn’t really changed), and deep teams like the Dubs and Spurs can just outlast the offensive blitz in a seven game series that the Cavs are capable of. It’s Those four and all the rest in the NBA barring additional major injuries.

    • Chris says:

      Thunder are disorganized offensively and defensively.
      Two volume shooters who shoot plenty of long twos which reduce overall efficiency don’t make a team a contender.

    • Kevin says:

      I agree with you Amitpal. I think the Thunder are the exact reason why you want to be the number one seed going into the playoffs – to avoid them!