With the Spurs playing so well recently, posting their second league-leading 11 game winning streak, and taking first place in the Western Conference from the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's pretty easy to be optimistic, and with good reason. John Hollinger currently has the Spurs at the top of his Power Rankings and Playoff Odds, both of which are pretty a good, statistically-based look at every team in the league.
But there's been a lot of talk recently about whether San Antonio's regular season success can translate into postseason glory, or whether they'll be held back by some concerning numbers, especially and specifically the Spurs' mediocre defensive rating of 13th in the league. This is the first of a series of posts we'll be doing focused on just what that statistic shows, how valid it is, and how much credence we should give it in the context of this season, how the Spurs are playing, and how the compressed schedule is affecting the team.
Everyone knows that teams go as far as their best players take them. You need the big guns to be at their top level to compete and in today's NBA one or two elite players isn't enough; you need at least a nominal Big Three to be the backbone of your team. Naturally, you want your best players on the court as much as possible, which is why every team's Big Three plays the most minutes. Let's take a look at playing time for the established contenders' Big Threes plus the Lakers.
Contenders' Minutes per game
All of those teams play their three stars well over 30 minutes per game. The fact that most of those players are young could explain why they are on the court for that long, but Kobe is playing 38.5 minutes per game and he's almost Duncan old. Those contenders depend on their stars to be as good as they are and are riding them to get wins. Let's look at the Spurs' Big Three.
Only Tony Parker is averaging more than 30 minutes and that number can be explained by Manu's and T.J. Ford's extended absences; over the last ten games Tony is averaging 28.1 minutes, well below his season mark.
I mentioned Manu's injury and that's another factor to consider: has any other key player missed extended time? Other than the Spurs, the Bulls are the only contender that has suffered ailments to their stars. Derrick Rose has missed 22 games this season and the always durable Luol Deng has missed 9. Dwayne Wade has missed 10 games too but after him the other top guys from contenders have missed only a handful of games. Manu has missed 29 games this season.
While other teams have had their full rosters for most of the season, the Spurs have been working at a disadvantage by missing Ginobili (who, before the season, was widely accepted to be their best player) for a longer period of time than any contender has without one of their difference-makers.
Even when Manu has played, Tim Duncan and he have logged far less time than the key guys on the other contenders. Of the fifteen players that form the contenders' Big Threes, Duncan and Ginobili would rank 14th and 15th respectively. Parker would be 9th. Both the Lakers and the Bulls have a 4th guy (Ramon Sessions and Carlos Boozer both at 29.7) that are playing more than two thirds of the Spurs core.
What does that mean?
When looking at the defensive numbers that concern many about this year's Spurs, it's key to consider the fact that the players who've been on the floor earning the team it's (slightly above average) efficiency numbers are NOT the ones who'll figure to be on the floor for most of the playoffs. As Pop said last week, "Rotations always get a little shorter at [playoff] time, but that’s just the way it is."
So the Spurs are the team with the most potential for improvement of all the contenders, by far. Simply extending Ginobili's and Duncan's minutes in the playoffs would mean an instant upgrade, while the experience gained by the role players in their extended runs would assure that they are ready to step in to give the older guys a rest, without quite the dropoff normalls seen. The Bulls could make a case as to why they are the ones with the biggest upside for improved production with a healthy Rose, but their team is basically the same as last season's; they know each other and have showed their expected potential in last year's playoffs. The Spurs on the other hand have a number of new rotation players, the most important of which is probably Tiago Splitter, who is only contributing just under 20 minutes a game after not seeing much playing time at all last season. That means Pop could also extend Tiago's minutes and cut down some of the less-efficient Blair for an extra boost.
These Spurs are as good (or close to it) as the other contenders while still seemingly having another gear -- one that could be accessed not by trying harder, but simply by playing the way teams always do in the playoffs: playing its best players more. Other teams have had their stars healthy the whole season and have played them big minutes while the Spurs have saved energy for the playoffs. With everyone healthy, there's time for all the pieces to find their place and for Pop to find the lineups that maximize his team's chances. Does this mean the Spurs should be favored to win it all over the others? Not necessarily, especially considering that there still are teams that present match-up problems for the good guys. The Grizzlies in particular probably have even more potential for improvement than the Spurs. With Randolph back along with a healthy Rudy Gay, this season's Memphis team could be even better than the one that delivered one of the biggest upsets ever last season.
The Spurs might not be the team to beat but they seem at least good enough to be in the conversation, and not disqualified because of defensive numbers that aren't what they were, once upon a time.