Measuring the Spurs’ Transition Defense

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In the NBA, a transition play is any play that occurs before the opponent’s defense is set. Because the defense is outnumbered or out of position, offenses are usually at their most potent in transition. It’s easier to get an open lane to the rim or a wide open three point shot when defenders are on their heels and having to make split-second decisions on where to give the offense concessions while their teammates are recovering.

Transition is a major driving force behind some of the NBA’s most potent offenses. The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, for example, who are sustaining historically great offenses, rank first and sixth in points per play in transition and seventh and first in frequency of transition plays, respectively. A whopping 44.2% of live defensive rebounds become transition opportunities for the Warriors, a number that more than doubles the Spurs’ percentage in that same metric. Both of those teams in particular will be sizable obstacles in the Spurs’ hopes for a deep playoff run, and the Spurs’ ability, or inability, to defend them in transition would be a major factor in a series against either team.

Through the first 28 games of the season, the Spurs’ transition defense has been solid, but certainly has room to grow. The Spurs rank third in points allowed per 100 plays in transition and are only .1 points per 100 plays behind the second place Los Angeles Clippers. In terms of frequency, the Spurs’ opponents have transition opportunities on 14.8% of possessions, which ranks 9th best in the league. This combination of limiting opponents’ points in transition and limiting opponents’ transition opportunities has allowed them to force opponents to play at their pace and beat them in the half court, but their transition defense will need to be even stronger to bend the league’s best offenses to their will.

The Spurs have historically sacrificed offensive rebounding in pursuit of stronger transition defense. This season, however, the Spurs rank high in several offensive rebounding metrics while still producing without giving up too much ground in transition. Danny Green’s transition defense has been key to having both.

The reason for this has a lot to do with his shot selection. While the team as a whole has placed a stronger emphasis on offensive rebounding, Green’s numbers in that category remain remarkably unchanged from (or worse than) seasons past. Green has shot more at the rim this season than in seasons past, but he still shoots over 50% of his shots from three point range. Because of this, many plays use Green on the perimeter to create space. As Green is behind the arc when the Spurs shoot the ball much of the time, it doesn’t make much sense for Green to compete for an offensive rebound. The team gets a higher benefit from him getting back on defense as quickly as possible.

If teams do try to push the pace and score on the Spurs in transition with Green on defense, his defensive intuition and length allow him to mitigate much of the damage until the rest of the team is able to get set. Spurs’ opponents have scored 11 points less per 100 transition plays off of live rebounds with Green on the court. When he is playing the shooting guard position, opponents score only 75.4 points per 100 transition plays off of live rebounds, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all shooting guards.

Having an elite defender in the open court allows the other aspects of the Spurs’ defense to be elevated. Kawhi Leonard, while a strong transition defender in his own right, is most adept at defending opponents on the perimeter in the half court. LaMarcus Aldridge’s rim protection is benefited by the Spurs being in position to make the right rotation on defense or running the right coverage against a pick and roll, which is made much easier when the team is able to stop transition plays before they start.

A real test to the Spurs’ transition defense, and defense as a whole, will present itself this Friday when the Spurs play their first regular season matchup against the Rockets.

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