What do the following teams have in common?
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Houston Rockets
- Miami Heat
- Indiana Pacers
I’ll hasten with the answer: each team does not own the best record in the NBA. That title belongs to San Antonio, a team that, for whatever reason, year after year, continues to fly under the radar. An appearance on the biggest of stages, the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat in 7 games, apparently was not enough to garner respect for the bunch. TeamRankings.com, one of the leaders in sports analytics, uses an NBA power ranking system based off of tons of different information tidbits from every single game: home/away status, margin of victory, and many other factors. These data values are then algorithmically compared against thousands of past games, and higher weight is put on factors that tend to have greater effects on, and association with, winning. Let’s take a glance at their top six as of today:
San Antonio doesn’t just have the league’s best record. These analytics like them as the league’s best team. Let’s look deeper in to some of the key points from the table:
- Their rating is pretty convincing: the gap between SA and the Clippers, ranked third, is the same size as the gap containing all of teams 3-6. Additionally, the distance between SA and second-ranked Oklahoma City is tied for the largest gap between two consecutive teams in this top six.
- Aside from dominating bad teams, they’ve taken care of business against the good teams ranked from 6-16, boasting the best record against those teams of the top six.
- They’ve been very consistent in their excellence, as the lowest they’ve dropped in the rankings all season is fourth, by far the best of any team in the league.
- The only scratch on this record seems to be their record against the top five, an ugly 3-8. They’re 0-3 against OKC, 2-1 against LAC, 0-3 against Houston, and 1-1 against Miami. This could definitely be a concern, as all of those teams are possible, even likely, playoff opponents. However, as will be outlined in a bit, the Spurs play a very different game in the playoffs.
What’s most amazing about the Spurs is that they don’t even go their hardest during the regular season. Head Coach Gregg Popovich, who is probably the league’s best, is notorious for saving his team’s health for the playoffs, once actually sent his four best players home just before a matchup with the Heat due to a back-to-back. How’s this for an amazing stat: they only have one player averaging over 30 minutes per game this season – Tony Parker. Parker’s 30.7 MPG average is good for 82nd in the league. 81 players play more minutes per game than Parker, and he’s only played in 52 of the Spurs’ 63 games. Talk about keeping your legs fresh. Of course, with only one player playing over 30 minutes, you need an exceptional gameplan (enter Gregg Popovich) and a well-balanced effort. The Spurs’ leader in win shares, an estimate of wins contributed by a single player based on a myriad of data, is Tim Duncan, with 5.5. Compare that to the Thunder, where Kevin Durant boasts a 15.5 and Serge Ibaka a 7.5. The Spurs have seven players owning more than 4 win shares; the Thunder only two. This balanced attack makes them tough to defend, as they don’t really need any specific players to have a great game to win, whereas if you can find a way to slow Kevin Durant enough, the Thunder are a far less effective team.
One of the Spurs’ most important players, in fact, might be Kawhi Leonard, often lost beneath the team’s legendary “Big Three.” However, his on-ball defense, rebounding, toughness, transition play, and outside shooting make him a weapon for Popovich in many facets of the game. Take a look at how his injury, and return, has effected the Spurs, via NBA.com:
And here’s one of my all-time favorite videos – LeBron reacting to Leonard checking in during last year’s Finals:
It’s players like Leonard, who might be fourth or fifth on the opponents’ scouting reports, who really make the Spurs so successful.
Heres a glance at the overall excellence of Popovich’s bunch this season:
- 3rd in average score margin (+6.7)
- 7th in average points in the paint (45.8)
- 2nd in assists per game (24.9)
- 4th in assist/turnover ratio (1.688)
- 2nd in effective field goal percentage (53.8)
- 4th in free throw percentage (78.8)
- 1st in three point percentage (39.6)
- 1st in fouls per game (18.1)
The efficiency of this team is like that a well-oiled machine, putting up around 105 points on you every night whether you like it or not, doing it from multiple sources, and doing it with ease. They take care of the basketball while still being able to move it around to find the best possible shot on each possession. They take analytics-friendly shots, too, as they love to jack up threes and get into the paint. They’ve been doing it for years. Credit the players and the coaches, and take advantage of the Spurs while you can – you never know when Pop, Duncan, Manu, and Parker might call it a career.
Other squads may get the TV spots, but depth, balance, efficiency, and coaching: all the ingredients for yet another deep San Antonio playoff run.
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University