The Spurs Mid-Season Report

We'll need this energy down the stretch. - Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Which teams can make the jump to true contender status? Are the Spurs positioned for another run at a championship? Part II of the Mid-Season Report on the differential ratings.

Yesterday, I posted Part One of my mid-season report which examines the league through the lens of each team's Efficiency Differential Score (EDS), which is defined as the difference between a team's offensive efficiency (OE) and their defensive efficiency (DE). When the teams are ranked in order of their EDS, I call that their Differential Rating (DR) If you've missed any of my previous pieces examining the league you can catch up by looking at last May's introductory 32-year statistical survey, and this season's first quarter report; part one and part two. The introductory survey showed a pretty consistent separation between contenders and pretenders for the NBA championship. The evolving nature of differential as a season progresses could identify a smaller group of "true contenders" earlier than the end of the regular season.

Who's Still Alive for a Top-Eight Spot?

Before I get into my analysis of the Spurs' numbers, I want to mention those with an outside shot at slipping into the group of teams that have a real chance for this year's title. Many of the teams in the top eight that I mentioned yesterday, barring a critical rash of injuries, are now solidifying their hold on a "true contender" spot. Meanwhile, the second eight are still desperately trying to break into or resume a top eight position before it's too late. Unfortunately for these teams I see little chance for more than three new teams to sneak into the top eight by season's end. So who out of the following teams have the best chance of displacing any of the teams as contenders?

9th Indiana? (EDS = 2.5)

10th Memphis? (EDS = 2.4)

11th Chicago? (EDS = 2.2)

12th Houston? (EDS = 1.2)

13th Brooklyn? (EDS = 1.1)

14th Atlanta? (EDS = 0.7)

15th Boston? (EDS = 0.2)

16th Utah? (EDS = -0.7 )

Since the end of Q-1, the injury-decimated T-Wolves and the Bynum-deprived Sixers have fallen out of the second eight (see Part II of Q-1 report), and have been replaced by the hot-and-cold Houston Rockets and the 16th ranked Utah Jazz. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies and Hawks now reside in the second eight, having switched places with the Nuggets and Warriors. Some of these teams in the 2nd eight have the talent and ability to make a move, but this mid-season report suggests that those ranked 13th and below are nearly out of time. In fact, by the end of Q-3 (about 21 more games), I will not be mentioning any team ranked below 12th in this report. By then it will simply be too late for us to expect any of those teams to make a legitimate move up into the top eight by season's end, which effectively removes them from the title chase. Of course this is subject to the rare possible exception, such as Derrick Rose coming back in fine form with the 13th ranked Bulls, for example.

With that in mind, the 3rd quarter will represent a huge challenge for the Boston Celtics. Currently 15th in DR, they will need to make a big statement over the next 21 games to get themselves at least back into the top twelve, and perhaps in position to surge into the top eight by season's end. I can't completely count them out just yet because of their experience, relative overall talent, and superb coaching. The kind of massive personnel shift they made before this season (and key injuries) simply takes time to effectively integrate and overcome. Nevertheless, there's no question that Boston is up against the gun and has a momentous task in front of them. Also trying to, ahem, keep pace, are last year's Eastern Conference semifinalist Indiana Pacers. Given their border-line EDS (2.5) and unusually easy schedule (.462 SOS), the only reason this team can still be considered a potential threat to bust into the top eight is because their leading scorer, Danny Granger, should be back from injury before the All-Star break. His offense, added to their top rating in defensive efficiency, may be something to keep an eye on especially if the Pacers can hold onto a top twelve ranking by the time Granger gets back and acclimated (also, one must give a nod to George Hill!). And finally, how about those Grizzlies? What a funk they went into late in the 2nd quarter! In fact, I had to discard a section on them I'd prepared for yesterday's post, thinking that they were going to hold onto their top eight spot. Of course, they could still come roaring back in the second half, but Memphis will definitely need to pick it up on the offensive end to regain contender status.

San Antonio Spurs

In concluding the first quarter report, I wrote:

See you in the middle of January, probably right after we kick those frightened Grizzlies out of the AT&T Center with their tails between their legs.

Wow, I think the team came through with flying colors, just as I had hoped! What a great way to end the first half of the season. And just so you know, those Grizzlies were still desperately trying to hold onto their 6th-ranked DR when they came strolling into the AT&T Center. We not only beat them last Wednesday evening, but as you see from the table of rankings we also knocked them out of the elite eight, and down four spots and into the 10th position in DR. Way to fully exorcise those demons against the dreaded Grizzlies!

Okay, so the Spurs finish the first half in style: 30-11, 3rd in the West, and in the league, and 3rd in EDS. The team just recently nudged past the Thunder into 1st place in Hollinger's Power Rankings. But what kind of progress did the Spurs show during the second quarter? What is going well now, and what still needs further improvement? Let's take a moment to look at some important stats that I highlighted in the Q-1 report, because I think they will remain keys for this team as we move into the second half of the season. From left to right, they are efficiency differential score (EDS), opponent field goal percentage (OFG), three-point percentage, assist ratio (AR), turnover ratio (TR), and defensive rebound rate (DRR). In each case, the raw score is followed by the Spurs' league rank in parentheses.

EDS (R)
OFG% (R)
3-pt.% (R)
AR (R)
TR (R)
DRR (R)
8.8 (3rd) .440 (10th) 39.1 (2nd) 19.4 (1st) 14.5 (28th) 74.4 (7th)

Well, our DR is still in good position, and it was helped along by our 0.4 increase in offensive efficiency, which allowed our EDS to actually increase marginally from 8.6 to 8.8 since the end of Q-1. Q-2 seemed to bring about more of a distinct break in EDS among the top eleven. The top five now range from 6.1 to 10.8, while the succeeding six range from 2.2 to 2.7, a full 3.3+ EDS gap between the teams ranked at five and above, versus those ranked at six and below. Just something to keep an eye on as the season unfolds. But for the Spurs, they still have a two-point EDS gap to close on the Thunder to secure that pretty important number one ranking (again, 45% of all title winners over the last 33 years were ranked number one).

There is some slippage in OFG%, dropping to a 10th ranked .440 from 4th ranked .433. The Spurs must guard against this falling any further. The defensive efficiency (DE) rank improved slightly to 4th with the score rising from 98.1 to 98.3. The great news is that the team appears to be doing a standout job contesting at the three-point line, since our opponent 3-pt. percentage is a paltry .321, good enough to push us into the league number one ranking in that important category. Awesome!

Team three-point percentage and assist ratio have also been doing great. The three-point percentage increased from 37.0 at the end of Q-1 (10th ranked) to 39.1 at the end of Q-2. The assist ratio improved from 19.2 to 19.4, which was easily good enough to hold onto the number one ranking. Both of these categories indicate the team is sharing the ball extremely well and finding a more consistent rhythm on their perimeter jumpers.

Yet out of all the major statistical areas, one could be a killer for the Spurs: turnover rate (TR). Unfortunately since the end of Q-1, we've gone the wrong way in this area, moving from a 14.2 to 14.5 TR, and from 13th ranked to an abysmal 28th. This will get the Spurs in trouble against the best, quickest, and most athletic teams (e.g., OKC, MIA, LAC, and DEN). The fact that the Spurs offense is one of the quickest paced in the league does not begin to justify the poor ranking in this category. For example, if you look at turnovers per offensive play, or turnovers per possession, the team ranks below a similarly paced team like Denver in both categories.

J. Gomez did a fabulous post on Spurs turnovers, and concluded with the following:

But when the playoffs start, the Spurs better have the whole turnovers thing figured out, along with being able to count on someone else to create offense if Manu and/or Tony are contained. If they don't, then the fate they suffered the last two post-seasons could be repeated.

Gomez seems a little more sanguine than I about the team's ability to correct this deficiency before the end of the season, but we share the same concern. I just don't think this problem can be fixed with the turn of a faucet. And I think the Spurs are running out of time to begin a trend in the right direction. In my opinion, this needs to be a serious issue for every member of the team. In every remaining game, the Spurs need to establish solid habits that won't be easily forgotten in the heat of playoff action.

Finally, there is considerable improvement in the defensive rebound rate (DRR). The Spurs have gone from 73.3 to 74.5 and from 14th ranked to 7th ranked. The team needs to hold the line there, or even edge higher, since their total rebound rate is still under 50.0. This is another very important category to watch, because many of the top opponents in the West are particularly adept at crashing the offensive boards for easy put-backs and second chance opportunities.

Conclusion

The Spurs maintain their "A" grade from me by weathering a pretty tough first half schedule (the highest strength of schedule in the top-eight; .533), but still need to push for a top-ranked EDS of 9.0+ by season's end (taking care of the ball would probably help).

So again, Pounders, put on your analyst hats and feel free to question some of my assumptions, and disagree with any of my assertions. Your input will help improve the third quarter report (if you spot any data errors, feel free to point them out). And I'll be back in March, near the end of week one, probably right after we masterfully usher those poor Pistons out of San Antonio.

P.S. A brief reminder/caveat about the DR: It does not prove anything. Nevertheless, it does represent consistent winning at a high level, and is highly correlated with an increased likelihood of a team to ultimately secure the championship. However, it by no means guarantees anything. Only pounding the rock and making it happen in the biggest moments does. Go Spurs Go!

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