Last season, back in November when the Philadelphia 76ers were visiting the AT&T Center, former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach and current Sixers Head Coach Brett Brown commented on how Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich used to set benchmarks when Brown was part of the coaching staff for San Antonio.
“We sort of look to Christmas, and what goes on after Christmas to the All-Star break,” said Brown on that November day in 2014. “We always talked about ramping stuff up right before the All-Star break, when people were getting used to going on holidays. We felt like there was a weakness then, (and) you could just jump on it. The mindset of Post-All Star break, that’s sort of been the rhythm with him for me, since I was here.”
So, using the benchmarks Brown just gave, I was eager to see how the Spurs and other contenders faired from the start of the season to Christmas, and then after Christmas to the current All-Star Break. Here were the findings, using the top-8 teams from either conference by record at each moment in time.
|Before Christmas||After Christmas to All-Star Break|
|Warriors 28-1||Spurs 20-2|
|Spurs 25-6||Warriors 20-3|
|Cavaliers 19-8||Thunder 20-4|
|Thunder 20-10||Clippers 18-5|
|Hawks 19-12||Raptors 17-5|
|Heat 17-11||Cavaliers 19-6|
|Raptors 18-12||Blazers 16-7|
|Bulls 16-11||Grizzlies 15-7|
After looking at how the teams faired during both times frames, it might clear what Brown was referring to when he said the Spurs like to ‘ramp stuff up’ right before the All-Star Break, as San Antonio finished with the best record in the league after Christmas and into the All-Star Break.
Here’s another trend that was occurring during those two benchmarks. While much has been made of the teams in the East starting to have more teams with records at either .500 or above (9 teams currently), the West slowly has once again become the dominant conference overall since Christmas. In the first column on the left, there were five East teams in the top-8 by record and just three West teams before Christmas. After Christmas and into the All-Star Break, the West had six of the Top-8 teams with better records and just two teams from the East – the Raptors and Cavaliers.
The four contenders that are being mentioned by most are the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers. I was interested in seeing how their offense and defenses have either progressed or regressed between the two benchmarks. First, the chart below displays each team’s offensive rating during the two benchmarks.
When looking at each team’s offensive rating (Points scored per 100 possessions), each of the contenders offenses showed growth, but the two teams that made the biggest leaps offensively during those two time periods were the Spurs (106.5 to 113.1 PP/100) and the Thunder (104.0 to 112.9 PP/100).
After Christmas to the All-Star Break, the Spurs’ defense did slip a bit, but even in holding teams to 98.4 points per 100 possessions, San Antonio still maintained the top-rated defense during that stretch. Whether it was Tim Duncan missing multiple games due to knee soreness, the Spurs playing better offensive teams, or San Antonio getting blown out by the Warriors and Cavaliers during that time span, San Antonio is still holding the fort with the league’s best defense, only allowing opponents to score 95.2 points per 100 possessions.
The Warriors’ defense didn’t slip too much after Christmas, but when it comes to the Thunder and Cavaliers, their defenses may be something that needs to be addressed heading into the stretch run of the season. Before Christmas, the Thunder had the 6th ranked defense, holding teams to 98.9 points per 100 possessions, but after Christmas and into the All-Star Break, the Thunder defense fell down to 16th, allowing teams to score 105.0 points per 100 possessions. Overall, the Thunder defense is barely holding a place in the Top-10 overall, as they sit in the 10th spot defensively.
The Cavaliers’ defense was ranked 5th before Christmas holding teams to 98.5 points per 100 possessions, but in the second benchmark, Cleveland’s defense too slipped down to 13th, allowing teams to score 103.9 points per 100 possessions. Still, overall, the Cavaliers have the formula for a contender, with the seventh best defense currently, as they hold teams to 101.1 points per 100 possessions.
After digging into some of the benchmarks, I went ahead and looked ahead to the stretch run of the season. In this next table, I broke down which contender has the toughest schedule remaining between the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers, based on the six teams with records over .600 (Warriors 48-4, Spurs 45-8, Thunder 40-14, Cavaliers 38-14, Raptors 35-17, Clippers 35-18), that they’ll face in their final games of the season.
|Games left vs Top-6||7 of 30 games||9 of 29 games||10 of 28 games||3 of 30 games|
|Percentage left vs Top-6||23.0%||31.0%||35.7%||10.0%|
Of games vs the Top-6 teams currently by record, the Thunder and Spurs will have the two toughest schedules down the stretch in their final 28 (OKC) and 29 (SA) games of the season. How good are the Warriors? They only have seven combined games left against the Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers, meaning they’ve gotten through some of their toughest opponents with just four losses to date. Since the Cavaliers play in the East, they’ve already played most of the elite West teams, so they’ll only see the Thunder, Raptors and Clippers once each down the stretch to end the season.
While these records and numbers were all gathered at different time periods before the All-Star Break, the complexion of the league and several teams could change drastically before March 1, since the NBA Trade deadline will end Thursday and the buyout market begins to take shape. Once March 1 rolls around, teams will have to begin completing their final signings for playoff eligible rosters.