While the basketball world has been focused on the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, LA Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs have quietly worked their way up to the number two spot in the Western Conference. This is quite remarkable since the Spurs began the season with a mediocre start (12-9) and have played without Manu Ginobili in 26 of 35 games.
How have the San Antonio Spurs improved and will this continue?
After starting out at 12-9, the Spurs have been a sizzling 12-2 in their last 14 games. This run includes a 8-1 road trip with impressive wins over the Sixers and the Clippers. Let’s look at how they’ve improved during this stretch. (Note that we take out the 137-97 loss to Portland on 2/21/12 when both Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were held out of the game.)
Offensively, the Spurs have increased their output (98.6-99.8) by only one point. What’s more significant are increases in free-throw attempts (19.5 to 23.5), fewer assists (23.2 to 21.4) and fewer turnovers (13.2 to 12.2). The Spurs are getting efficient ball movement as turnovers have declined and opponents are getting fewer steals (5.4 to 4.4) and blocks (8.1 to 6.8).
Tony Parker is responsible for much of this improvement:
Tony Parker has been more aggressive and this has resulted in more damage from the free-throw line: three more attempts (4.3 to 7.4) and three more makes (3.3 to 6.2). Parker’s increased point production (17.3 to 22.1) is impressive since assists have also increased (7.6 to 8.8) but turnovers remain at 2.6/game.
It’s on the defensive side that the Spurs have made even more significant improvements. Overall opponent scoring declined by three points (95.6 to 92.5), mostly fueled by a three percent drop in field-goal percentage (46% to 43.7%). Interestingly, opponents are taking more shots (82.6 to 83.1) but making fewer (38 to 36.3) of them.
The Spurs’ improved defense is surprising when you realize that they don’t have any standout defensive players- can you name one Spur who could make the all-defensive team? Their improved team defense will likely continue since they’re not relying on one or two defensive specialists.
So during this 12-2 stretch, the Spurs have increased scoring by one point and given up three fewer points. The Spurs have leaned on Tony Parker offense while tightening the screws on defense.
How far the Spurs advance depends on a few factors:
1) Manu Ginobili returning and staying healthy
2) Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter continuing to balance out an already strong perimeter offense
3) Ability to contain penetration and rotate to shooters
4) Continued support from one of the best benches in the league- Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard
The Chicago Bulls, in their 2/29 win over the Spurs, used their speed and strength to write the blueprint for beating the Spurs. On defense, Chicago held Tony Parker to 11 points on 5-16 shooting. On offense, the Bulls were able to score by running a high-screen with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
But the return of Manu Ginobili will alleviate some of the pressure on Tony Parker and will make the Spurs even more difficult to defend. Lead by Ginobili/Parker, a strong supporting cast, and an impressive team defense, the Spurs are NBA title contenders this season.
If the Spurs succeed, it will be another remarkable achievement for a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs last season, made only minor off-season changes, has three aging superstars, and won four championships in the last thirteen years.
Written by Arun (@ArunKnows) and CoachNick (@BBallSource)
Coach Nick is the founder of BballBreakdown, coached the Triangle Offense at the high school level, and counts Tex Winter and Pete Newell as mentors. For more of our conversation, follow him @BBALLBREAKDOWN.