What can we learn from the Spurs' losses?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs rank second in the West and have looked great for most of the year. But a handful of losses to prospective contenders has fans worried. Are there previously undetected weaknesses to these Spurs?

The Spurs were pummeled by the Indiana Pacers in their own building and are now 5-4 against team that currently have a winning record, with those four losses coming against the would be contenders Rockets, Pacers, Blazers and Thunder. There were quality wins peppered in there but mostly the Spurs have taken care of business against teams that they were supposed to beat and lost to teams that could be a threat in the playoffs, which has fans worried.

My first reaction is to point to the fact that it's December. What we should want from the team is to stay near the top in the West (check), be healthy (check) and start to find what works and what doesn't (check). There will be time to solidify rotations later and change gears as the playoffs approach. But if we know anything about the Spurs, it's that they never miss an opportunity to analyze their issues in order to continue getting better.

After going over the losses again, I came up with three categories of weaknesses. The coincidental, the worrying but fixable and the serious. Let's start with the milder problems.

Incidental problems

Heath concerns

Splitter was not available for a huge part of the Pacers game. Tiago is sorely needed against any team that has a good starting pair of big men and the Pacers have one of the best. Splitter is especially important on defense, so his absence does help explain why the Pacers scored so easily. Do the Spurs beat the Pacers with a healthy Tiago? Maybe not. But it's highly likely that it would have been a closer game.

Sometimes there's nothing the defense can do

You can't shut down the game's best scorers every time. Sometimes guys like Damian Lillard, James Harden, Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Durant will go off. Those guys take tough, well defended shots and make them - that's why they are stars. All you can do is try to make it as hard on them as you can. So the question is: do the Spurs have defenders to make life hard for those guys? The answer is a resounding yes.

Worrying but fixable weaknesses

The Green/Leonard offense needs to improve

The starting wings are currently killing the Spurs offense. The Spurs score 97.5 points per 100 possessions when Leonard is on the court and 115 points when he is off the court. The change is not as pronounced with Green, as the Spurs "only" score 7.5 less points per 100 possessions instead of 17.5, but it is still something to worry about. No one in the starting lineup is shining in terms of offense but the wings are not hitting threes, which is a concern because corner threes are the one open shot that San Antonio's offense is nearly always able to generate.

The team averaged 16 three pointers and connected on a fantastic 40.7% of them per 48 minutes last season with both Green and Leonard on the floor. This season those numbers are down to 14.8 and 30.3%. In the Spurs four losses, Leonard has shot 3-12 and Green has gone 1-12. The starting lineup has scored a measly 88.2 per 100 possessions together and have only taken eight three pointers, connecting on just one in the four losses.

There is some regression to the mean coming. Leonard was perfectly capable of hitting open three pointers last season and went 2-4 against the Pacers, so there's hope. The situation with Green is trickier because teams are not helping off of him and the Spurs are not finding ways to get him open. But with a little creativity and more commitment from Parker to keep looking for Green, he could go back to being a deadly threat.

Defending the three point line

On defense, the Spurs had trouble protecting the three point line in their losses despite being really great at preventing three pointers overall. Whether they come in the secondary break, after poorly defended ball-screens or due to over-helping, the Spurs are allowing teams to take tough but makeable outside shots. They protect the corners well, but they leave themselves exposed to good shooters on the wing and from the top of the arc.

It can be fixed by focusing more on the fundamentals of team defense and also by a change of mindset, one the Spurs were able to make in their series against Golden State, in which they started picking up players further out and treating every potential three point attempt as a serious threat.

Serious weaknesses

The permanent problem of the mid-range jumper

I've discussed the Spurs' struggles to defend mid-range jumpers many times, so I won't get into it again here. But it's still a barometer for how well the Spurs fare. In wins, the Spurs allowed an excellent 32.1% from 16 to 24 feet. In their losses they allow 51.4% from that zone, which is the second highest mark in the league. All the hard work the Spurs put into not allowing buckets near the rim is negated when they run across a big man with an elite mid-range jumper.

No easy points

What I mean when I say easy points are those in transition, directly after offensive boards and coming from free throws. According to MySynergySports, the Spurs are very good at converting transition opportunities into points, ranking 10th in the league. They are also fantastic at turning offensive boards into points, ranking 4th in the league. But they aren't getting many of those opportunities.

The Spurs rank 18th in the league in fast break points per 48 minutes with 12.2. For comparisson's sake, the Thunder rank second with 17.3. When it comes to second chance points, the Spurs rank 24th, with 11.6 per 48 minutes. This is largely by design and to avoid opponent fast break points. But consider this: the Blazers, who are among the worst in fast break points, make up for it by crashing the offensive glass to the tune of 15.8 second chance points per 48. Both teams, along with everyone else in the league, are better than the Spurs at drawing fouls.

While the Spurs did get more second chance points in losses -- likely aided by the fact that they missed more shots -- their fast break points declined. And the most worrying of the factors (and the one I'll be writing a separate post about) was the disparity in free throw attempts. During those four losses, the opponent held a plus 51 advantage in terms of free throw attempts. That is a ridiculous amount and it is something that could really hurt the Spurs' chances if it goes unchecked. Without those easy points, the Spurs will likely come up short against the best teams in the league.

Conclusion

All the losses did was highlight some weaknesses we already knew the Spurs had. Now it's up to them to address them or make up for them. The important thing to remember is that the team is largely healthy and an injury-free Spurs squad is undeniably good enough to make a deep playoff run. It's early enough in the season that everything is fixable.

There is still no need to panic.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports

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