Digging through some quarter-season numbers

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After beating the Houston Rockets on Monday night, the Spurs hold an 18-4 record and sit atop most analysts’ power rankings. Despite injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson, and the night off here and there for the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the Spurs are playing some of the best basketball in the league.

While San Antonio boasted the league’s best offense last season, it’s nothing to sneeze at this year. According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs have the fourth highest points per possession overall in the league. Through a quarter of the season, the offense is less effective in a couple of areas like scoring in pick-and-roll situations and spot-up shooting, but not dramatically so. We’re talking subtle dips in production early in the year.

On the other hand, we’re seeing huge increases in production in a couple of areas that the Spurs were weak last season. Post scoring is up thanks to a resurgent Tim Duncan, and scoring in play types labelled as hand-offs is improved. Looking at Synergy’s numbers, there are only two play types through 22 games that the Spurs don’t rank in the top-10 in the NBA. Other than scoring off of offensive rebounds — which isn’t an emphasis for the Spurs, they’d rather focus on getting back on defense and limiting transition opportunities for the other team — and in transition, the Spurs are in the top third of the league in every offensive play type.

One of the biggest areas the Spurs need to improve is rebounding. The Spurs are 27th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, but again, the Spurs don’t emphasize offensive boards, so that ranking isn’t much of a concern. However, San Antonio is 12th in defensive rebounding percentage, which is a weakness we’ve seen this season, mainly in the Spurs’ home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers where Eric Bledsoe got several offensive rebounds in the last five minutes of the game. Overall, the Spurs rank 13th in total rebound percentage, which is essentially a combination of the two previous stats.

The Spurs have been missing Leonard and Jackson for more than half the season, which does hurt the team’s rebounding. Both are bigger players who rebound well out on the wing. When the Spurs have started Boris Diaw at the small forward, they’ve done a better job on the boards compared to when Danny Green slides over to the 3. Getting Jack and Kawhi back from injury should help in the rebounding department.

Another area for improvement for San Antonio is in protecting the ball. We’ve seen some high turnover games for the Spurs, which sometimes comes with the territory of a drive-and-kick offense, and a team that employs Manu Ginobili. San Antonio is 13th in the league in turnover percentage which, as you can guess, is the percentage of all plays that end in a turnover. Honestly, I don’t expect that number to change all that much. The Spurs are going to have a decent amount of turnovers because of their offensive style. It’s complex. There’s little hero ball. When you like to make the extra pass, it doesn’t always work out. But to me, the positives outweigh the negatives. If they can get it in the top-10, I think that’ll be enough.

Looking at some more numbers and rankings for the Spurs, San Antonio also excels in many of the “four factors.” The Spurs are fifth in offensive efficiency, sixth in defensive efficiency, fourth in net efficiency (the difference between the team’s offensive efficiency and defensive), third in assist to turnover ratio (so even though they’re turning the ball over a lot, they’re assisting on so many of their baskets that the offense is still top-notch), first in assist ratio, third in effective FG%, fourth in opponent’s eFG%, third in opponent’s free throw rate. You get the idea.

The Spurs are playing great basketball right now. So much so that ESPN.com’ John Hollinger has the Spurs with a 35.4% chance of winning the NBA title right now. It’s far too early to get ahead of ourselves when talking about what could happen in June. But just be aware that the Spurs have been able to carry over most of the positives from last season’s run and shore up some of the negatives. What is left are just a handful of weaknesses that can be ironed out in time. It’s still very early, but these are fun and exciting times.

Points per possession numbers and rankings courtesy of Synergy Sports. All other statistics and rankings from NBA.com/Stats