At the All-Star Break, it’s clear that this San Antonio Spurs team is special. LaMarcus Aldridge is fitting in nicely, and he has been especially dominant since unplugging from social media after that ugly game in Oakland. Kawhi Leonard has truly come into his own as an offensive weapon and a leader. Outside of general fatigue and Manu Ginobili getting kneed in the ‘Ginobilis’ so hard it required surgery, these guys have stayed healthy. The bench has been one of the league’s best, and rookies Jonathan Simmons and Boban Marjanovic have impressed in limited playing time. San Antonio dominates and demoralizes opponents and usually puts the game out of reach before the 4th quarter starts. The Spurs remain undefeated at home, and their league leading defense has them on pace to win 70 (!) games. It’s almost impossible to see room for improvement with a team this great. Almost.
The 2016 Spurs are off to the best start in franchise history, and they still haven’t played their best basketball. It seems like a lid is on the bucket to start both halves in most of their games, even the blowouts. Maybe it’s chemistry, maybe the starters just take some time to get into a rhythm, but whatever it is, it usually sorts itself out over the course of the game. The slow starts aren’t a big deal against average teams, but not even the Spurs can afford to fall behind early and wage an uphill battle against Golden State. The Cleveland Cavaliers are probably the only other team that can hold a lead over San Antonio, but those will very likely be the last two hurdles in the Spurs’ quest for a championship run.
It’s strange to say about a 45-8 team, but the Spurs really haven’t proven anything yet this season. It’s tough to say which was their best win, either the 99-95 victory against the Cavs, or the 119-101 win at Miami. It obviously isn’t their fault, but the Spurs haven’t had a particularly difficult schedule. They’ve played the Nuggets, Suns, and Lakers three times each, and their opponents to this point have a combined winning percentage of 47%. That number will jump to 56% after the break. San Antonio should beat most teams in this league, and they have won the games they were expected to win in convincing fashion. However, they also lost games that they were given a chance of losing in OKC, Chicago, Golden State, and Cleveland. Those last two were without Tim Duncan, but the contests weren’t even close. Crushing sub-par opponents in the friendly confines is fine and dandy, but you need to beat good teams on the road to win an NBA championship. The Spurs definitely have the ability to do this, they just haven’t done it yet this season.
The annual rodeo road trip should get the Spurs more comfortable with playing in hostile environments. The toughest game of the whole trip is Thursday night in Los Angeles, where the Clippers almost always seem to put up a good fight, even without Blake Griffin (pun definitely intended). If Pop’s squad can win that game, they have a great chance to complete an undefeated month of February. Something wacky might happen on the second night of a back-to-back against the Kobe Farewell Show, but as long as the Spurs take care of business, the Rockets are the only team that can stop them from returning to the AT&T Center without having lost a game. Again, they aren’t facing the stiffest competition, but 9 games on the road can potentially galvanize this team as they head toward the home stretch of the season.
San Antonio has dropped road games to good teams, and the efficiency numbers give us some clues as to why. First, let’s look at the defensive end. The Spurs’ defense has been a calling card all season, but hasn’t really shown up in losses. Their defensive rating of 95.2 is the best in the NBA by a wide margin, but opponents that beat them are scoring an average of 106.9 points per 100 possessions. In wins, the Spurs have limited opponents to 30.5% from behind the arc. In losses, they allow just about the same number of attempts, but at a 38.3% clip. They hold opponents to an average FG% of 43.1%, and that number jumps five percentage points in losses. Those losses in Cleveland and Golden State were full of wide open layups and dunks, and Duncan’s presence was definitely missed. He may be an old man, but his communication and rim protection is vitally important on the defensive end.
A similar pattern exists on the offensive end of the floor. The Spurs’ field goal percentage of 49.1% just edges out the Warriors for best in the league, but they shoot a pedestrian 44.1% from the floor in losses. Again, number of attempts remains constant for 3 pointers (~18.5/game) and field goals (~83.2/game), but efficiency drops dramatically. There is an even bigger drop off in 3 point shooting, from a second ranked 39.3% all the way down to 31.7%, which would be second worst. For comparison, Golden State makes a straight-up disrespectful 42.4% of their 30.5 three point attempts per game. The good news for San Antonio is that thanks to the resurgence of Danny Green, their 3PT% has improved each month; from 35.9% in November to 43.7% in February. The Spurs are getting to their spots and shooting their shots, they just haven’t been falling in big games.
Sure this is focused on the San Antonio’s “weaknesses,” but I’m picking nits here. The Spurs have managed to get off to the best start in their storied franchise history in a period of significant transition. Leonard and Aldridge will continue to grow more comfortable in the system that has dramatically changed to suit their abilities. Green will (hopefully) stick to his New Year’s resolution to hit more threes. Believe it or not, this San Antonio super-team can still get better, and they will, provided they can stay healthy.