Offensive rating and defensive rating are two statistical measurements that are quickly becoming more popular in the basketball world, and for good reason. Traditionally, points per game and opponent’s points per game were the most frequently used statistics to measure a team’s offense and defense, respectively. However, the numbers that those statistics produce are not an entirely accurate picture of the quality of a team’s offense or defense. For example, a team that plays quick, up-tempo basketball and uses many possessions per game would, all other things equal, look better in points per game, but worse in opponent’s points per game when compared to a slower-paced team. Offensive and defensive ratings adjust for pace and provide a more accurate representation of how efficiently each team and their opponent use each possession. Offensive rating is measured as the average number of points a team scores every 100 possessions and the defensive rating is measured as the average number of points scored against a team per 100 possessions. The San Antonio Spurs maintained a historically good defensive rating over the course of the 2015-2016 season, bringing these stats into the spotlight for many of their fans. While these stats can be a bit volatile when comparing them from year to year, comparing a team’s offensive or defensive rating to other teams in the league within a season can be a good way of analyzing just how potent a historical team’s offense or defense was.
With that in mind, consider one of the most oft told sports idioms, “defense wins championships.” Is that really the case? After examining how champions ranked compared to the league in both of the above mentioned efficiency stats over the last 30 seasons, there is no overwhelming proof that an elite defense is more important to winning championships than an elite offense. In the past 30 seasons, the champions’ offensive rating ranked higher than their defensive rating 12 times. Their defensive rating ranked higher than their offensive rating 17 times, and only a single time did the champion lead the league in both offensive rating and defensive rating. While this examination did not make the case for one of the most time honored sports clichés, it did provide some evidence that for a team to contend for the title, they must be elite in one category and well above average in the other. In the 30 champions examined, 22 of the squads measured top-5 in one efficiency metric and at least top-10 in the other. The margin for error when competing for a title has become even more tight in recent years, as 9 of the last 10 champions had one of their ratings in the top 5 and the other in the top 10.
While not a perfect predictor, these observations can provide some insight into how well equipped the Spurs are for success and whether or not they should be considered contenders again this season. For many, this has been one of the most difficult seasons to evaluate the Spurs coming into the year. It’s challenging to quantify exactly how much the Spurs will miss Tim Duncan on the court. Trying to evaluate how the Spurs’ offseason changes affect their efficiency metrics won’t provide a perfect picture of exactly how successful the Spurs will be this season, but it should paint a general picture. Last season, the Spurs ranked 5th in offensive efficiency and 1st in defensive efficiency. To have both metrics rank in the top 5 is very difficult and the fruits of those efforts were shown throughout their franchise-best 67-win season. Removing Duncan and most of the other big men from last season’s squad and adding Pau Gasol, David Lee, and a few younger players to the Spurs’ frontcourt may very well knock them out of the top-3 in defensive efficiency rating. However, as long as Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are in their primes and Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich is the coach, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs not being at least a top-10 defensive team.
It’s an even more mixed bag on the offensive end. While Duncan may have not produced as well in the individual stats on offense in his last several seasons, there were still times when the Spurs’ offense would get bogged down and they would dump the ball to Duncan in the post to bail them out. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, both important playmakers, are each a year older, Kyle Anderson and Jonathan Simmons will both have a larger share of the offensive workload than they did in the past, and Davis Bertans, an NBA rookie, looks to be a larger part of the offense than the Spurs are usually comfortable giving rookies. While there are lingering questions about the potency of the Spurs’ offense compared to that of the past several seasons, especially off the bench, the starting unit should be more offensively productive overall. Leonard seems to add a new element to his game each season, Green is projected to have a bounce back shooting season after receiving eye surgery this summer, and Gasol appears to be the perfect post pairing with LaMarcus Aldridge, who will be even more familiar with the Spurs’ offense this season. All in all, the Spurs’ offense this season may falter a bit, especially in the early parts of the year, but will probably continue to produce at a top-10 level.
Examining offensive and defensive rating helps reveal part of what has made the Spurs so effective over the last several decades – their ability to maximize their efficiency on both ends of the floor with the given personnel. This good-to-great mentality has meant that even their weakest seasons in the past 20 years have produced 50+ wins. While this year will provide new questions on both ends of the floor, expect the Spurs to answer them well, even if they take a bit of a hit managing the loss of Duncan and others along the way. As the Spurs continue to aim to compete at the highest level, even in this transitional season, they will have to find success where they have found it time and again, efficiency.
Statistics used via Basetball-Reference.com