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So You're Saying There's a Chance?!

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I once got a lot of great advice from a highly successful blogger. One suggestion was to be a loud and obviously biased cheerleader for your team. I have trouble with this because it's not in line with my intentions or motives (not to mention I am a bitter and cynical bastard). The main reason I started this blog was the perceived lack of original, rational opinion in mainstream sports media. In some ways I understood it; I would think twice before ripping Nick Van Exel if I had to see him in the locker room 82 times a year. But there are only so many times you can read about "taking big shots" and "veteran leadership."

I bring all this up because I have a dilemma; a dilemma rooted in my feelings regarding the Spurs. They are:

  1. I strongly believe SA is not winning a title this year, and I give them a 5% of beating DET in the playoffs.
  2. I think DAL has a legitimate shot at beating the Spurs in the playoffs.
But what Spurs fans want to read that? Most message board using Spurs fans seem to use the "We beat DET last year and we are better this year so we will beat them again" or the "The regular season games don't matter" logic to justify their optimism. And number #2 is straight heresy amongst Spurs fans. Worse than buying picante sauce made in New York City.

So I've bitten my tongue to avoid ruffling feathers. But Friday's game against DAL was a showcase of all the Spurs obvious problem areas. I can be silent no more.

First off, let's put all this "the Spurs are better this year" crap to rest. They're not better this year. Yeah, I know they are going to set a franchise record for wins. But wins are not the best judge of a team's year-long performance. Point-differential is more accurate. Last year the Spurs had an average +7.8 differential. This year they're at +6.7. Last year they were ninth and first in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. This year they are also ninth and first. So why the difference in wins? <Rob Neyer>Mostly random chance.</Rob Neyer>

Last year the Spurs were 9-7 in games decided by 3 points or less. This year they are 8-2. They went from winning 56% of close games to winning 80%. You may give the credit to Nick Van Exel's veteran savvy (though in the last 5 minutes of a game his "savvyness" can only be seen in the form of towel waving) or Chip Engelland's snappy wardrobe. Myself and the evidence give the credit to lady luck. Let's consult some graphs shall we?

If performance in close games was a "skill" it should be repeated from year to year. A team's performance in one year should be at least somewhat indicative of its performance the next year. For example, one would think team defense is a skill. A great defensive team one year should at least be good the next. In order to get an idea of what a skill looks like, I graphed 2006 Defensive Efficiency Rank vs. 2005 Defensive Efficiency Rank. If the ranks remained exactly the same you would see a line of points from the bottom left to the top right. Take a look:

That's about what I expected. Obviously the ranks will change from season to season. Rosters alter and coaches can be changed. Injuries can happen. But there is an undeniable trend shown in that graph. Good defensive teams one year tend to be good the next. The same can be said for bad defensive teams. (For number dorks out there, the standard deviation for the change in rank was 3.6.)

So now let's look at a similar graph, except this time we'll look at winning percentages in close games from 2005 and 2006.

Folks, it doesn't get any more random than that. I couldn't have faked the numbers that well. The r-squared value is 0.01. What does that mean? In means that there is absolutely no relationship between the two sets of data. NONE. I might as well have graphed 2006 Winning Percentage in Close Games vs. Number of Times Point Guard For Team Has Seen Charlie's Angels.

I know what you're thinking. "I cannot believe this motherfucker spent that much time proving a point that was initially intended to be little more than an aside." See, this is what happens when you have an Excel fetish. Don't worry, I'm in a 12-step program.

So where was I? Oh yes, if anything this year's team is performing worse than it did last season. Another problem to the "we're better" argument is the problem of identifying the areas in which they have improved.

Timmeh is putting up career lows in just about every category except "bricks from the free throw line." I'm not ragging on the guy; he's got foot problems that he's playing through. But he's clearly less effective on both ends (especially one-on-one and pick and roll defense).

The Sickness has said it himself; he's lacking the explosion he had last year. And again, it's showing up on both ends of the court. He's nothing like the great one-on-one defender he was last year.

Now Tony Parker hasimproved. But, for the hundredth time, his jump shot is no better. His eFG% on jumpers has gone up a whopping 0.4%. The difference is that he's shooting less jumpers (from 58 to 51% of shots) and converting more of his close opportunities (eFG% of 63.3 to 69.8%). Yes, he's better, but enough to make up for the Tim and Manu's decline?

Now we get to the cagey veterans, Finley and Van Exel. They're a combined 40% from the field and 37% from 3. The latter is good but not any better than what the Spurs were getting last year from their backup guards. And Van Exel has been damn-near a disaster. He can't guard a corpse and though he made 4 threes against DAL he also took about 4 ridiculously horrible shots. You can count on him wasting a minimum of two possessions a game. Any perceived team improvement credited to these players has everything to do with their names and reputations and nothing to do with their remaining skills.

Alright, so onto the DAL game. Here's what I noticed:

-Tony Parker turning down multiple wide open jumpers in the fourth quarter. At one point he jumped to shoot but changed his mind and through the ball to a totally-off Duncan who was actually further from the basket. Ugly shades of last year's playoffs.

-Manu not being able to penetrate at will or finish at the basket consistently. In case you need reminding, this is the same guy who had a TS% of 65.2% during the playoffs last year. How good is that? That's better than Shaq's ever done in the playoffs OR the regular season. That's better than Jordan's ever done in the playoffs OR the regular season. How far away is he from that level? And who's going to pick up the slack in the playoffs? Tony Parker, facing collapsing defenses and with a shaky jumper? Tim Duncan? Ha.

-Tim Duncan getting schooled by Dirk Nowitzki over and over and over again. Tim Duncan traveling with under a minute left in the game. Tim Duncan settling for jump shots. Tim Duncan bricking free throws. Yeah, he was hurt last year, too. But he's obviously worse this year.

-The Spurs shoot 10-20 from 3 and grab 14 offensive rebounds. They limit to DAL to 3 made 3-pointers and only turn the ball over a respectable 12 times. And yet they lose at home by 6? In a game that was huge for both teams? That, combined with the above, combined with Manu's and Tim's constant injury problems, combined with the lack of a good option at backup PG, combined with a more seasoned and confident DAL team, is disturbing.

Look, I'm not saying the Mavericks are going to beat the Spurs in the playoffs. The Spurs are still a great team and I think they will squeeze by DAL in 6 or 7 games. And they'll whip PHX again. But it's not going to matter. And this has been what I have wanted to just come out and clearly say for a while now.

The Spurs aren't beating a healthy Pistons team (and neither is any team in the Eastern Conference). I just can't see it. Just like last year when I couldn't see anyway PHX would seriously challenge the Spurs (and they didn't). SA will not have home court advantage; that alone infers they will have to play better than last year to beat DET. Then there's the fact DET has undoubtedly improved since last June. SA beating DET simply doesn't make sense. Does not compute. Undefined. Error. REENTER. Who are the Spurs going to go to on the offensive end? Duncan, who claims Rasheed is his toughest defender in the league? The guy who had a TS% of 47% during last year's finals? Parker? With the stronger Billups playing 5' off him at all times and two shot-blockers waiting for him in the lane? What if Robert Horry doesn't single-handedly win a game again? What if Ginobili doesn't have the health and energy to totally dominate 2.5 games like he did last year?

How many things have to go right for the Spurs to win 4 of 7 games from a team that totally dominated them twice this year?

I'll be rooting for the Spurs as hard as anyone during the playoffs. I'll be sweating out every Ginobili grimace, every Parker corkscrew jumper and every Duncan free throw attempt. I would love for the Spurs to prove me wrong. I'll be the first to point out this post and how big a moron I was. If you don't want to wait until then please feel free to insult my intelligence in the comments below.

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Entirely True Yet Remarkably Meaningless Tidbit Number Two.

Last weekend I made rigatoni with Bolognese sauce. The recipe called for "one tablespoon each of basil, mint and red pepper flakes." I thought that sounded like way too much spice, but being an engineer I thought "Who am I to question a cookbook? I am just a simple engineer. You're large variety of spices confuse and scare me." So in went the three tablespoons of spice. And out came the most disgusting sauce I've ever tasted. And my condo still smells like a spice rack.