Same players, better results
The Spurs roster consists of predominantly the same pieces as last year. Sure, Gary Neal has been a pleasant surprise and Tiago Splitter contributed here and there, but 90% of their production is courtesy of returning players. Despite the similarities in the roster, the Spurs are off to a blistering 37-7 start. At this point last season, they were a mere 25-18.
Although 70 wins seems like a tall order, at this point the Spurs are likely to exceed 60 wins for the only the third time in franchise history (1994-95 and 2005-06 were the other seasons). Making this drastic improvement from last season even more unlikely, the Spurs rely heavily on contributions from older players. Before this season, in the history of the NBA only seven of 107 teams with an average age of greater than 29 (weighted by minutes played) have seen an improvement equivalent to at least 10 games per 82 game season. This rate is less than half of the frequency observed by other teams. The following is a list of the 10 oldest teams to improve by 10 wins or more.
|Team||Year||Avg Age||Similar Mins||Wins||Wins LY||Improvement||Note|
Similar minutes is sum of the minimum percentage of minutes played in both years for each player, divided by five.
Six of these teams experienced a coaching change and the other two prior to this season welcomed back superstars Larry Bird and Michael Jordan from injury and retirement, respectively. Many of these teams experienced significant roster changes.
It is truly remarkable what the Spurs are achieving this season. In my opinion, coaching has also been significantly responsible for the Spurs improvement this season. This season might be Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich’s most impressive to date.
What is different from last season?
The Spurs defense has created nearly 30% more steals per game than last year. This has not only helped on the defensive end, but has contributed to an increase in success in the transition game. According to Synergy, the Spurs have increased the number of fastbreaks per game from 9.8 to 13.2. One might think that this increase in steals would correspond to a modest increase in fouls committed; but despite these gambles, the Spurs have managed to lower the number of opponent free throw attempts from 23.1 per game to 20.2 per game.
Additionally, San Antonio’s offense has seen a distinct increase in emphasis on the 3-point shot, jumping from 18.9 to 21.5 attempts per game. Many Spurs have increased their tendency to shoot from 3-point range, some by a significant amount. Although they haven’t been shy about taking 3’s, the Spurs success rate on these attempts are much greater than last year (0.393 compared to 0.358). The threat of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili getting to the rim is very compatible with 3-point shooters; they benefit from the success of each other. From my perspective, it seems Coach Pop has been running things in San Antonio the same way for a long time, but apparently this old dog can teach new tricks.
The following table estimates the approximate impact (in PPG) of several key differences from last season.
The impact of the increase in steals was determined by taking the difference in steals per 93.2 possessions (the Spurs current pace) and multiplying by 1.25 (the approximate value of one possession and the increase in offensive efficiency resulting from a steal). The impact of the increase in 3P% was determined by the difference in 3P% multiplied by 3PA and removing the average value of offensive rebounds resulting from missed shots. And so forth.
Can it last?
I wrote an article earlier in the season which detailed the reliability of statistics from season to season. A statistic like 3-point percentage is not very reliable, but could the Spurs be an exception? (Note that opponent 3P% is far more inconsistent and the Spurs have probably been unlucky in that regard to this point in the season.)
The following table lays out the changes in players 3P% from last year in addition to changes in 3PA/FGA, Steal Rate and FT%. I have placed an asterisk by values that I consider suspiciously high or low that could change how we assess the Spurs expected performance for the rest of the season.
Of course, some of these statistics (such as steals) often do come with other tradeoffs that are not considered in this table, but these statistics alone show a great deal of how the Spurs have improved from last season.
Richard Jefferson’s increased 3P% is well documented and an increase from last year was expected. RJ has put in much time and the results are showing. 42% seems like a high rate going forward, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he challenges 40% from 3-point range in the second half of the year. A bigger concern for Jefferson is that his aggression has diminished after an impressive start. This lack of aggression is evidenced in his lower free throw rate and isolations per game. RJ could also have more value if he is utilized more in the transition game.
|1st 12 games||32.2||3.4||5.8||0.594||1.8||4||0.458||3.9||5.1||0.77||3.7||1.7||0.8||0.6||1.2||16.3||4||7||0.8||0.7|
|last 31 games||30.9||2.2||4.6||0.476||1.6||4||0.400||1.5||2.3||0.686||4.6||1.4||0.5||0.5||1.2||10.8||2||5||0.1||0.8|
Gary Neal is another significant reason the Spurs have had more success from beyond the arc. It’s difficult to tell if his success will continue since this is his first season playing for the Spurs. He has always taken a ton of 3’s, but his 3P% has typically been much less than 40% despite playing with a closer 3-point line. It’s possible that Neal is getting more open looks with San Antonio, but I would have a tough time trying to convince myself that he should maintain his current rate.
As great a 3-point shooter as Matt Bonner is, I wouldn’t expect anyone to continue to shoot 50% from that range.
The increases in steals are more likely to continue. The increase observed by Parker’s steal rate, however, is so large and above his established rate, that I would suspect a modest drop off in that category over the second half of the season.
Overall, Tony Parker has probably exceeded my expectations by the most. You never know how someone will recover from an injury plagued year, but Parker has returned to form and possibly even exceeded his performance level prior to last season. His Offensive Rating and Steal Rate are both the highest of his career and he is setting up teammates better than ever. Parker is one of the main reasons the Spurs are scoring more on the fast break and his presence and passing help contribute to the effectiveness of the Spurs 3-point shooters.
Although anything can happen, the Spurs clearly should not be expected to maintain their pace of 70+ wins. However, many of the Spurs improvements seem likely to carry over to the second half of the season. When this menacing pace is set, there are more things that can get worse than better, but there are also a few reasons the Spurs can improve (even if their Winning% doesn’t).
Duncan and Blair were both expected to play modestly more efficiently than they have this season to date. Splitter should be able to add more value and I think RJ might be more likely to increase rather than decrease his production. The Spurs should also explore all possible options before the trade deadline. After all, being seven games ahead of 2nd place in the West in the loss column, the Spurs should shift their focus more and more towards the playoffs.
*This post was drafted Saturday night, prior to San Antonio’s loss to New Orleans.