The big story for Spurs fans so far is the team's improved defense. Right now, they are allowing 97.7 points per 100 possessions, almost 5 points less than last season. It is still ridiculously early and that mark seems impossible to maintain (last season the Celtics led the league with a 98.2 DRTG), but something just seems different from other years. The offense is not there yet, but the Spurs are grinding out victories by preventing their opponents from scoring, like in the good old days. Part of that can be attributed to teams not being sharp on offense yet, but it would be silly not to give the noticeably improved defense its due. Perhaps the biggest factor in this development is the team's new found ability to cause turnovers and the adjustments that forces opponent's offenses to make.
The Spurs under Gregg Popovich have never been adept at forcing mistakes from the opponent; they always prefer to keep their own at a minimum, make the other team take a bad shot and rebound the ball. In the last five seasons, the Spurs have finished in the bottom third on opponent turnover percentage, but have managed to overcome that by rebounding at an elite level on their own basket and preventing easy assisted buckets. After four games this season however, the Spurs rank 8th in the league in OTOV% with a mark that would have led the league in 2011/12.
Even if that mark is as impossible to maintain as their defensive rating, by playing passing lanes, pressuring ball handlers and swarming bigs in the paint, the Spurs are creating the threat of a possible turnover and forcing teams to be extra careful with the ball. When an offense and its playmakers need to watch out for Kawhi Leonard's long limbs or Tim Duncan's perfect timing, they take an extra tenth of a second before making the pass, knowing that a mistake could propel a fast break led by a great transition finisher like Tony Parker. It might not seem like that big of a deal, but that extra tenth of second is all a defense needs to adjust and prevent an easy basket. Even if it only slows down the first pass the point guard has to make to start a set, that extra time gives the defense the edge, as they are setting the pace instead of the offense.
If this all sounds familiar, it is. The Spurs experienced this problem against OKC in last season's Western Conference finals. Aside from the fact that the refs allowed OKC a lot of contact, the 10 combined steals from Westbrook and Sefolosha during Game 3 changed the momentum and the identities of the teams. After that, the Spurs knew that the Thunder were going to jump at the chance to steal the ball and started playing tentatively, trying to limit turnovers. For an offense that relied on clockwork precision, that hitch was extremely harmful. The pick and roll was shut down, and the ball was getting to shooters a second too late. The previous season the Spurs lost to a Grizzlies team that, on top of having a great frontcourt with Zach Randolph in God mode, was the best in the league at forcing turnovers. If you put pressure on their playmakers by having the threat of a steal loom large, even the best offenses suffer.
Now it is still way too early to make any definitive conclusions as to what this team is going to look like going forward. There is a still a long way to go before we can safely assert the Spurs have in fact shifted defensive philosophies. But if the Spurs continue to ease up on their commitment to a containment-only defense and redefine themselves from a team that does not gamble for steals to one that can cause turnovers, I am confident that the defense will probably be the best we have seen in some time from the Silver and Black.
The early returns give us a lot to be excited about (like the extremely low 42% field goal percentage and 33% three-point percentage allowed) and some things to worry about (like the inability to contest jumpers or the somewhat high personal foul rate). But in my eyes, no sign is more encouraging than the turnover percentage the team is causing. If the Spurs can minimize the regression that is sure to come and stay within the top half of the league in this category, the team will undoubtedly be much better equipped to handle teams in the postseason.
If the offense comes around (and I believe it will), the Spurs could improbably be an even better team than the one that dominated the West up until the last four games of the season. And it all could be the result of changing defensive philosophies. In a league where most teams try to find a winning formula and stubbornly stick with it even after it stops working, the Spurs and Gregg Popovich could be on the verge of evolving once again.