What if the Spurs aren’t THAT good??
You’ve heard it all year- it’s a season with two historically great NBA teams, the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. The Warriors are defending champions and may well end up revered as the greatest team in NBA history. The Spurs have one of the greatest defenses ever, if not the best, and perhaps even better advanced numbers than the Warriors.
You’ve seen all of the metrics. The Warriors and Spurs have point differentials that look like typos. The efficiency metrics are so far ahead of the rest of the league that it messes up all of the charts and graphs. In this new era of sports, the numbers don’t lie. Ever. If the computer says it is so then it must be true. Our new way of judging efficiency and greatness is an endless heap of formulas. And every formula proves the Spurs greatness anew.
The team is just as stacked on paper as it is in the computers:
- Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, & Tim Duncan as a dominating starting five of proven winners
- Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, David West, & Boris Diaw as stacked a bench as you can find, a quintet of guys that could hang with most starting lineups in the league for a half or two
- Andre Miller, Kevin Martin, Jonathon Simmons, Matt Bonner, & Boban Marjanovic as a laughable third lineup, all of them guys that would be in most other teams’ playoff rotations
These are winners, names that we have come to respect over the years, and all behind the best coaching staff in the league. So when the paper looks this good and the numbers back it up, no one asks any questions.
But what about age and health? For such an old team- they recently added Andre Miller and Kevin Martin and barely nudged their average age- they’ve been remarkably healthy this year. The top four guys in minutes per game (Kawhi, LMA, Danny, and TP) have missed an average of 4 games each. West, Diaw, Mills, and Anderson have been healthy all year too. Only Duncan and Manu have missed extended time and even then not much. When the other teams all add 5–10 minutes to their top guys come playoff time, will the Spurs vets be able to ramp up? And as good as the bench is, they’re still a downgrade when the inevitable injury comes to Duncan or Parker or Manu.
And what about the schedule so far? The Spurs have had one of the league’s easiest- and one of the hardest the rest of the way. Against the other widely accepted top teams in the NBA, San Antonio has been anything but dominant. They’re 0–1 against the Warriors, 0–1 against the Thunder, and 1–1 against both the Cavs and the Clips. Heck they’re just 1–2 against other East “contenders” Toronto and Chicago.
San Antonio has piled up all of those dominant efficiency metrics against the league’s doormats, but they’re just 3–6 against teams they could face in May or June once the second round of the playoffs hits. In the next week they’ll face OKC, the Clips, the red hot Blazers, and the Ws, and there’s still 2 more against the Warriors and Grizz and games against the Raptors and Thunder after that. It’s about to get real.
What games do you remember this year where the Spurs laid the smack down, when they looked like an all time great NBA team? There have been standout games by OKC, LAC, and Cleveland. Heck there are probably 10 or 15 such incredible Warriors games this year. What Spurs games do you remember? What Spurs wins do you remember?
These Spurs are a very good team, no doubt. What makes them really great, though, is the depth. Kawhi is the superstar, about as good of a #1 as anyone not named Steph. Aldridge is a worthy second banana and was an All Star this year under the teams-this-good-must-have-two-All-Stars clause. He’s a nice efficient player. No one else on the team has a PER above 18 (other than garbage superstar Boban) but they have six other slightly above average guys that play good smart team defense. All of that adds up to a very good team and, in the right year, a regular season machine.
Depth doesn’t get you as far in the playoffs, when benches shorten and go-to lineups play instead of dominant second- and third-string squads that run up scoring margins. The Spurs best regular 3-man lineup is Kawhi, Aldridge, Duncan and clocks in at a robust 8ppg better than opponents over a 48-minute game. That’s pretty good! But it’s not quite as good as trios from Cleveland or LAC (+9ppg) or OKC (over +11ppg), and it is dwarfed by the absurdly dominant Steph, Draymond, Klay trio at almost +21ppg.
Where the Spurs really beat you is team effort. Their 4th best player Tony Parker is a Hall of Famer and better than anyone else’s #4. Diaw and Mills are their 8 and 9- even the Warriors are playing Mo Speights. It’s telling that one of the best Spurs trios consists of Patty, Manu, and Diaw, beating up on opponents’ second strings at +14ppg. In a big game, that trio will be minimized to 8–12 minutes, while the Warriors, Thunder, and Cavs get to roll out more of their superstar lineups.
All of that San Antonio efficiency is a team and a coaching staff that has figured out how to beat the regular season- how to master it. They are top three in the league in offensive two-point, three-point, and free throw percentage as well as assist and foul rate. They’re also fantastic at field goal % defense and at limiting 3s and free throw attempts. In ESPN “Giant Killer” terms, they are a very safe giant. They play smart ball and take quality shots and do all they can to stop the opponent from the same thing.
But what if all that efficiency is already maxed out? What if there’s not a next level for the playoffs? Making most of your 3s and FTs is great, but the Spurs are also in the bottom quarter of the league in both three point attempts and free throw attempts. Shouldn’t a team so good at hitting the best shots in basketball be taking more of them? And are you sure there’s another level- one to hang with those other top teams?
More NBA teams are resting their stars and limiting minutes now, and the league hasn’t felt so top heavy in a long time. More and more teams are treating the regular season like the Spurs- a chance to try out lineups and get ready for the playoffs- instead of playing it like Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls that went hard for 82 games. That means more weak teams and easy games than ever, and maybe the Spurs are still dominant chess players while the rest of the league has opted to play checkers for most of the regular season.
In the end, maybe it’s all just simple logic. After all, what’s more likely…?
That in the history of the NBA, we just happen to have the best offensive and the best defensive teams of all time in the same season?
Or maybe that the league as a whole kind of sucks this year, with a bunch of average and terrible teams- teams capable of making a great team like Steph and the Warriors look magnificent while also making the Spurs (and other teams for stretches) look invincible too?
The Spurs are a very good starting five and an excellent 15 man roster, maybe even 2016-regular-season-historically-great.
We’ll see in the next 2–3 months if the Spurs are really THAT good.