The San Antonio Spurs and Meme Reversal

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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.

As of this morning the Spurs are ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency.

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.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Interesting post, Tim. Hollinger posted his Playoff Odds for the first time today, and the Spurs project to be the last in the playoffs. But there’s also a very strange chance that the Pacific will be won by a team with the 9th best record, which only increases the chance that the Spurs miss the playoffs this year. While I think they could make a lot of noise if they do make the playoffs–with Manu coming back and several of those young players you mentioned likely to improve substantially over the season–in many ways it might be better if they don’t. This is a really good year to be in the lottery, even at the back end of it.

    I still hope they’ll make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t be upset if they didn’t. It might represent their best chance to add a star player without a complete collapse.

  • Bob

    They can still do it. They need to get another big and start Splitter. That will improve the post defense. It will also improve the perimeter defense as the perimeter guys can put more pressure on the perimeter.

  • NYC

    Damn.  

  • Agutierrez

    The day that Pop made the decision to give Bonner significant minutes is the day the meme was reversed. It hasn’t changed since. Yes, we love his enthusiasm, his moxie, his heart, but he just can’t play defense, never did, never will. BTW: Blair isn’t far behind.

  • DorieStreet

    Season  :  Opp. PPG  :  League Rank  :  Roster Avg. Age
    06-07     :       90.1      :        1st          :           30.4     (oldest)
    07-08     :       90.6      :        3rd          :           31.4         ”
    08-09     :       93.3      :        2nd         :           30.4         ”
    09-10     :       96.3      :        8th          :          28.7   (3rd oldest)
    10-11     :       98.0      :       14th         :          28.8   (6th oldest)
    11-12     :       96.4      :       21st         :          27.4  (10th oldest)

    Summary on these stats: ’09-10   —  older players losing ability to cover their man/rotate;
                                                         younger/new players struggling to pick up defensive system.

                                           10-11  —  team abandons defense-first philosophy due to older players
                                                         further declining in denfensive ability and more younger/new
                                                         players.
     
                                              11-12   team trends continue.

  • Deeds130

    Thing is, missing the playoffs still gives them a difference between a 13th or 14th pick versus maybe a 16th pick. Maybe that helps grab that guy you’d miss out on, but the talent at that point has thinned out bigtime. Make the playoffs, and then gear for a top pick in 2013, while trading up for a 2012 lottery pick if you can. Not saying they can make the playoffs, just that it’d be disappointing if they don’t.

    And Andrew, there’s a difference between blowing it up and crumbling apart. Just because they’ve found roster spots for younger players doesn’t mean they’ve taken on the challenge of rebuilding just yet (although successfully moving TP on draft day last summer wouldve been a start: and we’d probably be a lottery team right now, with no TP, TJ, or Manu.)

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  • Anonymous

    Great write up.  I’ve been saying this for some time as I’m sure others have undoubtedly noticed.

    But this isn’t about what we’ve noticed; Or trends coming into place; Or even MeMe Reversal.  It’s always about what are they going to do to be legitimate players for a title run.  Oh I’ll enjoy watching as always.  Barking out arm chair responses like all of us fans do.

    But for the first time in years…many of us don’t have a clear idea of what’s going to take place…what to expect..or even if they are going to make the right move to continue dominance in the league.  There’s no clear path set at this time.  And as we all know…winning championships takes a team that is at least top 10 defensively in this league to accomplish.  I don’t care if they were #1 in offensive efficiency…they would not win a championship by being below the top 10 in the league at defense.

    There main goal from last year forward should always be to draft, trade for, and somehow get top talent in defense at ALL positions.  An all around defensive/offensive big would be a dream come true to compliment the perimeter talent they’ve methodically been collecting.

    From this point forward…what’s their best way to accomplish such a task?

  • Tim in Surrey

    @Deeds130 – “Thing is, missing the playoffs still gives them a difference between a 13th or 14th pick versus maybe a 16th pick. Maybe that helps grab that guy you’d miss out on, but the talent at that point has thinned out bigtime.” Not this year. This is not a tremendously deep draft at the bottom of the first round, but the top level of talent is very, very deep. The lockout meant that quite a few first-round prospects from last year were added to this year’s draft (Barnes, Sullinger, Perry Jones III, Terrence Jones, Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, John Henson, Tyler Zeller, etc., etc.). So this year you’ll be able to get a player at around 10-15 that would’ve likely gone 4-8 this year. So if you’re going to miss the playoffs, this is the year to do it.

  • DorieStreet

    Set it up to get Kevin Love after the 2014-15 season (option year on his new 4-year deal).

  • spectator

    if the spurs had only played in the east!!!

    they would have made at least 1-2 more nba finals in the years past and would not have to struggle so much during the regular season. they could have strolled in the playoffs with a sub .500 record, while never playing duncan and ginobili on a b2b.

    alas, if this is the last hurrah, i would say that they must trade blair + anderson/neal + 1st rounder for another big (like taj gibson or someone similar). the spurs need help inside the paint. i like both blair and bonner, but if i had to choose only one, i would pick bonner b/c of his height – hate it when SG just shoot over blair – and 3-point FG%.

  • Lvmainman

    In my mind the best way to accomplish staying relevant/playoff caliber/championship potential is to find a way to get 2 talented, Big men. The last champions have all had them. Dallas won with Nowitzki, but the addition of Chandler. Celtics won adding Garnett to Perkins. Lakers trading for Pau Gasol resulted in 3 straight finals appearances, and wins when Bynum played. Pistons got over the hump by adding Rasheed Wallace to Ben Wallace. Spurs with Duncan and a Rasho/Nazr/Horry/Robinson type.

    None of the dominant point guard, “best player on the team” have yet to win a championship. From Nash, Rose, Westbrook, Paul, Williams.

    Spurs should be taking more risks with big men than they have. Wasting a 1st rd pick on Joseph vs a risk on a Jeremy Tyler type. Mahinmi didn’t work out, but I still believe the Spurs gave up too early. Draft a Zeller?(Tyler/Luke) Keep looking for the Splitter’s, Marc Gasol, Asik, Erden, Mozgov, Bourannis? types overseas. Or trade for the next big man. I’d trade Parker for Pau Gasol or Al Jefferson(a black hole, but a scoring machine only 27). Or take a risk on untapped, unfulfilled potential in a Roy Hibbert, Jason Thompson or Anthony Randolph(averaged a double, double subbing for Love in 6 straight games last year, only 22!!)

    Spurs should be able to improve on Blair/Bonner combo. In my mind best as a 5th/6th big on a good team. Bonner is Scalabrine/Cardinal/Walton mode and should bench ride as such.

    Obtaining big men should be the #1 priority.

  • http://radsci.uthscsa.edu/index.php/User:Nima Nima K.

    Plus we can also pull a trade and move up the draft, like we did for GH3.

  • Len

    As blasphemous as it sounds, trading Manu to the Bulls would get us some great defensive presence inside.  Not sure exactly who we could pull but out of Noah, Asik, Gibson and Deng, there are some nice defensive bigs there.  The Bulls would be crazy not to pair Manu with Rose.

    I know, I know, I would miss Manu like crazy too.  But you gotta give something of value to get something of value.

  • Len

    Im sorry but we’re not going to get 2 good quality defensive bigs for TP, not gonna happen.  Not to mention, the Spurs are deep at the TWO, not at the ONE.  We’ve seen what happens when Gary Neal plays the point.  

    Trading Manu, as much as it would SUCK in the short term, is the best way the Spurs can replenish their front court.

  • Len

    Forgot to mention that the Bulls would probably be interested in Boner.  I remember that they were in the bidding for his services when he was a free agent last time.

    Tough to make the salaries match up unless the Spurs took Boozer back (no thank you), but hey, let’s not burden playing fantasy GM with those “pesky” facts.

  • Deeds130

    I generally agree. 2 bigs and a younger lead guard are needed going forward, in addition to making sure that perimeter defensive talent is also there, along with good shooters.

    This draft is above average, but still drops off roughly aound the 14th pick, with plenty of future disappoints going throughout. Drummond, Rivers, and Teague probably don’t declare this year, and I don’t believe in Perry Jones much at all. Tyler Zeller isn’t too special either. Henson could potentially pay off nicely for a late lottery pick, and so could both of Washington’s guards. But this draft won’t dramatically improve the Spurs, just to get that straight. If anything, missing the playoffs might serve notice to Buford that we need to get aggressive and realize that a top lottery pick or 2 has to be acquired. I hope they realize that already, and don’t need to miss the playoffs as a wakeup call. As a bonus, competing in the playoffs increases our players trade value.

  • Deeds130

    Yes, please.

  • Thomasholdren

    well we better get the lowest pick of 6, because any guy after 6-7 is not that great. I personally feel that the talent coming into the NBA is getting worse and worse each year…. 

  • Anonymous

    Have to think twice about that scenario.  Would all depend on who they get for Manu.  Nothing short of an all star big AND solid role player.

  • Bob

    There’s no way Bonner would see the floor with a defense-first coach like Thibs.

  • Bob

    I agree the Spurs just haven’t made it a priority. It takes more work but there is a greater payoff. Perimeter players can be found anytime.

  • Len

    That is too much.  Manu is an older, somewhat injury-prone, two time all star. 

    Work with a team that views Boner as an asset (Bulls), and two players who aren’t all stars, such as Deng (solid) and Asik (potential + size), would be a realistic trade.

  • Len

    It was reported on multilple sites that the Bulls were interested in Matt Bonner back when he was a free agent last time. 

    Hard to believe but true none the less..
    http://www.mysanantonio.com/sports/spurs/article/Decision-made-Spurs-plans-for-roster-can-move-782723.php?c=y&page=2#storytop

  • Hassan osman

    Manu + Bonner for Asik, Gibson & Brewer….

  • Hassan Osman

    Even though SA is a small market team and Dwight Howard wants a big market due to pressure from Addidass but we can be about 18-19 million under the cap if we amnesty RJ, pay 7 mill/year to Duncan’s new 2 yr contract. If DH12 agrees to come to SA(a winning organization with a coach that preeches defense and pounding the ball) we then Trade Splitter, JA, Corey & two 1st Rd picks for DH12 and get a couple of rings before Manu & Tuncan are completely out of gas.

    Salary cap #s:
    Ginobili        13     million
    Parker          12.5  million
    Bonner           3.5  million
    K Leonard      2.0  million  
    Blair                1.0  million
    Green             1.0  million
    T J ford           1.0  million
    Neal                1.0  million

    Add Duncan at 7 million/year on new contract.
    TRADE(an uneven trade as the Spurs would have cap space) for DH12 as above and his salary starts at about 16 mill

    So we are at 58 million cap number so still with about 3 million in cap space for another big; then 3 more minimum contracts…

    What you all think…!!!!

  • Ch500634

    They started one of the things u said. Drafting “the best defensive” prospect which honestly outside of the lottery was Kawhi Leonard. He was offensively nothing special even in college but was still an NBA lock for his D. Its been a tough adjustment though with his offensive game being so inconsistent and the players being even harder to guard. 

  • Peter

    I think those numbers over-state the problem a bit.  Spurs are about average in percentage of opponent shot attempts that are three pointers (per Hoopdata 
    http://hoopdata.com/teamxefg.aspx), and they’re actually a little better than average for shots at the rim.

    The field goal percentage is bad, and the main problem there is field goal percentage at the rim (http://hoopdata.com/oteamshotlocs.aspx).  Hopefully that will improve with more playing time for Splitter.

    On the plus side, the team rebounds well and doesn’t foul much. League average could still happen!

  • Swannaldinho

    Splitter looked like a legit two way big tonight and same with kawhi on the wing. i think it is too early in the season to count the spurs out. once splitter gets more and more playing time along with kawhi and green, we could have a very turnover creating defense with at least somewhat of a D presence inside, which is a lot better than last year. Plus, people come on, Spurs are playing well over .500 ball without Manu Ginobili OR TJ. With those two back players go back to their normal positions, Tony will be able to go back to more of a get to the bucket mentality, RJ will get more open threes like at the beginning with the consistent drive and dish from Manu, TP and TJ. Not to mention, Blair will play better, and as horrific as he is on defense, he plays a lot better defensively when he is playing well on offense because he is more into the game (just look at the game against Atlanta tonight, he was making some buckets and in turn played relatively decent defense on the very athletic Josh Smith and even got some steals). I believe that now, Timmy and Tiago “Master” Splitter can play with eachother at the same time since TD’s jump shot has become so automatic from outside the paint and Tiago can go to work downlow, and they are both such good unselfish passers. Once Manu and TJ get back, our offense which is already great will get even better and so will our defense since we will have consistently fresher legs and a stronger veteran presence out on the floor. Never count out the Spurs.

  • Tim in Surrey

    I doubt it will happen. I expect he’ll stay where he is, but if he leaves Minnesota it will be for Portland or one of the California teams.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Amazingly, the team you’re misdiagnosing in your list of recent champions is the Spurs. I’m sorry but neither Rasho, Nazr, nor Horry qualify as a second top big man. You don’t need twin towers to win the title. You do need tough interior defense. Tim used to supply that by himself, which is why we could get away with those guys playing alongside him. Unfortunately he can’t do that anymore. But it doesn’t mean we have to go the twin towers route. Two lockdown defenders at the forward spots would do it. Or two great perimeter defenders. We just need better defense, wherever it is.

  • Tim in Surrey

    I agree. If don’t get in the lottery, we might be able to get another top defender like Jeff Taylor. You put those two guys out on the wing together with Tiago inside and you’ve got 3/5 of a first-rate defensive squad.

  • figgy

    …when was Manu Ginobili ever a good defender? 

  • Thaddeus Clark

    One thing to consider – the Spurs have yet to play their 5 best defenders together. A situational crunch-time line-up of Manu, Green, Leonard, Splitter, & Duncan would in theory be a long, active, and pesky defense while still providing 2 ball-handlers, 2 great roll-men/rebounders, with only Leonard as the deficient corner 3 spot-up person. 

  • Ginobiliiiii!!

    Watch how much they throw the ball to the guy that Manu is guarding in the match. I think the only great exception is Kobe.

  • Hicksy73

    So Blair (an ENERGY guys off the bench at best) and Neal (playin better than JA) and our first (which might be okay when we miss the PO) for one of the most coveted back bigs in the game?? Come on lets not be faker fans.

  • Hicksy73

    And who was the CHI coach then ?? VDN Bonner wouldn’t see a minute of action in Thibs system.

  • Len

    Thibs was hired the same off season that the Bulls were interested in Bonner.

    If Kyle Korver gets 20 mins per game with Thibs as the coach, then Bonner could get some time.

  • Anonymous

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    http://hebankeditin.blogspot.com

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    The talent levels exactly the same.  It’s just the fact that we get to see so far into their character and follow their foibles on twitter etc now days.

    They look very human these days.  Very fallible.

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    They play Brian “the human victory cigar” Scalabrine once every couple of months.  

    I cannot guess what would happen if you put those two red heads on the same squad.
    Could you imagine Bonner playing C and Scalabrine playing PF on the same team.  The universe would implode.

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    this lol

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    As Len pointed out.  We get wrecked when TP goes to the bench in terms of playmaking right now.

    Tp wont bring in a Noah even with the quality of season he is having and the poor season Noah is having in a 1 for 1 trade.

    There is little to no chance of turning him into 2 bigs of that caliber

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    The spurs have made it a priority for years now.  They have drafted bigs in a near continuous stream, and attempted to turn one of them into a pot of gold.
    Splitter is a case in point, as is Dejaun, we picked up multiple Euro Stash bigs including Bertans & Lorbek, not to mention Ricahrds in the U.K.   

    It’s obviously the hardest position to fill in the association.  It follows that filling that position costs the most.  To get a big into the system in recent years,  we’d have had to hit the rebuild button considerably earlier.

    Everyone says perimeter players are easy to pick up.  That’s not true at all.  They are easier, but it’s not as if top quality perimeter players are falling off trees.

    You can get average PG’s fairly quickly.  You can’t get top class PG’s quickly at all.  The league is literally littered with volume shooting combo guards that never win anything.

    It is sure to be a contentious summer though.  A lot of wheeling and dealing is going to happen.

  • http://twitter.com/nudityJ nudityjfandango

    It’s surprising how many people even as spurs fans have no idea how good Manu has been Defensively.

    http://www.insidethehype.com/forum/f15/why-manu-ginobili-should-have-won-mvp-award-over-derrick-rose-1122/ 

    Check out the defensive stats from last year.  I guarantee you’ll be amazed.

    This is not atypical at all from Manu.  His numbers have often been at the top of the team in terms of perimeter defense EVEN when we had Bruce playing at the three spot.

  • DorieStreet

    DH12 will never be a Spur/stop Spurs Fans with all of the Howard to the Spurs scenarios