State of the Spurs: The 10% Theory

Before the Lakers' game, Tim Varner of 48MoH and Brian Kamenetzky with Land O'Lakers had a conversation regarding the Spurs great start to the season, including the following:

What explains Richard Jefferson's vast improvement this year? And how has it impacted San Antonio's hot start?

What’s going in San Antonio is that every position straight down the rotation is more productive. It’s not that Jefferson is 100% better than last season, though it sometimes seems that way, it’s that nearly every Spur is, say, 10% better than his 2009-10 mirror.

With as much talk as we've had at PtR about the new and improved RJ 2.0, Tim Varner's hypothesis caught my eye. How much better has Jefferson been this year? Has the rest of the roster really improved 10%? Can this improvement be quantified or is it just based on what the eyes see?

Statistics - the beauty and the bane of sports. How else do you determine the worth of a particular player? How else can you compare teams from different eras, no matter how futile the effort might be? The standings tell us that the Spurs are the best team so far this year; our eyes tell us that RJ is a new player this year, and the "experts" tell us that Timmeh is old and no longer as effective. But what do the actual numbers say?

I'm not a stats guru, so I had to do some research on the advanced metrics available. There's a lot of information out there, and quite frankly, I don't understand most of the formulas involved. But I did want ratings that tried to account for the Spurs fan's beloved "intangibles", even though no one formula is going to perfectly encapsulate a player's contribution. With that in mind, I decided to use the following metrics: AWS/40 (Alternate Win Score per 40 minutes) from hoopdata.com, PER (Player Efficiency Rating) from John Hollinger, and WS (Win Shares) and WS/48 (Win Shares per 48 minutes) from basketball-reference.com. Not only did these metrics seem to be fairly well received, but they were easy to find and, I hope, will give a broad view.

So will the numbers confirm Tim V.s' hypothesis? Will the metrics show us what our eyes perceive or are we in for a surprise?


Roster Holdovers from 2009-2010

The AWS/40 and PER metrics do not include the OKC and Dallas games. Since Win Shares is a cumulative number over the course of the season, I took into account that only 33 games have been played this season when calculating the % difference.

2010 -2011 Season 2009 -2010 Season % Diff.
Player Name AWS/40 PER WS WS48 AWS/40 PER WS WS48 AWS/40 PER WS WS48
Antonio McDyess 4.33 11.66 1.1 0.109 5.05 12.25 3.2 0.094 -14.26% -4.82% -14.58% 15.96%
DeJuan Blair 6.45 15.80 1.8 0.126 6.83 17.71 4.6 0.147 -5.56% -10.78% -2.77% -14.29%
George Hill 6.34 16.24 2.8 0.175 5.13 14.63 6.7 0.142 23.59% 11.00% 3.84% 23.24%
Manu Ginobili 9.92 23.52 4.8 0.222 9.21 22.42
9.7 0.216 7.71% 4.91% 22.96% 2.78%
Matt Bonner 7.05 14.01 2.0 0.154 6.58 14.80 3.7 0.153 7.14% -5.34% 34.32% 0.65%
Richard Jefferson 6.86 16.05 3.4 0.157 4.59 13.06 6.0 0.113 49.46% 22.89% 40.81% 38.94%
Tim Duncan 9.32 21.85 3.6 0.181 10.39 24.72 10.9 0.215 -10.30% -11.61% -17.93% -15.81%
Tony Parker 8.00 21.22 4.1 0.181 4.90 16.41
3.6 0.101 63.27% 29.31% 183.00% 79.21%
League Average 4.25 13.90 0.100 4.34 12.76 0.100

So what the heck does this tell us? That RJ 2.0 is significantly better than RJ 1.0 (if you haven't accepted that yet, please start now). That Timmeh's and Blair's numbers are down across the board (not surprising for TImmeh, considering he carried us for much of last year). That George has made another quantum jump in his 3rd season. That Manu's overall play has been better this year, but not as much as some might think - don't forget he was in video game god mode last year before the playoffs. Honestly, these numbers are what I expected from watching the team this season.

However, what was unexpected are Tony's numbers - I thought Jefferson's would show the biggest jump across the board. Yes, he's healthy and is be back to his old self, but take another look at those % difference numbers. Can you honestly say you expected La Croissant to be 50% better this year? I didn't. He's already surpassed his Win Shares total from last year, in less than half a season. A healthy Tony is still in his prime and it would behoove us to remember that.


Roster Additions/Subtractions

James Anderson's metrics were included, even though he was not used for comparison purposes.

2010 -2011 Season 2009 -2010 Season % Diff.
Player Name AWS/40 PER WS WS48 AWS/40 PER WS WS48 AWS/40 PER WS WS48
Chris Quinn 5.72 13.29 0.4 0.140 70.61% 53.64% -2.56% 82.52%
Gary Neal 4.96 13.32 1.5 0.121
Ime Udoka 1.87 5.82 0.1 0.029 -53.60% -50.17% -64.50% -72.90%
James Anderson 5.02 12.85 0.3 0.126
Tiago Splitter 5.30 15.67 0.9 0.145 -23.85% -27.45% 219.48% -29.61%
Ian Mahinmi 6.96 21.60 0.7 0.206
Keith Bogans 2.83 7.68 2.6 0.081
Malik Hairston 4.03 11.68 0.7 0.107
Roger Mason Jr.
3.43 9.64 1.9 0.062

Now this is where my methodology could be questioned, but it's what made sense to me. I compared Udoka to Hairston, Tiago to Yawn, and the combined efforts of The Hobbit and The Nailgun to the combined "efforts" of Bogans and RoMaJu. I know that PATFO let Hairston go to allow him to pursue playing time elsewhere. However, Udoka has not been a suitable replacement, and the injury to Anderson has left the Spurs severely shorthanded at the backup SF position. Tiago's numbers may not be as good as Yawn's, but Mahinmi's were based on extremely small sample sizes. Tiago, even in his limutes, will be an improvement in total Win Shares.

And then we come to our backup guards, Quinn and Neal. Most of us would say that Neal has been more valuable than Quinn this season, but Quinn has been no slouch. These two have come out of nowhere to obliterate the production of Bogans and Mason. Although the injury to Anderson has hurt the SF production, it has given Neal the minutes for both he and the team to become confident in his play. And the minor toe injury to George gave Quinn some extra time to learn the system. They both now have Pop's confidence - amazingly, Neal is even playing in crunch time.


So What's Next?

Even if Tony comes back down to earth a little, I expect the metrics of Hill and Blair to continue to rise, based on the recent play of both. Manu has slowed down a little from his hot start, but no one is going to question his contributions. The Big Fun has officially become Option #3, but his per minute numbers are still high and he's shown that he can carry the team when necessary. It's just that he doesn't need to anymore. RJ is comfortable with his role, and even if his metrics stay the same the rest of the season, his improvement is legitimate and has contributed to the team's resurgence.

I don't care about Dice's numbers, as long as he is healthy for the playoffs. As for the Red Rocket, I've become even more convinced that numbers/metrics/tarot cards can't explain his effect on the court. But he's shooting lights out from behind the arc, and that's enough for me. Tiago's numbers really can't go down, considering how little playing time he's gotten so far. But since the majority of the team's production is coming from the guards, any small increase in Splitter's productivity will be needed and most welcome. The minutes of Neal may fluctuate when Anderson gets back, but it's imperative that Anderson play when healthy. We need some production from the backup SF spot.

The improvement is so consistent across the board, both starters and bench, that the team AWS and PER have increased by 20.32% and 11.89%, respectively, and both are tops in the league. Now Tim Varner may not have been entirely accurate that each position has increased production, but the team as a whole has improved by over 10%. So, I'm going to bump Tim's hypothesis up to "theory" status. And despite what the "experts" might say, our record is indicative of our play and shouldn't be ignored.

Now here's where you stats geeks put your thoughts in the comments and poke holes in my conclusions. I'd love to hear what everyone thinks.

But what's not in question is the PtR community's confidence in our beloved Spurs - currently 91 and slowly rising. Now that is a good number to see!

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