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.