The Spurs’ Rebounding Keeps Them Afloat

Photo by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Early in the 2017-2018 season, the San Antonio Spurs have struggled to find solid footing. Their offensive efficiency currently ranks 15th and their defensive efficiency ranks 13th, resulting in a slightly-better-than-average 2.3 net rating. Despite this, the Spurs are 7-4 and have an opportunity to build on this record in a positive way throughout the rest of November while waiting for Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker to return. So far, it has been a dedication to rebounding that has allowed the Spurs to start the season as well as they have.

The Spurs have historically cast aside putting much effort into crashing the offensive glass, electing instead to emphasize strong transition defense. From the 2006-2007 season through the 2015-2016 season, the Spurs ranked in the bottom third of the league in offensive rebounding percentage for every season but one. The team began shifting away from this philosophy last season, when they ranked 10th in that category. Through 11 games this season, they rank 4th.

Last season, Leonard, David Lee, and Dewayne Dedmon all grabbed a relatively high percentage of available offensive rebounds compared to other players at their respective positions and this season Rudy Gay and Bryn Forbes have out-rebounded other players at their position on the offensive side of the floor. There are two players, though, who had high offensive rebound percentages relative to their positions in both seasons: Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray.

The Spurs have been seemingly slow to conform to the small ball movement, and that, certainly, has helped keep them among the best rebounding teams in the league as they routinely have two traditional bigs on the floor while other teams have only one. The organization has been falling in line with a different modern NBA philosophy, however, and the results are beginning to show up in the metrics – length at every position.

This length has allowed the Spurs to focus further on offensive rebounding while not sacrificing on the defensive end. Though the Spurs’ transition defense, and defense as a whole, has not been as strong to start this season, last season the Spurs allowed the fewest points per 100 possessions during opponent’s transition opportunities. It’s important for the Spurs to be able to maintain an advantage at both rebounding on both ends of the court and defending in transition, especially against the league’s best teams. During the first half of last Thursday’s matchup against the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs outrebounded the visiting Warriors 27-16, including a 10-1 advantage on the offensive glass. In the second half, however, the Spurs lost the rebounding battle 19-25, per the NBA’s stat page. There is a similar story to be told for the matchup between the two teams last March, when the Spurs gave up a 21-point lead after also giving up a large rebounding advantage.

The truth is, the Spurs don’t have the shooting that the other elite teams do. They also play at a slower pace and get transition opportunities less than these teams do.  So, for the Spurs, beating teams like the Warriors or the Houston Rockets, who are first and second respectively in points per 100 possessions scored in transition and who rank first and third respectively in effective field goal percentage, comes down to neutralizing those teams’ transition opportunities as much as possible and taking more shot attempts than their opponents. The Spurs have seemingly declared their positional length to be the answer.

Both the Rockets and the Warriors present the blueprint for the modern NBA offense, shooting a large frequency of threes and pushing the ball up the floor quickly. The Spurs, who shoot the 5th most mid-range shots by percentage and the 2nd least three point shots by percentage, will struggle to win games against high volume three point shooting teams without disrupting the opponent’s offense somehow. Limiting the total number of shots an opponent takes by focusing on winning the rebounding battle on both ends of the court is probably the best way this team is equipped to do so. It was a successful strategy last season, and it has allowed the Spurs to continue winning games while waiting for Parker and Leonard to return.

All stats from unless noted otherwise.


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