As Golden State soars, the Spurs are proving that there’s more than one way to dominate in today’s NBA.
It’s easy to take this San Antonio team for granted in the first quarter of what amounts to their preseason. All eyes are on the Golden State Warriors as they should be, and the Spurs just keep quietly doing Spurs things in their 22-0 shadow. These are arguably the two best teams in basketball right now, but their teams, styles and successes are much farther apart than their records. In a league scrambling to imitate the run-and-gun offense of the Warriors, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his team have taken an entirely different approach, and it’s working. Both teams have top-rated defenses, deep benches, and young superstars that lead their respective teams, but the similarities end there.
Get this: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have the same combined age as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. What’s more, the dubs don’t have a single player on the roster older than 33, the age of the last and youngest member of the Big 3. If the Spurs were struggling, we would call them old, and if they were playing well enough we’d call them veterans. This season, vintage is a much better descriptor.
Ginobili considered retiring this offseason, but at 38 he is still playing clutch minutes and producing consistently. His picturesque passing, effortless shot, and lightning quick cuts to the rack show us flashes of a younger Manu on a nightly basis. After an injury-riddled 2014-15 season, many a talking head declared that Tony Parker’s career as we knew it was over. He came back healthy and determined to prove them wrong. TP got right back to devastating defenses by penetrating and dropping dimes, and the early chemistry this season with Aldridge on the pick-and-pop has been excellent.
I never bought the speculation that Tim Duncan would retire this summer. Two things that don’t go away with age are size and smarts, and Timmy has oodles of both. You know he’s still hungry for another ring. He is still a dominant force in the post on both ends of the floor, and now that he’s playing at center, he doesn’t have to run around quite as much. He has embraced the rim-protector role, and Spurs opponents are dead last in the league at converting chances from inside five feet.
“Yeah, but can they stay healthy and maintain it?” In a word, yes. Pop is a genius at managing the regular season (and about 45,872,365 other things). None of the aging superstars are averaging more than 28 minutes per game thanks to Kawhi Leonard and a very deep bench. The formula has been build a lead, blow it open in the 3rd quarter and rest towards the end (much like Golden State), and that may end up being an analog for the regular season.
Pace and Points
Time and time again we’ve seen Steph Curry run the floor and drain an impossible shot or lob it up before the defense has a chance to say, “OH GOD PLEASE NO NOT AGAIN!” His team leads the league in shots attempted and made very early in the shot clock, and this frenetic pace has exposed teams all year.
This top-five pace (possessions per 48 minutes) doesn’t just catch opposing defenses sleeping, it gives the Golden State Gong Show a very high number of opportunities to inflict damage. This Dubs offense is an efficient killing machine that leads the league in field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and offensive rating, and it isn’t even close. Here’s a little math: Fast Pace * Ridiculous Efficiency = League-Leading PPG.
The Spurs are about as slow as the Warriors are fast, and it makes sense when you consider the personnel. As you may have heard the Spurs are getting up there in years, and their fast break offense would probably be more “break” than “fast”. Instead of running and gunning, they quickly set up in the half court and execute their unrelenting motion offense for as long as it takes to get a good look. This grind-it-out offense leads the league in shots attempted and made late in the shot clock, and they’re top 5 in those categories very late in the shot clock as well.
Unlike the Warriors, the Spurs force their opponents to expend a lot of energy on the defensive end before they hear that demoralizing swoosh. Where the dubs strike before the defense is set, San Antonio lets the defense set up and then methodically breaks it down with the beautiful ball and player movement that we have come to expect from Popovich’s squad. Which of those attacks would you prefer to get ripped apart by?
As a result of their slow pace, the Spurs average a pedestrian 99.3 PPG. That’s 18 spots behind Golden State, and below the league average. This would be very problematic if their opponents didn’t have to play less possessions against a historically good San Antonio defense. How good? The Spurs lead the league in defensive rating and are holding opponents to a lower scoring average than the 76ers.
Last year, this Warriors squad stuck it to a lot of crusty naysayers who believed that a jump shooting team could never win a championship. Their performance dramatically increased the perceived value of 3 point shooting around the league, and coaches and GMs are working tirelessly to copy Golden State’s recipe. So naturally, the Spurs have decided to shoot the three less than almost every other team.
Maybe it’s because they know you only get that extra point if the shot goes in. Defenses are adjusting to the three point trend and closing out at the arc, and there’s a reason shots from that distance are worth an extra point. It is also important to consider that there is a reason the Warriors success from three point land is unprecedented. You can try to copy the recipe all you want, but there is only one Chef Curry. This might change in ten years when the kids being drafted grew up emulating Steph, but right now there is nobody else on the planet that can do what he does.
Rather than attempt to replicate what can’t be replicated, the Spurs find easier points elsewhere. 65% of their points come from 2 point shots, which is the second highest percentage in the NBA. The lowest is – you guessed it – Golden State. The Spurs are excelling in the paint and finding soft spots in the mid-range areas of the floor that have been dubbed “inefficient” by stats experts. There’s nothing inefficient about San Antonio’s 2-point shooting though. They’re top 3 in the league at converting chances from inside 5 feet, and they’re very near the top in terms of attempts and makes from the 5-19 range.
Who Ya Got?
So who is better? Sorry to say it, but even insinuating that there’s a better team than the Warriors right now is downright blasphemous. Yes the Spurs are dominant, but Golden State is other worldly. If the other 30 teams had to choose between playing the Dubs or San Antonio, they would unanimously go with the Spurs right now.
Who would win head to head is an entirely different question. Unfortunately we have to wait until January to find out, but this off-beat Spurs style is the only hope the other 31 teams have against the defending champs. Best offense versus best defense. Steph Curry versus Kawhi Leonard. Unstoppable force versus immovable object.
The outcome will likely depend on who dictates the pace. If the Spurs can force Golden State to play their game, they very well may win. One thing is for sure though: nobody will beat these Warriors at their own game. They’re just too good at it.
All stats accurate as of 12/6/15