That improved Spurs defense



Photo credit: Keith Allison

The San Antonio Spurs are riding high at the beginning of this Rodeo Road Trip, having won five games in a row. As we discussed on the postgame show following Monday’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies, the Spurs are allowing just 85 points per game during the winning streak.

That’s a significant improvement, considering the Spurs are giving up 93.5 points a game on the season. If the numbers the Spurs’ defense is allowing the last five games are sustainable, I think San Antonio is one defensive big man away from being legitimate threats to contend for a title this season.

Allow me to throw some numbers as you, and we’ll see what sticks.

Right now, the Spurs are 19th in the league at defensive efficiency, giving up 100.6 points per 100 possessions. The team is 24th in the NBA at opponent’s field goal percentage, arguably Gregg Popovich’s only cherished statistic, allowing foes to shoot 45.6% from the floor. These two statistics point to the Spurs being a very mediocre defensive team.

The Spurs do, however, excel in a few other areas that help their defense. According to Hoopdata, the Spurs are fourth in the league in opponent’s offensive rebound rate at 24.1. This means the Spurs are limiting the number of offensive rebounds the other team is getting, thereby limiting the other team’s chances to score.

Likewise, the Spurs are leading the NBA in opponent’s free throw rate. Free throw rate is the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt. The Spurs aren’t fouling a lot, and with not fouling, the other team isn’t getting chances at easy points from the free throw line. This also means the Spurs aren’t getting themselves into foul trouble. This is very good, especially for a team employing so many young or inexperienced players in the rotation. You may remember a couple of seasons ago when the Spurs were fouling at a very high clip for their defensive reputation.

One area where the Spurs leave something to be desired is turnover rate. The Spurs are 25th in the league at opponent’s turnover rate, which is the percentage of possessions resulting in a turnover. The more turnovers you force the better off you are, as turnovers often lead to easy points. The Spurs are near the bottom defensively, but they’re third in the league offensively. Consider it a wash. The Spurs don’t force a lot of turnovers, but they don’t commit many themselves.

Let’s break the Spurs defense down even further, since we have that capability with today’s statistics.

The Spurs allow teams to shoot a very high percentage at the rim. Teams convert 63.9% of their shots at the rim against the Spurs. We’ve known that the Spurs at-rim defense is weak for a while now. However, the Spurs are third in the league at allowing shots at the rim, limiting opponents to just 21.5 attempts per game. This is what Gregg Popovich wants. It’s harder for teams to convert shots at the rim when they can’t get there.

Where the Spurs give up most of their shots is in the mid-range. San Antonio allows the second most shots in the league from 10-15 feet (9.3) and the seventh most in the NBA from 16-23 feet (21.5). This is good and bad, as the 16-23 foot range is considered the least efficient shot in basketball. It’s the longest two-pointer you can take. The 3-pointer is farther, but you at least have the ability to get an extra point from the shot. Speaking of 3-pointers, the Spurs are 11th in the league from there, giving up 17.4 attempts from there (Miami is the worst, allowing 21.8 shots from 3).

I want to go back to the mid-range shots, though. Forcing teams into shoot more of their shots in that area is good. The more they shoot from that range, the fewer they shoot from around the rim or behind the 3-point arc. The problem is how they’re letting teams shoot those shots.

According to Synergy Sports, as of yesterday the Spurs were 22nd in the league at pick-and-roll possessions that end in a shot, foul or turnover. Almost a quarter of all possession types the Spurs have faced this season. That’s both when the ball handler shoots the ball or when the roll man finishes the possession. The Spurs were allowing the roll man to convert 1.03 points per possession. Looking at the video on Synergy, I’d estimate 90% of those possessions where the roll man finished the play were jump shots.

This is where teams are killing the Spurs, and where San Antonio needs to look to address if they are active in the trade or free agent market. The Spurs struggle defending the pick-and-pop. It was a problem when the Spurs played the Rockets last week. It was a problem when the Spurs played the Boston Celtics last season. It was a problem when the Spurs were swept by the Suns in the playoffs two years ago.

The Spurs do a good job masking some of their deficiencies on defense. They can’t stop teams from scoring when they get to the rim, so San Antonio limits how often teams get there. San Antonio doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, so they make sure they’re careful with the ball themselves. The Spurs allow a teams to shot a high percentage from the field, so they don’t foul and give opponents easy opportunities for points at the free throw line.

Where they can’t hide is from the pick-and-roll, the bread and butter of the NBA. Try as they might to defend it, Spurs big men don’t have the foot speed to help on the ball handler and recover in time to defend the roll man, especially when that roll man can knock down an 18-foot jumper. If the Spurs can find a big man mobile enough to cover the pick-and-pop while taking little away from other areas of defense, San Antonio could have a shot come playoff time.

  • Matthew Sloan

    shhhhhhhhhhh!!! Don’t let the other NBA teams read this; they might get into our team’s secrets… great read though sir.

  • sam stewart

    ANDY VAREJAO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  We need you.

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    Varejao is allowing just .68 points per possession when defending the roll man on pick-and-rolls. As they say, just sayin’.

    Although, it’s only on 19 total possessions this season.

  • Manu4tres

    Wonder if Cleveland would be interested in a RJ/Blair for Varejao trade? More importantly, I wonder if the Spurs would take on the remaining 3 years (last being team option) of Varejao’s contract?

  • Manu4tres

    In that proposal, Ryan Hollins would be a throw in for salaries to match.

  • sam stewart

    As opposed to DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and Timmy who allow 83 bajillion per possession when defending the roll man.

  • Anonymous

    Once again.  Great write up.  Love how all contributors base their story on facts and not whimsical fancy.

    I’ll post again if not read by some in a previous article.

    As Mr. McNeal said…”Varejao is allowing just .68 points per possession when defending the roll man on pick-and-rolls.”  And believe it best for the Spurs to get something for Jefferson (who would fit nicely in DC) instead of just amnesty.

  • Ch500634

    Going to the Spurs game tonight down in Philly with my Manu jersey repping San Antonio!!!! GSG! 

  • sam stewart

    Hell, I would give up RJ/Blair/Anderson for Varejao and 2nd rounder…

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  • Cruz Missile1

    It was my understanding that part of the reason we pushed to get Tiago Splitter was because he had the mobility and speed to play effective defense against other big men and the pick and roll.  You mention in your aritcle that Sprus big men don’t have foot speed to do this,but do not mention Splitter specifically.  Is that because he does indeed have the foot speed or because you were trying to point out the deficiencies of the other big?

  • Bob

     What about Tiago?

  • Andrew A. McNeill

    Splitter’s giving up 1.18 PPP. Only on 18 total possessions, though. Last year he gave up 1.25 PPP on 20 possessions defending the roll man. Admittedly, I expected Splitter’s numbers to be better defending the roll man.

    I think when Splitter and Duncan play together, having Splitter defend the roll man is a good thing because he has Duncan behind him. Splitter can be a little more gung-ho about closing out on shooters. When Splitter is playing center and it’s Blair or Bonner in the game, that’s bad.

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  • Marneo Rey16

    Hi Can this trade improve our defense?

    Its with the bucks RJ for Captain Jack? 

    I believe Jackson still knows our defense system and this will translate for a better defense for us.

  • Anonymous

    Verajo and Splitter the Brazilian deuce!

  • gospursgo2021

    3rd place in the west without manu, id say the spurs have a shot with or without a big man pick up.

  • gospursgo2021

    that a boy!

  • Anonymous

    Does it matter if he’s playing in the East.

  • Anonymous

    HMM? What would be the starting line up and 2nd unit line up when Manu gets back and if we acquired Varejao? 

  • grego

    Tiago with Bonner has been a pretty effective combo in the games where Spurs bench helped spur runs. Tiago/Blair, just was a disaster each and every play, so far. 


    WOW Awesome

  • DorieStreet

    Add Manu to the mix:  the ‘ABA’  = Argentine-Brazil Alliance or ” the South American Connection”


    Yeap I like Split and Duncan playing together on 4th quarter its our mini version of twin tower.
    Spliter has the speed and Duncan behind him to clean up things.

    Yes we  do need another big and Blaire is not the answer

  • Thaddeus Clark

    I know that the stats don’t support this years team to be a great defensive team, but I know that I’ve seen better rotations this year as well as game-changing defensive plays that provides optimism: 

    Danny Green guarding and “slowing” Monta Ellis to propel the Spurs to a win.
    Gary Neal taking a late game charge vs. the Hornets
    Duncan with 2 blocks to end the last game in Memphis.
    Leonard guarding Durant well enough so as to prevent our big from coming off the screens.
    Parker pestering Conley in the home opener.
    Green routinely blocking driving guards shots. 

    Last year the only defensive moment the Spurs had was Manu taking the Carmelo charge to seal a victory. Already in this young season I’ve seen a much better team.

    The concession blow-outs skew the stats and make it seem as if they’re not defending well, but my eyes say otherwise in many instances. 

    The achilles heal of pick-and-pop bigs is a problem for everyone, not just the Spurs. Aldrigde, Griffin, Bosh, Love, and Nowitzky are all All Star caliber players and posses a rare skill set. 

    This years team brings better size to guard the perimeter (Green) instead of George Hill, has Splitter as the first big instead of the unsure hands of McDyess, has a way above average Leonard already providing results, and we have yet to see how Manu’s gambling in the passing lanes and blocks from behind. 

    I find this all encouraging and actually feel like this team is better than last years (especially if Manu and TJ can return and be effective).

  • Keon Vasquez

    Is it actually a bad statistic if you allow more three-point attempts? To me that just means you aren’t giving up more higher percentage shots. In Miami’s case they probably allow more three attempts because they clog up passing lanes in the paint and have guys who can block shots as well. 

  • bakedroll

    where is all this anderson varejao talk coming from? fandom or is there actually an interest by cleveland to trade him?

  • guest

    how much is improvement on D really an improvement versus the opponent being on a b2b or 3 game 4 night, etc?

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