The Spurs: Not So Far Behind

Though it’s finally over, the Golden State Warriors’ winning streak was the talk of the NBA during its run, and why not? The dominance of the Warriors has been more than apparent this season. Their already-defending-MVP Stephen Curry has been by far the best player in the Association this season, contributing over 1.5 wins more than the next best player in our WAR rankings. Golden State is 24-1 with an average point differential of +13.1, and there’s no doubting the already-defending-champions have been the NBA’s best team, but by how much?

The San Antonio Spurs, as usual, have flown under the radar this season, and they have mostly the Warriors to thank. Sure, the Warriors have been better, but it’s a very long season, and thus far, more so than Golden State being in its own league, they and San Antonio have shared said distinction:

GSW GSW Rank SAS SAS Rank Next best
Win percentage 0.960 1 0.800 2 0.682
Margin of victory 13.1 1 12.2 2 7.0
TSP 70 1 66.7 2 53.3
WAR of best player 8.5 1 6.9 2 6.8
nERD 90.7 1 84.9 2 69.4
BPI 10.3 1 8.8 2 5.9
TR Rating 10.7 1 8.9 2 5.4

While Golden State trumps San Antonio on all these metrics, the Spurs are almost always a lot closer to the Warriors than they are to whoever’s in third, whether it be Cleveland or Oklahoma City.

Before the season began, many people picked the Spurs as the second-best team in the league, but for different reasons than those that have manifested themselves. The addition of big-time power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, to many, cemented San Antonio as number two, but Aldridge has still yet to find a rhythm within the Spurs’ offense. He hasn’t averaged under 21 points per game since the 2009-2010 season, but is putting up just 15.7 thus far this year. Aldridge has shown positive signs of fitting in, though:

Month PPG FG%
October 10.5 0.391
November 15.9 0.443
December 16.7 0.527

LaMarcus’ comfort level should only grow as the season progresses, but the two main reasons for the Spurs’ great success thus far this season aren’t their big name acquisition, but their historic defense and their still-budding superstar in Kawhi Leonard, both of which may tailor San Antonio very well as a difficult potential playoff matchup for Golden State.

The Warriors lead the league this season in points per game with 115.3. The Spurs, though, are giving up a league-best 88.2 points per game, and though a lot of that is attributable to their 6th-slowest pace in the league (per Basketball Reference), it’s worth noting that no team has allowed under 90 points per game in a season since Memphis in 2012-2013, and that year, the Grizzlies’ point differential of +4.1 paled in comparison to this Spurs squad’s +12.2. It’s also worth noting that that Memphis team won 56 games in a very crowed Western Conference.

Not surprisingly when considering their pair of Splash Brothers, the Warriors lead the league this season in three point percentage at 0.425. The Spurs, though, are yielding a league-best 0.307 percentage from downtown, and being a rate stat, you can’t blame pace here. The most amazing part is despite the league changing so much in the past decade in its emphasis on the three point shot, no team has allowed a percentage that low over the course of a season since the Pistons held opponents to 0.302 back in 2003-2004. Those Pistons, of course, went on to win the Finals. This is dually attributable to the genius scheming of Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ sizable, athletic wing defenders, like Leonard and Danny Green.

Great teams are usually smart, and the Warriors are both. Alongside their great three-point shooting, they love to get to the rim (and shoot a great percentage there) and free-throw line, while mostly avoiding mid-range shots. Golden State is shooting a well-above average 62% from close range this season, and is 8th in the NBA in drawing fouls. The Spurs, though, are allowing opponents to shoot an almost ridiculous 52% from inside, and are the league’s best at not fouling, allowing 16 less free throws this year than any other team. They are also more than happy to give you mid-range jumpers:

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 4.36.03 PM.pngWarriors’ offense

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 4.36.21 PM.png     Spurs’ defense 

It sure looks like San Antonio’s league-best defense is tailor-made for Golden State’s league-best offense. Of course, that by no means says the Spurs could shut down Curry & co., but they have a much better chance than anyone else does, especially considering they have the league’s best individual defender on their team in store for the guy the Warriors’ offense runs through.

Just as Stephen Curry has made huge strides since winning MVP, Kawhi Leonard has since winning defensive player of the year. Kawhi was the first perimeter player to win the award since Ron Artest back in 2003-2004, and his dominance is well-documented. LeBron knows very well how frustrating Kawhi can be:

He’s even dominated Steph and the Warriors in the recent past:

Per CBS Sports, the Warriors scored 109.5 points per 100 possessions last season, compared to just 98.8 against the Spurs when Leonard was on the floor. Of course, the Warriors and their star, alongside the Spurs and theirs, are all different/better this season, but the numbers are eye-opening nonetheless.

There is no argument right now that any team in the NBA is better than the Warriors. Still, there has to be plenty cause for concern in Oakland at the monster also developing in central Texas – the one that has a star slowly finding his stride in Aldridge, a potential MVP candidate in Leonard that just may be the kryptonite to that award’s favorite, a historically good defense that seems to be best at stopping what the Warriors love to do, and hall of famers abound, both calling the shots from the sideline and keeping the chemistry on the court (I haven’t even mentioned these guys,  who are still somehow contributing at a high level). Golden State came close to breaking the Lakers’ win streak record, and may just break the single-season winning mark of the Bulls, but come playoff time, nothing will be guaranteed for the defending champs.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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