A Deep Dive into the Spurs’ Defense, Part 1: The Numbers

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For the second season in a row, the San Antonio Spurs are a poor defensive team. In this series, I’ll be diving into different aspects of the Spurs’ defense to show what is going wrong, what looks good, and if they will be able to improve as the season goes on. In this first part, I’ll discuss the Spurs’ defensive metrics compared to the rest of the NBA. All stats are from CleaningTheGlass.com, so all numbers will have garbage time and end of quarter heaves removed. All stats were obtained before the Spurs’ Thursday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

First, the stats seems to give some evidence that the Spurs’ defensive strategy is a sound one. CleaningTheGlass provides a “Location eFG%”. This number shows what the Spurs’ effective field goal percentage would be if their opponents shot league average on the attempts the Spurs are giving from the different locations on the court. The Spurs have the forth lowest opponent location effective field goal percentage in the NBA at 51.8%. Their actual opponent effective field goal percentage ranks 20th at 53.5%.

The discrepancy between average shot quality and actual shot quality for Spurs opponents is coming from two locations primarily. While the Spurs give up a high field goal percentage at the rim, 64.0%, 22nd in the NBA, and three point shots in general, 38.0%, 26th in the NBA, the two areas where Spurs opponents are shooting the best relative to the rest of the league is long mid-range shots, 44.9%, 27th in the NBA, and non-corner threes, 38.3%, 29th in the NBA. What makes these numbers even more surprising is that Spurs opponents are shooting better from long mid-range than short mid-range, 36.9%, 7th in the NBA, and are shooting better from non-corner threes than corner threes, 37.0%, 11th.

The Spurs, by opponent shooting frequency, seem to be allowing the shots they want to allow, but opponents are shooting much better on them than average. While I’m not quite sure of the reasons for this and will look into it in a later part in this series, my instinct is that defensive personnel, and not scheme, are the problem and that the numbers show that.

The Spurs are also limiting their opponents transition opportunities. They force the 2nd most half court plays of any team in the NBA at 81.5%, but opponents are scoring 96.9 points per half court play against them, 24th in the NBA. This is another indicator that the Spurs are forcing their opponents into worse offense, but opponents are still able to get good shots.

Their defensive four factors aren’t that far out of line for a Spurs team, aside from opponent effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage, at least 1.6% worse than it was in any season in the decade before last season. Their opponents’ free throw rate is higher than it was the past two seasons, but is still in range of what has been typical of Spurs’ teams throughout the decade, three Spurs teams have had very similar free throw rates since the start of the 2010-2011 season.

The stats seem to show that the Spurs are forcing opponents to take potentially lower quality shots, but aren’t able to keep opponent’s from scoring. Some of their opponents’ high shooting from long mid-range or non-corner three’s may drop throughout the season, and if so, the Spurs may start to look better on defense.

All stats obtained from CleaningTheGlass.com

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