A look at the evolving San Antonio defense


For observations on the entire league’s stretch defense, see today’s post at Gothic Ginobili.

Hey, folks. I’ve been interested in a while in producing a post that examines the evolution of the Spurs’ defense as the season went on. It was one of the least reported (but perhaps most interesting) developments of the 2012 Spurs. In the words of Zach Lowe:

San Antonio’s defense, by the way, has gotten better as the season has gone along, even as offense league-wide has surged. In the last 15 games, the Spurs have allowed just 98.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank about fifth overall for the season, per NBA.com.

What 15 game stretch is he referring to? Why, the stretch from game 45 to game 60, of course. Our own Tim Varner asked me to confirm if he was telling the truth — the idea that the Spurs defense ranked around top 6 in the league over the last third of the season is rather incredible and, if true, would tend to act against the notion that the Spurs are a defensively pillow-soft squad that can’t shut down a fly.

Let’s look at the numbers, starting with a chart showing an eight-game running average of the Spurs defensive efficiency as the season rolled along. The dark black line represents the Spurs defensive efficiency (numbers from HoopData.com), while the dashed line represents the same eight-game rolling average of the average defensive efficiency among the entire league in those eight games. The number on the X-Axis represents the last game in the average — IE, a 9 represents the average defensive efficiency between games 2-9, a 31 the average between games 23-31, et cetera.

Contrary to popular belief, the Spurs actually haven’t spent the entire season with a below-average defense. While the Spurs were below league average on defense for two long stretches of the season — games 1 to 14 and games 26 to games 40, they produced downright excellent results on the defensive end for a ten-game stretch from games 15 to 25, actually outperforming their solid performance in the last third of the season from a pure “distance from league average” perspective.

In that particularly dominant stretch, the Spurs held the Magic to 83 points in 95 possessions, the Hornets to 81 points in 87 possessions, the Hawks to 83 points in 97 possessions, the Grizzlies to 84 points in 94 possessions, and the Rockets to 91 points in 94 possessions. This is rarely considered for being as good a stretch as it was, primarily due to the Spurs record at the time — from games 15 to 25 the Spurs actually managed to go 6-4, and barely held a lead on the Mavericks or the Grizzlies in the division race at the end of the stretch. Regardless, they did play some decent defense in that span, and we probably should’ve paid it a bit more heed.

This chart does establish a general trend, though — in the last third of the season, from games 40 to 66, the Spurs spent virtually all of that time producing a defense anywhere from 3-4 points per 100 possessions stingier than league average. In terms of rank, how does that fare among playoff teams?

And now, the kicker. Where have the Spurs ranked among playoff teams on defense as the season’s gone onward? Zach Lowe wasn’t kidding, even though you may have thought he was when you first read the paragraph. Among playoff teams, the Spurs were ranked #5 on defense over the last 21 games of the season, a close tie to the #6 team, the Atlanta Hawks. The only teams better over that stretch? The Bulls, the Celtics, the Heat, and the Knicks. In fact, to give you full defensive efficiency numbers over that stretch, here are the defensive efficiency rankings of each team in the 2012 NBA playoffs.

You may notice something. Of the four teams ranked ahead of the Spurs, only two — the Celtics and the Heat — look like good bets to exit their respective first-round series. Better yet? None of them play in the West.

In the playoffs, the Spurs won’t be facing a single Western Conference team that’s defended better down the stretch than they have. Rather incredible, given the overriding media narrative on the modern Spurs is that they’re all-offense and no-defense, to this point.

While the Spurs’ offense is significantly better than their defense, their defense is hardly as bad as most would claim it — indeed, it’s experienced a late-season renaissance that’s allowed the Spurs to survive games where their offense absolutely can’t get going. We’ve seen this in the grind-it-out affair in Boston earlier in our late-season streak, as well as during the final game of our first-round sweep over Utah.

The overall trend is quite positive for the Spurs, as is this one: the Spurs have managed to win six games this season while shooting 40% or lower from the floor (meaning that we shot less than or equal to 40% in 11.1% of our wins). Last season, despite their insane record, the Spurs won only once while shooting that poorly from the floor. This isn’t a matter of luck. The Spurs’ defense this season has played significantly better than last season’s, and while they certainly had their periods of lesser performance akin to last season, the Spurs we’re watching in this year’s playoffs are currently playing better defense than anyone in the Western Conference.

Now, to pour some cold water on everything, three key caveats:

  • Late season performance has almost no added correlation to playoff performance, and in fact, early season performance tends to be more influential on who wins any particular title. See the excellent work of the imitable Benjamin Morris for the backing on that.
  • The gap between the Spurs and the Grizzlies over the last 20 game is less than a single point, well within the margin of error.
  • While the Spurs were able to keep their late season streak going against the Utah Jazz, I’m not certain the results of their first round series are going to be at all replicable going forward. Realize that the Jazz were a relatively weak team — while they sported the 6th best offense among playoff teams over the last 21 games of the season, they languished with the 15th worst defense in that timespan. A defense like that stood very little chance of stopping the Spurs’ attack.

That said, as Benjamin recently pointed out, it’s quite possible that normal trends for the added predictive value of early season performance will be overrated this year — after all, early season results generally come with every team at full health, in the peak of their conditioning, after a long training camp. Absolutely none of that happened this year, and it’s not at all out of the question to argue that mid-to-late season results reflect better on the current status quo for the league’s playoff contenders than they would in a normal 82-game season. And the Grizzlies are currently down 1-3 in their series, at the time of writing.

Add the fact that the Spurs were able to hold the Jazz (which, actually, were a good offensive team having entered the playoffs playing the 6th best offense of anyone in the second season) to the totals they did does speak rather highly of the Spurs’ evolved playoff-level defense. Also, it may be worth noting that the 1999 Spurs ended their regular season on a wild 19-3 tear just as this year’s incarnation ended on a 24-3 streak. (And an unrelated 22-3 streak on the road going back January’s OT loss in Dallas, that I can’t help constantly mentioning because it’s absolutely incredible.)

Really, though, it’s worth taking a step back and admiring the machine that Gregg Popovich has created. The last media narrative about the team — that it couldn’t defend worth a damn — has finally stopped being true. This Spurs team may not be perfect, but, warts and all, it holds the best defense in the West. It holds the best offense in the league. It has home court throughout the playoffs. And best of all? It has good health, for now. So, from my end, I tip a cap and raise a glass to the man who made it all happen, and gave us a title shot that nobody expected we had left in us.

Thanks, Pop. We owe you one.

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  • NYC

    Interesting… I have some questions.

    “Realize that the Jazz were a relatively weak team — while they sported the 6th best playoff offense, they languished with the 15th worst defense in the playoffs and stood very little chance of stopping the Spurs’ attack.” This statement got me thinking: Could it be that the Jazz’s playoff defense plummeted because they had to face the league’s best offense? I wonder how much validity playoff stats carry seeing as 1) we have a very small sample size; i.e., only 4 games; and 2) whereas the regular season stats measure a team’s performance against the entire league, playoff stats are only measuring against the teams they face; id est, in the case of Utah it is only measuring Utah’s performance against SA (in 4 games). Conversely, we could say that SA’s playoff defense stats are inflated because they were facing the lowly Jazz.

    Is this the case or am I misinterpreting the stats?

  • http://www.gothicginobili.com Aaron McGuire

    That was a case of unclear wording on my part. What I mean by 6th best playoff offense is that the Jazz were the 6th best offensive team among playoff teams in the last 21 games of the season, coupled with being the 15th worst defense among playoff teams. So, those stats were on a 21 game sample size, and would indicate that the Spurs’ defense did a great job on shutting down an attack that (over the last 21 games) was actually rather formidable.

  • Frank Ameka

    Hmm… Interesting article. So what would a 2nd round matchup with the Grizzlies look like? I think the team will fare well but thats my gut!

  • Stijl

    “While the Spurs’ offense is significantly better than their defense, their defense is hardly as bad as most would claim it”

    Interesting quote…one I found perennial without the in depth and great write up just read.

    Spurs haven’t “forgotten” to play defense as some would canter. It’s just their offense has been so much above what all have expected that their defense has played second fiddle.

    This is great news when it comes to playoffs for as we ALL KNOW…Defense Wins Championships.

  • CoyoteMan

    Benjamin Morris doesn’t account for Diaw and Cap’n Jack being added either.

  • theghostofjh

    Excellent post, Aaron!

  • deeds130

    It seemed to me that the D improved as Jackson and Diaw got acclimated in SA, and Green and Leonard settled into starting roles with Ginobili off the bench… McGuire does not mention this at all. Additionally, TD started dialing it back up late in the season.

    That aside, Pop has clearly been trying to get this defense humming. Some of us thought he had nearly given up on that, but it’s nice to know he hasn’t. With no training camp early, it would be interesting to know how much practice time is being spent during this current window as we wait for the next opponent. I’d like to think that some extra practices will pay off nicely for the Spurs.

    Saw MEM handle LAC tonight, looking like they got their groove back. I’m not particularly scared of MEM, but don’t need them to show LAL that the key to getting wins versus SAS is to play inside-out through aggressive bigmen. LAL are a better team when they play that way, and I don’t need to give them any more lucidity on that point should they get past OKC.

  • SpurredOn

    Interesting stuff. I find the team stats impressive when noting how all top teams but one (Spurs) are in the weaker conference, which makes the Spurs’ ability to rank as high as they do quite impressive. I can’t even blame the media for talking about the defensive slippage from prior years, considering how we fans thought the same and, to be fair, the defense from a decade ago was stunningly stellar. It’s a narrative that Pop started and likely enjoys pushing.

    One correction: at the time of this writing, the Spurs are only guaranteed home court throughout the Western playoffs (Bulls are still technically alive to make a Finals run).

  • Nima K.

    I dont think our defense can handle Memphis. Blake Griffin and the boys got banged up pretty hard tonight against the Griz. The Griz will use that brute force against us too, especially our elderly 3 Amigos. And they’ll do it on purpose, because they know we play better basketball.

  • http://aol ace


  • Collin Smith

    Thank you. I’ve been tweeting John Hollinger to look at this exact thing. I didn’t know what the numbers would bear out, but my eyes told me it was better, and the Spurs steadily rose in season average defensive efficiency at the end of the year.

  • Daniel T

    There was an article in the Express-News that gave credit to Jackson for increasing the focus on defense. But it was when he was on the Bucks and scored 34 points against the Spurs. Apparently Pop chewed out the team for its horrible defense for allowing a washed up player like Jackson to score so many points against them (okay, I’m joking about the washed up line, I think). Over the next 20 games or so only 4 teams scored over 100 points, Miami and three teams from their own division.

    NYC has somewhat of a point about the playoffs so far measuring performance vs. one team whereas the regular season measures it versus the whole league. But the problem with the ranking of the regular season are that the schedules are not balanced. Perhaps if you were to calculate the average defensive performance against teams from the various divisions and add them together and divide by 6 it might be more balanced. Most of the “leaders” have played considerably more games against weak Eastern Conference teams. Even within Conferences, the Spurs play more games vs. their own division then against teams from other divisions. The Southwest Division had three teams go to the playoffs and a fourth just miss while having a +.500 record, whereas the Lakers play in a division in which the only team they would play against with a +.500 record was the Clippers. The one huge advantage the Spurs had while compiling defensive stats is that they were the only team this year that did not have to face the high powered offense of the Spurs.

  • deeds130

    @SpurredOn & DanielT

    Despite the fact that the Spurs may have had to play more quality teams than Chicago, Boston and Miami, I don’t think there’s any doubt that those teams have better defenses than SA. Even NYK had Tyson Chandler who was part of an elite defensive team last year, and has helped change a culture again this year, so it’s not like their stats are invalid. But the only team that really matters is the Heat. If we get to the Finals, they’ll likely be waiting for us. That squad is filled with good to great defensive talents in the likes of Chalmers, Turiaf, Haslem, Joel Anthony, Battier, Wade, and Lebron – on a team that emphasizes defensive play. They are scary good, there’s no doubt about it, and I don’t think there’s anything like them in the West. I was also worried about meeting Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls but their bad luck has neutralized that.

  • idahospur

    Almost want the Clippers to win tonight just to see a Spurs game sooner.

  • Mike

    I think a contributing factor is the pressure the Spurs put on the opponents. They KNOW they have to score and score a lot.

  • Swannaldinho

    I think it is also important to note that the Spurs defensive rating would be a lot higher if it were not for all the garbage time minutes of us being ahead so much that the team goes into cruise control. I wouldnt mind seeing stats of where the Spurs are ranked in the first 24 to 36 minutes. I realize the game is 48 minutes long, but the Spurs, especially in the last part of the season, were thoroughly beating teams so well that we had already won the game by the end of the 3rd quarter.

  • Daniel T


    Per my calculations, Miami played 18 games vs. the West and wound up with a 11-7 record (.647) while allowing 97.3 ppg and scoring 100.5. Versus the East they played 48 games with a 35-13 record (.729) while allowing only 90.7 ppg and scoring 97.7 ppg.

    The Spurs played the East 18 times with a 15-3 record (.833) allowing 94.8 ppg while scoring 104.4 ppg. That’s allowing an extra 4.1 ppg to Eastern teams compared to Miami, but while scoring an extra an extra 6.7 ppg. They played Western teams 48 times with a 35-13 record (.729) while allowing 97.1 ppg and scoring 103.4 ppg. That .2 ppg less than what Miami allowed vs. the West, while scoring 5.7 ppg more.

    Now if the Spurs had not been averaging double digit victories over Eastern foes, they might have kept starters in longer, played a tougher defense, and allowed them fewer ppg. They already played better defense versus the West, despite the fact that they were winning those games by 5.7 more ppg than Miami’s average margin of victory versus the West. Based on winning percentages, if the Spurs had played the East 48 times and the West only 18, they would have won 7 more games than Miami.

  • Daniel T

    Boston played a tighter defense versus the West in their 18 games, allowing only 92.7. Problem being they only won 7 of the 18, and if they had that same percentage while playing in the West they would not have made the playoffs. They averaged only 91.3 ppg against the West. That’s .7 ppg less than the 92.0 they averaged against the East, supposedly the tougher defense conference.

  • vince gomez

    san antonio will roll over the memphis grizzlies. possible sweep but definitely 4-1 series in favor of the spurs. as i have observed the grizz against the clipps, thier defense is spotty and their offense is inconsistent. they dont have a half court game and depends on lucky offensive rebounds by zac randolf. unfortunately, zac is not his old self and their vaunted inside-out game is basically dont carry the same sting anymore with the departure of several players from their roster. o.j mayo and rudy gay can make shots but the spurs have kawhi leonard, danny green, gary kneel and s jack to meet them at the perimeter. the problem is will o.j mayo and rudy gay be able to play defense on these guys. the spurs have already fortified the paint with tim, tiago, boris, dejuan and the red rocket. the grizz maybe deep by spurs is way deeper from the bench. definitely, the second round will be not a cake walk for the spurs but it is distincly evident the spurs have a definite edge on offense, defense and home court advantage either way, spur will beat the clips or grizz handily on the second round, 4-1.

  • Easy B

    Wow, Memphis look like they will take this series, and will be primed to try and upset the spurs again. Rust or not, the guys have to play their deep rotation game and splitter and Diaw will need to provide a better answer on gasol and Randolph than last year. Zbo seems to be hitting his stride at exactly the right time. Tony will need to be dominant on the pick and roll and not allow Memphis to collapse off it onto our bigs by hitting shots from deep and especially his 10-12 ft floater. If td hits his outside shot it will force one of their best bigs away from the rim and invite kawai, jackson and diaw to get more offensive rebounds. If they can keep the turnovers down and not get bullied out of their offense, whilst being more disruptive to the grizzlies, I think they can out-score them by 6-8 points per game.
    Did you notice how as soon as the grizzlies focused more of their offense around gasol and zbo, they began to overwhelm the clippers. When gay becomes a high volume shooter? They aren’t nearly as good. The pacers are a similar team in that respect.
    I hope we do face Memphis. If we want to win it all, facing a team with the commitment to d that they have will provide the kind of challenge that galvanizes or breaks a team on the way to contesting it all. Our playoffs are about to really start.

  • Nima K.

    You people keep talking about Miami and Boston’s defense, while we all know there’s a looming possibility we might get eliminated by Memphis again. If Zbo and Gasol can hobble Blake Griffin and the league’s best PG, then I don’t see the prospects that bright for TP and TD either.

  • Graham H

    To be honest I like our chances against Memphis. Our team is defending much better than last year and We’ve only gotten better with the additions of Jackson, Diaw and Leonard to our rotation. The Grizz have arguably gotten worse with their guys running on fumes and zbo not quite himself.

    Healthy Chris Paul and Griffin were carving them up before the injuries, and the only reason Memphis kept it close is the Clips lack of depth. Expect TP and TD to have a huge series in my mind. Don’t expect it on the stat sheet, but look for their presence to facilitate a LOT for our role players. If the Clips had a reliable guy who could hit outside jumpers this would be over already, and we have those in spades.

    If it is in fact Memphis, I expect us to win in 6, worst case scenario.

  • TDzilla!

    Y’all need to relax and be confident with our guys. The 2nd round has not started yet and here you are thinking about another upset. Geez!

  • http://espn.com spurzztop

    thankyou coach Pop

  • http://espn.com spurzztop

    spurs will smoke the grizz/clips/lakers/okc/miami/boston etc….

  • Nima K.

    Now……..let’s take on the Clippers!

  • Hobson13

    The Clips would have a tough time beating the Spurs in 7 games even if they were healthy, but this could be another short series considering that Paul and Griffin are seriously banged up. The Clip/Griz series was the best possible outcome for the Spurs. Two teams beating the hell out of each other for 7 games only for the injured team to advance and play game 1 only 2 days after game 7.

    I expect this to be a relatively high scoring series. The Clip defense can be exploited, but Paul can do damage in the P & R against the Spurs. Am I the only one who thinks the long layoff could seriously hurt the team flow and rythm? I love the long rest for the vets, but think we could be vulnerable at least for the first half of game 1.

  • Daniel T

    I think the Spurs have had a couple of games vs. the Chapparals this week. Don’t know who won, but both teams will likely be ready for the Clippers with neither needing to play much more than half a game.

  • Titletown99030507d

    @Hobson 13

    Im concerned as well about the long layoff. You know what happened the last time Core3 rested 3 days and played the Lakers
    But the entire team after more than a week? Id hate to lose the first game because of that and give lob city any motivation. It gets to a point where practices and motivational speeches just dont translate to real time games. Hope we sprint out of the gates and play good defense with minimal mistakes. Here we go!

  • http://www.48mintuesofhell.com Bry

    I have no problem at all with the long lay-off. They’ve obviously been practicing. I just wish they could have played the Grizzlies. They would have shown that last year was the culmination of misfortune rather than some kind of sign their ‘window is closed’ like half of the media kept saying all through this season. Even so, the Spurs are better than the Clips anyway. The bench disparity is massive, and LA can only avoid that disadvantage by playing their starters heavy minutes. That will lead to fatigue and maybe aggravation of injuries. The Spurs should be a heavy favorite in this. If Ginobili can get back to form he’ll have field day against their D and comparatively weak wing-players.

  • Robert McKee

    Personally, I want that everyone we play to be at full strength I don’t want anybody complaining about injuries. I believe the Spurs are the best and will prove it going through the finals. I don’t want any Asteric placed on this year’s finals and let the so called ESPN analyst, who never watch the Spurs play, eat their words.

  • http://sugel.net/ Sugel

    Utah had the 4th best scoring average during the regular season. So it might be more accurate to say that the spurs defense contributed to an inept offensive performance by the otherwise high-scoring Utah Jazz.

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