That improved Spurs defense
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.