So this is what a losing streak feels like
To say that the San Antonio Spurs franchise record best start has been smoke and mirrors after dropping two straight would be a grave injustice to the substantial and legitimate improvements this team has made since last season.
But to let the NBAâ€™s best record cloud some lingering issues (especially defensivelyâ€”okay, so completely defensively) would prove just as ignorant.
Before the Spurs set out on this five game stretch, our own Timothy Varner warned San Antonio fans to curb their enthusiasm while I remarked that between a likely 3-2 or 2-3 record, there probably would not be much difference. This team will be better come May.
Because at this point in the season, it is about the process more than the recordâ€”something San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has tried to remind everyone not directly associated with the franchiseâ€”and there remains a lot of work to do.
Advanced statisticians would point to the Spurs healthy, but not dominant, point differential and strength of schedule, along with a multitude of other statistics beyond the box score, to state that as great as this team has been, itâ€™s not been the NBAâ€™s best.
Popovich, who claims to be a simpler man yet is obviously aware of such stats, would just have you go look at field goal percentage to stop anointing his team just yet.
This team still has the foundation (i.e., Tim Duncan) to be a sound defensive club, as shown against the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder. But as has been stated through these pages, this is a different style of defense. No longer a team that just sits at home, this team attacks passing lanes, rotates frantically, and generally creates controlled chaos.
But at this point in the game, itâ€™s still a transition, and one that can be taken advantage of asZach Lowe of The Point Forward mentioned after the victory over the Lakers:
As for the high shooting percentage, my best guess is that those good looks are the product of patient possessions in which smart teams dribble-drive and swing the ball until an opening finally appears from deep late in the shot clock. Those looks will be available against clubs like San Antonio that rotate aggressively, but theyâ€™ll only be there if opponents have the confidence to wait for those looks instead of hoisting the semi-open long two or contested floater the Spurs want you to take three seconds earlier. One piece of evidence for this theory: Teams are torching the Spurs late in the shot clock. Only the Warriors have allowed a higher field-goal percentage than San Antonio on shots taken with three or fewer seconds left on the 24-second clock, and Spurs opponents are actually shooting better in that situation than on shots attempted in the middle of the shot clock â€” a trend that goes against what we usually see.
Not all of what ailed the Spurs during their performance against the Phoenix Suns last year has been corrected.
As the New York Knicks showed, while the Spurs defensive rotations can be sharp and still devastatingly effective in certain situations, teams that can spread them out with three or four well-spaced rotation points will eventually find an open look.
Combining three or four shooters with an interior presence to balance it out, as the Knicks (and the Suns before them) did with Amare Stoudemire, creates too many stress points for the Spurs defensive rotations to cover at this point in their transition.
From this, there are two positive tidbits we can take moving forward. The first is the number of teams that can successfully execute this, and will meet the Spurs in the playoffs, is limited.
The Lakers point guard and small forward positions are producing so poorly that they fail to hold merit as stress or rotation points, leaving Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and either Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom as the only three members to key on–and none are devastating three-point shooters.
Oklahoma City lacks the three-point shooting. Dallas always presents troubles because the unique skill set of Dirk Nowitzki, but running the rest of their shooters off the line and recovering at the basket is generally enough to nullify their complementary players (or at least enough for a win).
The second is that the Spurs will improve, even if only by an increase in minutes from certain players. A combination of Tim Duncan and Antonio McDyess may no longer be able to snuff out two offensive players in pick and roll coverage individually the way they use to (or Splitter currently can), but paired together their rotations are still crisp enough provided the other team is not using a versatile “stretch four”.
Fortunately time still remains, and as usual, any talk of the Spurs success or failures before the looming Rodeo Road Trip is the same as this past summerâ€™s talk of the Spurs demise: vastly premature.