The San Antonio Spurs and Meme Reversal
If you’ve followed the NBA at all over the last decade, you’re familiar with the popular meme that surrounds the Spurs. It goes something like this: “The Spurs will be better by the end of the season than they are now. They’re a team that knows when to peak at the right time.”
And for the balance of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, this has largely proved true.
Some hoop observers continue to murmur along these lines, pointing to Gregg Popovich’s adroit skill at managing the minutes of his best players as a necessary ingredient of outlasting the competition in this terribly condensed season. And where you can’t hear minute-management murmuring, the faint whispers of “system-smarts” and “program continuity” continue to promote the Spurs in the halls of basketball prognostication.
But it isn’t true.
The new meme on the Spurs is not that they are secretly a very good team. The new meme on the Spurs is that they’re secretly a very mediocre team.
A few weeks back, Gregg Popovich described his current roster as the worst defensive team he’s coached in San Antonio. He wasn’t lying, and he wasn’t being melodramatic. The Spurs are one of the league’s worst defensive teams.
Gregg Popovich is one of the great defensive coaches in the history of the NBA—by some accounts, he’s the best ever defensive coach. But the Spurs’ success this season has everything to do with the fact that Popovich is also one of the league’s best offensive coaches.
This is a meme reversal in itself. The Spurs used to win on defense and get by with an efficient offense that would nevertheless find occasion to sputter and stall. But these days they can’t even get their defensive game out of gear. The Spurs beat teams because they outscore them, not because they hold them to fewer points, if you follow.
Wayne Vore and I have been discussing the transformation of the San Antonio Spurs by email, and he dug up a few numbers that make the case clear.
After 18 games, the Spurs are ranked with the Wizards, Cavs, and Bobcats for positions 24-27 on the opponent field goal percentage chart. Opponents are shooting 46.3% against the Spurs. Unlike the Spurs, the Wizards, Cavs and Bobcats are rallying for the top pick in this summer’s draft.
San Antonio, a team whose defensive philosophy is geared toward chasing guys off the three point line, ranks 25th in the league in fewest threes allowed. Even more alarmingly, the Spurs have only played two of the league’s top ten shooting teams this season.
The shooting efficiency of Spurs opponents is 50.3%, making the Spurs the 26th most effective team in the NBA in this category.
And so on.
Several young Spurs project as above average defenders, given time to grow. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green all show promise. Even Cory Joseph occasionally flashes potential on this front. But by the time they’re all up to speed, what will have become of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker’s game?
The Spurs are at a crossroads. The team is, in some important respects, exactly the opposite of where they were in, say, 2007 and 2008. Manu Ginobili’s injury hurts the Spurs, but Manu Ginobili injuries are nothing if not consistent. It’s not unfair to say the Spurs are threatening a complete identity reversal. The Spurs are an offensive team with real defensive issues. San Antonio is a team built for the regular season, not the playoffs.
Put differently, for those who wonder when San Antonio should blow it up and become something new, I’d suggest they already have.