San Antonio Spurs defense: historically good


With the San Antonio Spurs, Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have played for some of the NBA's best defenses.

It’s widely known that traditionally, San Antonio Spurs players over the years have been good defensive players. But how good are they really?

We’re talking greatest-of-all-time good.

Neil Paine of posted a list of the top 100 players based on their team defenses. Confused? Here’s Neil’s criteria:

1. Estimate defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) for every team since 1951 in the regular-season and playoffs.
2. Adjust playoff defensive ratings up/down based on regular-season offensive strength of postseason foes.
3. Compare defensive efficiencies to the league average (to account for the fact that the avg. was, for instance, 85 pts/100 poss in 1951 and 108 in 2010)
4. Find career averages (weighted by MP with each team) for every player since the NBA started tracking minutes in 1952.

After crunching the numbers, four San Antonio Spurs land in the top 10 on the list, and eight are in the top 20. The top Spur was Manu Ginobili, who was number six on the list with a team defense rating of -5.72 (which is good). Topping the list overall was K.C. Jones with a team defense rating of -6.74.

The other Spurs in the top 10 were Tim Duncan at number seven (-5.60), Tony Parker at number eight (-5.48) and Bruce Bowen at 10 (-4.96).

Following the list, Neil has this paragraph that should warm the hearts of many Spurs fans through the winter:

On Friday, we saw that being a part of the Steve Nash-era Suns or the Showtime Lakers of the 80s went a long way toward securing a place on the “played for the best offenses” list… Well, today it becomes clear that playing for the Bill Russell/Red Auerbach Celtics and the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich Spurs is the key to appearing on the “best defenses” ranking. Each of the top 5 players on this list were a part of the Celtics’ first dynasty, and 5 of the next 6 players on the list belonged to the Spurs of recent vintage (the one who didn’t? Frank Ramsey … of the 50s/60s Celts).

And if all that wasn’t enough, there’s this. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal don’t appear on the list until numbers 83 (-2.39) and 94 (-2.22), respectively.

  • BlaseE

    How about RJ at 33? That’s surprising.

  • Badger

    No doubt that Popovich and Auerbach are the two greatest defensive coaches of all time. However, I wonder if some of the players’ high rankings are more a function of the coach and a good teammate (or two)than anything else.

    Not to criticize TP, I love him and do not want to see him traded. However, having Pop as coach, and Bowen, Duncan, and Manu on the court with him may explain better why he’s on this list than anything Tony ever did.

    Also, having a great defensive big man or two on your roster sure goes a looooong way to making it on to this list.

  • BlaseE

    @ Badger

    You would think Shaq and Kevin Garnett would be rated higher then. Hakeem didn’t even make the list. Mourning and Ewing are both lower than I’d expect too.

  • Tyler

    Steve Kerr at #20? Speechless….

    Don Nelson at #40? Ironic……

    Pippen at #43? A little low for arguably the best wing defender ever…..

    Rasho at #53? I would love to bring him back….

  • Mike T


    I agree. I seriously doubt many people would pick Steve Kerr in the top 20 if they were looking for the best defensive players of all time. It probably has A LOT to do with him playing for the Bulls and Spurs.

  • Jim Henderson

    The list appears to rank players based on their impact on the team’s defense. Tony Parker is an underated “team” defender.

    That said, on the face of it there seems to be some notable anomalies. The Pippen/Jordan, and Hakeem (not even ranked!) rankings immediately stick out in that regard.

  • zainn
    i never gave manu enough credit for what he does for the spurs until i saw this article. wow, george hill made the first list as well

  • rob

    It’s the system they play(ed) under more so than the individual player(s). It’s not suprising to me to see the rankings as they are based on that perspective.

  • Jim Henderson

    August 24th, 2010 at 10:45 am

    The best quote from the page you linked to!:

    “Manu Ginobili pulled off a rare double last season — he was the league’s most efficient high-usage guy vs. the top 5 defenses AND vs. the bottom 5 defenses! How amazing is that?”

  • zainn

    very amazing! him just being on the floor creates so many opportunities for him and his teammates!

  • Shawn_b

    I agree that Manu,Timmy, and Bruce should be included in this conversation but….
    how come there’s no BIG DAVE?
    He is simpley one of the best defender in NBA history!
    This is a list just for fun I guess.

  • ThatBigGuy

    @ Shawn_b

    Big Dave is #11 on the list.

    This type of advanced stats is fascinating, although I have no idea how this changes anything. I’m certainly not going to vote for Tony Parker/Hedo Turkeyglue/Richard Jefferson/Rafer Alston to make an All-Defensive team, but they’re all in the Top-100. Also, if you use the Parker corollary (riding the stats of a Spurs team featuring Duncan/Manu) how is Yao ranked #24, while Shane Battier isn’t on the list? With Yao being ranked 24, he has had to be on several great defensive teams, seeing as that’s the whole idea of this stat, right? Battier’s been with Yao the whole time, has been noted as a stellar defender, and still isn’t on the list.

    Does this help or hinder our understanding of the game of basketball?

  • Phil


    Battier has spent much of his career with Memphis, playing with some not-so-stellar defensive teams.

  • ThatBigGuy

    @ Phil

    Touche. I guess the Memphis years drag down his Houston years to a level of mediocrity according to this measure.

  • Ravi


    Looking forward to the upcoming season, I had a couple of questions:

    As pointed out earlier on this website, Duncan’s pick-n-roll defense is degressing as the years go by and the tactic employed by Pop against the Suns (to switch on almost every pick-n roll) enabled the Suns to create mismatches every time they had the ball and they picked us apart in SA (game 3&4).

    Sure, the Suns were shooting the lights out (eg: Dragic), but teams will have noticed the way Spurs defend the pick-n-roll and won’t be shy to use it again in next season’s playoffs.

    So what is the remedy? Do you think we have the personel to overcome this deficiency? As Boston/LA proved last yr, when it comes down to it, defense wins championships….And last yr, it was very discouraging to see the Suns pretty much toy with our defense.

    Also, i was watching TP’s defense against Detroit during 2005 finals and he was awesome (especially more effort with on-the ball defense and against Rip in Game 5). Yet i have seen his effort decrease every yr on defense. Sure, he has more offensive responsibilities, but he gets scored on as much as he scores;) on most occasions….I have to admit, i am not the biggest TP fan out here…

    So I am curious to hear what all the Spurs fans think about our chances and strategy on defense this coming season? Will Splitter’s presence make a difference if Duncan get’s beat on pick-n-roll?

  • J2

    Steve Kerr at #20 and Michael Jordan at #44 certainly leaves some questions about how this list was created, and Olajuwon left out is absurd– he has the record for career blocked shots accrued since the stat began being tracked (Bill Russell certainly had more, but they didn’t keep the state when he played). And I didn’t see Mutombo on the list.

    It appears this list was based on the team’s defense so if a top defensive player was not surrounded by 4 other players playing aggressive defense, he would be downgraded.

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  • ThatBigGuy

    @ Ravi

    I expect that Duncan will be on the low block as much as possible the rest of his career. Splitter/Blair/Dice/Bonner will all handle the high P&P defense. Splitter has been described as a rich man’s Anderson Varejao by one of those ESPN “Insider” columnists. Combine the high hopes for Splitter with Blair’s continued improvement, I see us regaining our P&P defensive chops.

    Plus, the second hand effects of a Splitter/Blair combo means that our best post defender (Duncan) stays in the post. This could shape up to be 75-80% of the old Duncan/Robinson duo, minus the crazy number of blocked shots.

  • Jim Henderson

    August 24th, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    “So what is the remedy? Do you think we have the personel to overcome this deficiency?”

    No we don’t, and that’s why I’ve been advocating for the Spurs to figure out a way to get FA Lou Amundson, who’s a very good pick & roll defender, and a great weak side shot-blocker. Blair’s strength is not on the defensive end, although I expect some improvement this year.

    “Also, i was watching TP’s defense against Detroit during 2005 finals and he was awesome (especially more effort with on-the ball defense and against Rip in Game 5). Yet i have seen his effort decrease every yr on defense.”

    You’re right about that. But unfortunately it’s not just TP’s defensive effort that has declined. The WHOLE TEAM needs to make more of a commitment on the defensive end or we’re going to be simply toast in round one or two again.

    “Will Splitter’s presence make a difference if Duncan get’s beat on pick-n-roll?”

    It should help some, but it’s not enough. We need a high-energy shot-blocker like Amundson in the mix to have a shot at improving our defense enough to be a real threat in the West.

  • DieHardSpur

    @ Jim Henderson

    I dont understand how we can be worse than we were last year.


    1. 100% Healthy (Contract Year) Tony Parker
    2. Tiago Splitter (New Starting Center)
    3. James Anderson (Pure Scorer)
    4. Seasoned Blair with more minutes
    5. Jefferson coming around in second year (consistency)
    6. Ginobili with a full good season (minus shaking the rust)


    1. Bogans (slow footed defender-no scoring)
    2. Mason (terrible shooting % and worse defender)
    3. Ian Mahinmi (Never got to play)

    I think we are substancially better off than we were last year, not to mention Mr. Consistant (Timmy) will show up rain or shine.

    Please advise how we dont make 4-5 seed.

  • Firebrand

    Just a note on the best defenses. It is saying what players played for the best defenses so it is talking about not individuals as much as the team and the individual. the reason why stevie kerr is ranked higher than jordan and pippen I would assume is due to his tenure with the
    spurs. What I am implying is that the spurs teams he played on where better defensively than the early bulls teams that pip and jordan played on that steve kerr was not apart of.

  • Andrew A. McNeill


    Just in case you were wondering, Rasho signed a 2-year deal for Olympiacos in Greece this month.

  • Jim Henderson

    August 25th, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    “I dont understand how we can be worse than we were last year.”

    Did I say that? No, I didn’t. We have likely improved a bit over last season, but so has most of our major competitors, except for probably Phoenix and/or Utah, and the Rockets will probably take the Suns place in the playoff race.


    1. 100% Healthy (Contract Year) Tony Parker

    He already put up last year 16.0 ppg. & 5.7 apg. in 30.9 mpg., versus career averages of 16.6 ppg. & 5.6 apg. in 33.0 mpg. He did miss about 30% of the season from injury, but Hill did do a nice job picking up the slack in his absence. All in all, not a huge addition here.

    2. Tiago Splitter (New Starting Center)

    Has not played one game in the NBA yet. We don’t know as of yet what kind of impact he’ll have on the team. His addition does represent an upgrade, but we simply don’t know how much of an upgrade.

    3. James Anderson (Pure Scorer)

    Late first round pick. So again, we really don’t know what kind of contribution he will make in his first year.

    4. Seasoned Blair with more minutes

    The fact is nobody knows how much Blair will improve during his second year. I’ll be hoping for significant strides, but that’s all I’ve got.

    5. Jefferson coming around in second year (consistency)

    Granted, it’s doubtful RJ will be worse than last year, but again, we don’t know how much improvement we’ll get from him in year two.

    6. Ginobili with a full good season (minus shaking the rust)”.

    Yeah, well, he’s also a year older (33), an age when most players start to show some decline. And Manu did average 16.5 ppg. (only one year did he avg. higher) and a career high 4.9 apg. last year in 28.7 mpg., versus career averages of 15.0 ppg. & 3.8 apg. in 27.8 mpg. Also his 3-point percentage last year was at his career average.

    “Please advise how we dont make 4-5 seed.”

    Actually, I currently have us ranked as a fifth seed. But I don’t like our chances of making a WCF appearance as currently constructed. Let’s hope the FO has good reasons to expect a solid impact from Splitter, a regular contribution from Anderson, a rebound for RJ, a jump forward for Blair & Hill, and an unwavering team commitment on the defensive end. If they’re right, maybe we have an outside shot at getting a WCF appearance. I just think that’s a lot to hope for.

  • Tim C.

    No Artest or Battier. Interesting.

  • J. Judge

    Would love to see that trade mark defense this coming season

  • Jim Henderson

    August 28th, 2010 at 7:00 am

    “I think basing it solely on his entire career numbers (let’s not forget how raw he was when he came into the league) might be “watering down the punch” for lack of a better term.”

    Fine, but TP’s only had one year out of nine where he’s averaged 19.0+ ppg. & 6.1+ apg. Contract year or no contract year, to expect more than that is not being realistic. That’s 3 more points and .3 more assists more than last year, and it would probably mean that Hill’s minutes and numbers would go down some. As I said, not a huge upgrade.

    “Even as a serviceable big contributing on the level of Rasho or Mohammed we’re a step ahead, wouldn’t you agree?”

    We don’t know if he will perform as good as those two you mentioned during his first year with the club, but as I said, Splitter will be an upgrade, it’s just that it’s impossible to have a confident feeling for HOW MUCH of an upgrade. Thus, his real impact on the team is very much still in doubt.

    “Anderson, I agree with you although his performances thusfar do have me optimistic.”

    He could surprise to the upside, but there’s little reason to be too confident about that.

    “RJ, …..a summer of working with Pop has to tell us that we’ll at minimum get a consistent player who knows the system and his role in it.”

    He probably will be a bit better & more “consistent” than last year, but again, how much better & consistent? Enough to make a significant difference to overcome an improved WC in the playoffs? I have my doubts.

    “….a flying German elbow seemed to derail him in the playoffs but the man can ball and ball well. I say that’s a plus.”

    It’s a plus, but he’s injury prone. Can he stay healthy most of the year, especially toward the end of the regular season and throughout the playoffs? Maybe, but there is substantial risk there. We got a lot out of Manu last year as it is, to expect much more is not being particularly realistic.

    “All in all, I see us ending up 3-4 in the standings come season’s end.”

    If EVERYTHING goes better than could possibly be expected, 3rd or 4th seed is probably our ceiling this year. And probably a 2nd round exit.

  • frankie

    Just goes to prove – you can mis-say anything with statistics.

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