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)Â 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.