February 15, 2019
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The Warriors’ perfect start dominated the attention of NBA fans everywhere early in the season, and for good reason. Now that it’s over, that focus has shifted to the other Western team that is performing at a historically high level.

The Spurs’ defense is on pace to being the best the league has seen in well over a decade. San Antonio is allowing just 91.9 points per 100 possessions, a ridiculously low mark. For comparison, last season the Warriors led the league in defensive efficiency at 98.2 points per 100 possessions. To find a similarly stingy defense we have to go all the way back to the 2003-04 Spurs, a team that played in a different NBA.

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The average pace in 2003-04 was 92.7, and the average for team three-point attempts per game was 14.9. In 2015-16, those numbers are 98.5 and 23.8. Teams are getting more possessions and are taking more three-pointers while making them at a very similar rate than in the past. The average offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) is over a point higher now than it was when that other Spurs’ team was locking down opponents at that rate. This kind of success is unprecedented in the pace-and-space era.

The curious thing about San Antonio’s giant improvement on defense is that it was not brought along by an offseason move. The Spurs added LaMarcus Aldridge, who is known for his offense, not his defense, and David West, who is essentially the ninth man in the rotation. There hasn’t been a shift in defensive philosophies, either. The Spurs are doing what they’ve always done. They are just doing it better than ever this season.

San Antonio does not allow easy points. They concede the fewest second chance points and free throw attempts in the league, and the third fewest amount of points off turnovers. They also lead the league in defensive rebound percentage. That means they keep the game in the half court, don’t foul and give opponents just one chance to earn their points.

Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
(Photo: Mark D. Smith – USA TODAY Sports)

That’s a good foundation for a good defense but the Spurs don’t stop there. They also dictate what type of shot the other team will attempt, taking away the efficient options.

Opponents take just 19.3 three-point attempts against the Spurs, the lowest mark in the league. Of those 19, only five come from the corner. They also restrict close shots, allowing 25.8 per game while holding opponents to the second lowest field goal percentage in the league in shots at the rim, behind only the Bulls. Mid-range jumpers are encouraged while all the good spots are covered.

It’s a strategy that the Spurs have spent decades refining. They are just operating at a higher level than in the past this season largely because the roster’s health and durability has empowered Gregg Popovich to play his best lineups more.

The Spurs’ starting unit has already logged over 300 minutes on the court. In the past two years they didn’t have a single five-man group which played that much in the entire season. They have also reduced the rotation to mostly feature nine players–up from eight earlier in the yea –and Popovich is mixing bench players with starters instead of going with all-sub units, which in the past have excelled on offense but struggled on defense.

Their younger stars can actually handle the increased playing time and that’s made all the difference. LaMarcus Aldridge, unlike Tiago Splitter, can give the team 30 quality minutes a night. Kawhi Leonard is averaging a career-high in minutes per game and performing better than ever. Those two have done a fantastic job of keeping the defense playing at an elite level when paired with Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw, forming arguably San Antonio’s best lineup.

The Spurs are the best defensive team in the league right now and will very likely finish the season leading the league in defensive efficiency. The question is whether the ridiculous level they are playing at right now is sustainable or San Antonio is bound to regress.

As mentioned, health will be a big factor. If Kawhi Leonard or Tim Duncan miss time, the Spurs’ defense will likely suffer a big step back. The schedule has been very favorable, which obviously plays a part in their success, and luck has been in San Antonio’s side so far as well. Most opponents have shot poorly on wide open shots, combining to average just 33 percent on three-pointers in which no defender was within six feet. If that changes, it could have a negative impact on the numbers.

Yet there’s also a case to be made for the Spurs’ low defensive rating actually being inflated by lax second halves that are the product of blowouts. In the first half of games, the Spurs are allowing just 85.6 points per 100 possessions. In the second half that numbers climbs to 98.2. Considering they have outscored opponents in the first two quarters by an average of 16 points, it’s understandable for them to relax later.

The Spurs won’t likely keep the amount of points they allow per 100 possessions as low as it has been so far but that doesn’t mean the numbers have been deceptive. If they had exerted themselves to the max for the full 48 minutes, their defensive rating could have realistically been even lower right now. They have have actually been as dominant on one side of the ball as the Warriors has been on the other.

If they can continue to be that good, Golden State will have a serious challenger for the West’s crown and the NBA could have a special season.

Stats via NBA.com/Stats

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