The Root of All Defensive Evil



Saying that the Spurs aren’t playing as good of defense this year as they have in the past would be like saying it doesn’t snow much in Austin. By the way, it’s snowing here in Austin today.

But why exactly are the Spurs not playing good defense? It starts in the middle, quite literally.

The Spurs’ defensive gameplan is to not allow penetration to the middle. If the player with the ball can get to the lane, he can cause all kinds of havoc for the San Antonio. Instead, they try to force the ballhandler away from the lane and towards the baseline, where the boundary can act as an additional defender.

This season, for a variety of reasons (no Bruce Bowen, Tony Parker’s various injuries, new personnel, etc.) the Spurs allow opposing teams to get to the lane and beat them. Against Denver, which is widely-regarded as San Antonio’s best game of the season, Carmelo Anthony was able to get in the lane early in the game and either score, dish to a teammate, or get fouled. As the game wore on, San Antonio slowed Anthony’s penetration and built a sizable lead.

But the ability of opposing players to get in the lane and draw fouls is becoming the Achilles’ heel for the Spurs this season. In the past, San Antonio was a very disciplined team when it came to fouling. If you don’t foul, the other team doesn’t get into the bonus and they don’t get easy, unguarded free throws. And it worked for San Antonio.

In 2006-2007 the Spurs led the league in only committing 19.4 fouls per game. In turn, they only let their opponents shoot 21.4 free throws per game, which also led the league (Note: these are all regular season numbers). As you may remember, the Spurs went on to win the title that season.

And for a comparison, the Utah Jazz were last in the league in opponents free throw attempts per game with 30.9. That’s a potential difference of ten points per game.

The trend continued for the next two seasons. In 2007-2008, San Antonio committed only 18.7 fouls per game (1st in the NBA)  and allowed their opponents to shoot 20.9 free throws per game (2nd in the NBA).

And last season, San Antonio committed 18.9 fouls per game (2nd) and allowed 19.9 free throw attempts a game (1st).

As is the case for nearly everything this season, things changed. No longer boasting a potential Defensive POY like Bowen and savvy defensive big men like Fabricio Oberto, the Spurs are committing 20.4 fouls per game so far this season, good for 12th in the NBA and solidifying their status as a middle-of-the-road defensive team. As a result, San Antonio is giving up 23 free throw attempts a game, which is sixth in the NBA.

Sixth in free throw attempts given up may not seem bad, but the extra fouls do several things. First, they get good players in foul trouble. When Gregg Popovich would rather have a front court of Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair and Manu Ginobili, Blair’s youth and over-assertiveness get him into foul trouble and maybe he’s stuck with a small ball lineup of Duncan, Ginobili and Richard Jefferson.

The second consequence of committing too many fouls is teams tend to allow easy baskets when fouls are high. If Duncan picks up two fouls in the first half, he’s more likely to allow an uncontested dunk or layup than he is if he has one or no fouls. Likewise, Keith Bogans and George Hill will be more aggressive on the perimeter if they don’t have to worry about foul trouble.

Fouling has a trickle down effect on a team’s defensive gameplan and, as we’ve seen with the Spurs this season, limits its ability to get stops late in games and close teams out. If San Antonio is to regain its status as an elite defensive team, being physical while keeping teams out of the bonus is a good place to start.

  • Tristan Wilkins

    idk where to begin with this team. I still have hope though. we don’t know who is going to get the ball and be aggresive. I think pop should tell r.j. that he is going to need to attack the basket. Not td, not manu, although he good at it, tony is needing all the rest he can get if we make the playoffs. I don’t know how to react to this team this yr, but sit back and watch the great dynasty fall apart, but i aint goin nowhere.

  • gospurs44

    That’s been the main problem for the Spurs all year long. When Duncan goes out they have no one to protect the rim. If you look at the options, 6’9 McDyess, 6’7(uh..umm) Blair, or 6’10 Bonner (who can’t jump), you can see why opposing teams are having a parade to the basket. For some reason the FO decided that playing the season with no legitimate backup center would be a good idea. I know they had Ratliff to start the season but it was evident early on that he wasn’t going to get much time. It’s hard for me to imagine that the alleged best FO and the alleged best coach in the NBA could not figure this out.

  • Cory Clay

    From the Twitter account of JE Skeets from The Basketball Jones Podcasts

    jeskeets RT @tomhaberstroh: Opponents have shot 33-for-65 (50.7%) at the rim vs. the ‘Cats since Ty Thomas and Theo Ratliff arrived. NBA avg = 60.5%

  • td4life

    Yup! (Thanks for the article). This is the spurs number one problem, by a wide, wide margin.

    This IS the chief error of the SAS FO, why Bonner though serviceable should be replaced, and this is why small ball is a laughably bad idea… Golden State did it best against (a soft dallas mavericks) in the 07 playoffs because of their extreme hustle and desire, but it still got them schooled by the likes of Utah. Meanwhile, big long bodies go a long long way, even if they aren’t exceptional defenders… who’s ranked one and two in the NBA right now? Which two newest additions transformed the Lakers from the Bryant-Odom lottery team that they were? Who did Cleveland bring to town in the offseason? Boston 2 years ago?

    With an imposing middle, we could do great things… eventually, I’ll shut up (just as soon as I’m over it) about how we should have made the biggest offers we possibly could to get camby and that guy in the red jersey pictured above, or haywood, or dalembert, or…

  • Brian

    Maybe we are fouling more because people are getting to the rim more. Because of the lackluster defense people are being caught out of position and forced to commit fouls while contesting shots. I’d love to see some statistical exploration into the correlation between fouling and good defense. Which causes the other, and vice versa.

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  • Jim Henderson

    We foul too much because it’s either that or we give up FAR TOO MANY LAYUPS. And there’s two reasons for this: (1) We have too many lazy, soft, perimeter defenders (the anti-Bowens, I like to call them); (2) We do not have either a relatively tall, young, athletic PF/C that can block shots, assisting Duncan in the paint, or we do not have a not so young , VERY tall center that can defend the paint & block shots (but not 33 yrs. old+, other than maybe Camby, that’s it).

    Thus, a week before the trading deadline I proposed the following deal for Haywood (a few days before the Mavs pulled the trigger). And I got NO positive feedback on this proposal at the time on this blog, and in fact, I had a couple of people complain about Haywood &/or Foye not being any good. So now we see what Haywood’s doing in Dallas, and we hear some complaining, or wishing we had another big guy (and no, Theo is over the hill, and cannot be relied upon for consistent production in the paint – he’s only playing in Charlotte now because their two centers are both injured [Chandler & Diop] – and he’s having some positive effect at the moment because he’s paired with the athletic Thomas, who is playing great – no, the salary drop for Theo was fine – he was not going to solve the Spurs issues anyway).

    So, if you didn’t read my post from about two weeks ago, and care to do so, here it is. The trade proposal & the justification (of course the link won’t work now because of the Mavs trade for Haywood – It was Haywood and Foye for Ginobli):

    Jim Henderson
    February 12th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Please take a moment to revisit the trade proposal from my previous post.

    As I said, I hate to pull the trigger on Manu, I love the guy’s game. But let’s deal with some very important facts:

    (1) We ain’t going nowhere with our current small, short, and/or aging frontline. You saw how the Lakers destroyed us recently without the Bryant threat, and without Bynum. And we beat Denver while they had their bags packed, and without their best interior defender.
    (2) We need size, height, rebounding, shot blocking, and an additional scoring presence in the post, and we need to continue to balance the team with a bit more youth on the roster.
    (3) EXPIRING CONTRACTS is the name of the game as we approach this years trading deadline. A lot of teams like the Wizard’s are desperately trying to free up some cap space to make a run at some fee agents this summer.
    (4) This what we get from the trade proposal at the link above: SIZE – Haywood is 7′, 263 pds.; SCORING IN THE PAINT, REBOUNDING, INTERIOR DEFENSE & REBOUNDING – Haywood is averaging a double-double in rebounding & points, and blocks 2.1 shots a game; YOUTH – Haywood is 30 yrs. old, Foye is 26 yrs. old.
    (5) Sure we would miss Ginobli – he’s a fun player! But consider the following: Ginobli is 6 years older than Foye – that’s a BIG difference – and compare their career stats; pts., assists, rebounds, 3 pt. %: Foye – 12.4, 3.5, 2.7, 37% – Ginobli – 14.6, 3.7, 4.0, 37%. Nobody’s saying that Ginobli’s not a better player, but Foye is NO slouch, and has more upside at this point in his career.
    (6) Overall assessment/comments: Remember, Foye is a hybrid point/two-spot, like Hill, only taller. Thus, Foye, Hill, & Parker because of their solid mix of ball-handling, scoring, & passing, would form a very solid 3-guard rotation, with Mace giving us some more 3-point punch. Our frontline would now consist of Duncan, Haywood, Jefferson, McDyess, Blair, & Bonner, giving us a much better balance of inside/outside scoring, defense, and rebounding. Both new additions would make us younger, in a good way!
    (7) Finally, I agree with some of the previous comments defending Parker. He’s not perfect, but when healthy he is unequivocally one of the better all-around point guards in the league, and we’ve won 3 titles with his style of play. Also, his trade value is not strong right now because of his recent injury issues, and plus he has a 15 mil. not expiring contract. Also, while I appreciate Manu’s creativity and passing ability at the two-spot, I don’t agree with those that see Ginobli as a quasi point guard. His tendency to go for the “difficult” pass, while entertaining, is too turnover-prone to be relied upon for point duties on any kind of a consistent basis.

    Sorry to say, but trading Manu is probably our best hope of challenging for a title this year, and in the coming few years. Haywood is the key; we simply MUST have a guy like him to assist an aging Duncan & McDyess in the front court. Otherwise, believe me, we’re toast!

    P.S. I’m afraid we’re stuck with Jefferson. But look on the bright side: There’s a very good chance he will improve some in the coming weeks & months!


    I’m not privy to all the inside information as to why the Spurs apparently didn’t make a serious move for Haywood, but I would suggest it was because they weren’t willing to move Ginobli, which I respectfully disagree. Or, to be fair, it could of been because we (FO) simply didn’t want Butler as well (& Wiz insisted on unloading his contract in the deal), or couldn’t put enough on the table that was better than what the Mavs offered. Either way, it’s a shame we couldn’t get Haywood. There’s a good chance he would be doing here what he’s done in Dallas over the past five games (which is exactly what this team needed, even though it doesn’t completely fix some of the other issues that we have at present).


    Trading Manu is not the answer. Besides, Peter Holt wouldnt be able to sleep. Ginnobli is our ticket seller. He is this towns main draw…He is our fan favorite and he is a great player.

    The Spurs FO and Coach blew this. If they are sooooo great, why have they struggled so horribly to make this roster work?

    We need a trade, but not for a player…Can we trade our coach?

    Im worried here. What if FO and Coach cannot find anymore good players that will play for this coach? We all know that it takes a certain personality to play for this guy.

    But, I said before that Im done throwing Pop under the bus. Its wasted effort at best.

    He apparently lost his feel. All of the other mistakes, I can understand to a point, but when he brought in Bogans, denied that trading Bruce was a mistake, and crowned Bogans as a Bowen type defender, I realized that Pop has completely lost his mind.

    Somebody please write to this coach. Encourage him to play the best players and stop this favoritism nonsense.

    This man paid Bonner 11 million dollars…How many solid role players could we have signed for that money? Maddness!

    These young players are going to change things for this coach. He wouldnt play Ratliff or Mahinmi, even though we are getting killed on the glass and allowing too much scoring in the paint.

    He wouldnt play Hairston and has probably really damaged Malik’s confidence in himself as a player.

    Releasing Haislip was flat out dumb and allowing Dallas to get Haywood was idiotic.

    So he is in an awkward position now. If he plays these young players now, and they play well and contribute, he looks like a complete fool…

    At that point, the jig is up…Fans will want to know why he didnt do this sooner.

    Mahinmi, Hairston, Haislip, Marcus Williams…These are good athletes with upside. I dont care if they were D league or G league, they should at least get an opportunity.

    To take that opportunity way from them in favor of losing with Bonner, Bogans, Mason, and Finley is pure mismanagement.

    The Coach and the FO have hit a wall…

    Im sure that the pucker factor has grown to new heights!

    I vote for Shaun Elliott as coach..Send Pop upstairs….We need fresh perspective.

  • Beverly

    Clap if you believe!!!!! I STILL BELIEVE!!!!!
    2010 THE YEAR OF THE SPURS!!!!! GO SPURS GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • doggydogworld

    @Ballhog – glad to hear you’re “done throwing Pop under the bus”.

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