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The NBA's True Contenders - Part II

Day two of our in-depth look at how Differential Ranking separates the championship contenders from the pretenders. Now we focus on the big dogs of the West.

Will the Big 3 be smiling at the end of this season?
Will the Big 3 be smiling at the end of this season?
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The “Differential” Indicator: First Quarter-Season Report (Part II)

After yesterday's introduction to Differential Ranking, let's talk about the Spurs' four biggest competitors in the West (which includes those still bumbling Lakers). The top Eastern teams that pose the biggest threat to the Spurs in a potential Finals matchup will be discussed in the second-quarter report. At this early juncture, the defending champion Heat and the upstart New York Knicks represent by far the biggest worries out East. It won't be surprising when all is said and done if both teams are fighting for a top-four EDS rank at season's end.

DR Team Conference
1st Thunder Western 20 16-4 11.2 111.1 99.9 0.500 2nd
2nd Knicks Eastern 19 14-5 9.3 109.9 100.6 0.522 4th
3rd Spurs Western 21 17-4 8.6 106.7 98.1 0.517 1st
4th Clippers Western 19 13-6 7.9 107.2 99.3 0.577 3rd
5th Heat Eastern 18 13-5 5.9 109.5 103.6 0.542 7th
6th Grizzlies Western 18 14-4 5.8 102.8 97.0 0.524 5th
7th Lakers Western 20 9-11 5.5 105.6 100.1 0.508 8th
8th Hawks Eastern 17 12-5 4.3 102.1 97.8 0.495 9th

The Thunder

The defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder has reached the quarter-pole with a strong number one ranking in differential. Many saw the team taking a step back this season with the loss of James Harden, but Kevin Martin has stepped in admirably, spreading the floor and averaging nearly 16 ppg, while shooting 48% from behind the arc. In fact, OKC appears to have filled the Harden-void with a combination of Martin's scoring/shooting and the additional 5.3 assists per game coming from Westbrook and the returning Eric Maynor. They have bolted out of the gates to a 16-4 mark, with a top-ranked and eye-popping 11.2 differential, so everything is rosy, right? Well, not quite. The Thunder had that ignoble David Stern on their scheduling side to start this season. OKC has played only 40% of their games on the road (the Spurs 57%), and have also been treated to the 2nd weakest SOS out of the top eight (plus they've been entirely healthy). So while the Thunder is playing well right now, the efficiency differential score at this point is probably a bit inflated. Even so, the Western Conference defending champions (as I choke on my pretzel) don't appear to have lost an inch on the offensive end. That offense, combined with a pesky enough defense, keeps them front and center through the first part of the season as the team to beat in the West.

The Clippers

How about that other Los Angeles team, the one that has given the Spurs half of their losses this season? Their strong EDS puts them a solid 4th in the entire league. The Clippers play in the strongest conference, have a solid .684 win percentage, have the toughest SOS out of the top-eight, and have done so mainly without the services of two key veterans, Billups and Hill. Yes, they have had a home-friendly schedule thus far (63% of their games at home), and they do have their weaknesses (e.g., inability of bigs to spread the floor), but make no mistake, the Clips have shown the trappings of a championship quality club. Their depth is outstanding, they have a great mix of young/in-prime players and veterans (Lamar Odom even appears to be coming out of his coma), they have key disruptive defenders, their team chemistry is improving, they have a super-star PG, and they have a modest-in-experience but substantially underrated coach in Vinny Del Negro. In my view, the Clippers will likely continue to be a significant threat in the West as the season wears on.

The Grizzlies

What about the team that a lot of Spurs fans have nightmares about, that 8th seed from two short seasons ago? Well, that Grizzlies team certainly had been on a run before the Spurs knocked them off their high-horse in overtime on December 1 (the ode to David Stern game). They've looked mortal ever since, including another home defeat Saturday against the surprising Atlanta Hawks. Nevertheless, the Grizzlies are a force to be reckoned with, as their 5th rated EDS suggests. They have one of the toughest front lines in the NBA, they have a go-to wing in Rudy Gay, and their backcourt gives opposing teams fits with their relentlessly opportunistic defensive style. Their SOS has been solid, and they also have played without a key role player, Darrell Arthur, for most of the season. On the other hand, the Grizz have only played only about 40% of their games on the road. Bottom-line: I'm not surprised at all by the Memphis EDS; they are clearly another big threat in the West this season.

The Lakers

Uh .... the Lakers. The Yankees of basketball. The mega-market team. The glitz and the glamour. The contrasts with our beloved Spurs could go on seemingly forever. How does one sensibly talk about the handsome rich guy from a totally foreign neighborhood all the way across town that gets all the attention for accomplishing nothing more or better in the very same craft as you? Well, it's not easy, but I'll give it a go. Simply put, talent often wins in the end. All things being equal, the more talent a team has in its top seven, and the more minutes they can get out of those players, the more likely it is that team will win in a seven-game playoff series. The Lakers have a lot of talent in their top seven and should be able to get a pretty high number of minutes out of them. Consequently, they will be a team to reckon with before all is said and done. No doubt, they have stumbled out of the block, for a variety of plausible reasons, and yet they still managed a top-seven differential rank. Granted, they did have the third easiest schedule of the top-eight, and a home-friendly schedule, but they still have that talent. Their record is poor because they have several key new players, have had three coaches in the past month, have been trying to adapt to new and substantially different offensive systems, and most importantly, have never once been able to put the ball in Steve Nash's hands. As a result, they have played inconsistently and often in a disoriented fashion, usually blowing someone out or getting blown out themselves. In the few close games they've played, the Lakers have a decidedly losing record. A key stat is team assist-to-turnover rate, currently at a 28th ranked 1.26 (only above Cleveland and Sacramento). Bottom line: we won't know how troublesome this Lakers team will be until Steve Nash returns. At age 38, he could be the most valuable player in the league. Only time will tell, but I wouldn't laugh about this Lakers team too hard just yet.

The Spurs

And the Spurs? Well, I'm proud to report that the Silver and Black have finished out the 1st quarter in style, moving strongly into the three-spot in EDS and gaining for the first time (in Game 21) the number one position in Hollinger's Power Rankings. The team has now won 9 out of their last 10 games (the one loss coming in the last 30 seconds against the defending champion Heat in Miami - a drama I've dubbed Schedulegate), and have now finished the first quarter with the best record in the league. While the Spurs have had a slightly easier than average schedule, they've also played the most games on the road out of the top eight, compiling an impressive 10-2 mark. And most of this has been accomplished with two of their key players (both SFs) out with injuries.

The Statistics

So, taking a finer look at the Spurs performance thus far, what is the team doing really well and what are some key areas that need improvement? The table below shows some key stats; some are very impressive, while others appear to need a bit more work. From left to right the stats highlighted 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.

OFG% (R)
3-pt.% (R)
AR (R)
TR (R)
8.6 (3rd) .433 (4th) 37.0 (10th) 19.2 (1st) 14.2 (13th) 73.3 (14th)

Considering that during the first quarter of the season, the team played 57% of their games on the road, has suffered some key injuries, and has endured a mind-numbing array of rotation experiments at the behest of the mad-scientist-coach-in-chief, the above are some pretty solid numbers. However, while a number three ranking in EDS is great (57% of all title winners in the last 33 years came from this group), a number one ranking by the end of the season is even better. 45% of title winners over the last 33 years topped the rankings, compared to just 12% of 2nd-ranked teams, and 15% of 3rd-ranked teams. Personally, I like nearly 2:1 odds better than 7:1 or 8:1. Nevertheless, the Spurs are in good EDS position to surge to the top before long. Also, given the team's OFG% thus far, this puts the Silver and Black squarely in the thick of things as title contenders. Wonderful job defense, but please, keep it up!

The three-point percentage? Well, frankly, though not too bad, it needs some improvement. Even with the improved defense, this stat will remain a key component to the team's success. The Spurs need to get that percentage up to 39+ and into the top-five league-wise. The good news is that the team has relied less on the most tested regular-season three-point shooter (Matt); the Spurs have recently been heading in the right direction, personified by the open-the-flood-gates, record-setting 19 made threes in the game against Charlotte. On the other hand, the AR has been moving up the charts in stellar fashion (to a solid number one ranking), recently topped off by the 38-assist effort in Charlotte. This is fabulous, and indicates the offense is starting to hum. But don't let the powerful offensive showings allow you to get lazy on "D"!

The TR is still a bit of a problem, even though the team's assist to turnover ratio is currently ranked an impressive 3rd in the league. Turnovers can be momentum changers (and not in a good way), acting as powerful energy stimulants for the most athletic and feared opponents (e.g., Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, Knicks, Heat). The Spurs ended 2nd in TR last season and need to at least get into the top-seven this season to effectively contain these fast opponents in the transition game.

And finally, the dirty work category that can often be extremely important for a less-than-athletic finesse team like the Spurs, who deliberately, as strategy, choose to eschew the offensive glass: defensive rebounds (DRR). In my view, the Spurs' current ranking must improve to advance the odds of a Finals appearance. For the last few years, the team has been extremely strong in this category, leading the entire league last year. Considering the substantial improvement in OFG% (assuming that this is sustained), the Spurs don't need to get back to a number one ranking, but getting back into the top seven would help any title chances considerably. Defensive rebounds help keep some of those athletic and feared opponents off the offensive glass and away from momentum-changing second chance opportunities and easy put-backs. This is an "effort and technique/discipline category". Let's step it up a notch!

This concludes the first quarter-season report. I give the team and Pop an overall "A" grade, but of course I want to see an "A+" before season's end. Ultimately ending the regular season with a high DS and a number-one DR could very well translate into a very special season.

Now all you Pounders, put on your analyst hats and feel free to question some of my assumptions, and disagree with any of my assertions contained in this post. Your input will make the quarter-two report better. 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. J

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 for a team to ultimately reach its championship aspirations. However, it by no means guarantees anything. Only pounding the rock and making it happen in the biggest moments does. Go Spurs Go!