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State of the Spurs: What do the SportVU numbers say about San Antonio?

The Spurs have been using advanced analytics for years, but this is the first season many of these numbers have been made available to us fans. As we reflect on San Antonio's strong 9-1 start, let's look at some stats that stand out.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Sports fans rely on numbers to help tell stories. Through them we figure out which team's winning, what player's being overpaid, and how many airplane bottles Joey Crawford has consumed by half-time.

Numbers rarely show the whole picture though. As it goes with drinking, you can easily get carried away and lose focus, ending up with more questions than answers. That practice is even more precarious when you're wielding new numbers, like the kind I'm looking at today.

As covered in this article a few months back, the NBA has installed SportVU, a system that uses six cameras located high above the court to track players' movements, in every stadium in the league. San Antonio was actually one of the first organizations to adopt SportVU a few years back, so this doesn't really change anything from how they conduct their business.

But what is new is that many of these numbers are finally available to the general public, so we can now see much of what PATFO has been tracking when it comes to personnel moves. The aforementioned article explains the more technical side of this advancement but now, a few weeks into the season, we can start to see how it can be applied practically.

With 10 games played (a small, but not insignificant sample size) let's look at one noteworthy number that these advanced analytics provide for each member of the San Antonio Spurs.

What I'll try to do in this article is point out certain stats that are representative of what we've seen so far this year. Some are encouraging trends that I hope will continue; others might help explain what's been missing in some players' performances.

Under each player I'll include a link to that stat, not only as a reference but so that you can follow the stat as the season unfolds. You might see that in some circumstances I've used a filter to narrow down the results. In most cases, it's merely done to refine the results and make it easier to see; in other cases, I'll explain why I've done it.

Tony Parker: 24.2 (Distance in miles traveled through 10 games)

After a victorious Eurobasket run that followed a grueling NBA postseason, it seemed like a good idea to ease Tony back into things at the start of the 2013-14 season, in the interest of keeping his body as rested as possible as San Antonio gears up for another run at the title. That has not been the case so far.

Through 10 games Tony is ranked 16th in the league in total distance covered (Chandler Parsons leads the league at 28.2 as of this writing), and compared to anyone else in the top 50 in that category, no one has run at a faster pace than him (4.6 miles per hour, on average).

This might not surprise people who are used to watching his style of play - which involves plenty of dribble-drives and baseline cuts to get open - but it also doesn't seem sustainable, given the high mileage he's clocked on his 31-year-old body.

Tony has been incredible so far this season, and is a big part of the San Antonio's excellent start. He's putting up averages of 18.5 and 6.2, while shooting nearly 54% from the field. He's also bailed the team out multiple times in the fourth quarter.

But if you look at the list of players running as much as he is, there are a lot of young fellas, and then there's Tony. Most of us remember what he looked like at the end of the Finals and dread the thought of that happening again.


Tim Duncan: 39.5 (Field-goal percentage)

While Tony has picked up right where he left off from last season, Timmy's production is nowhere close to what it was through the playoffs. He's currently averaging 12 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game. The points and rebounds are career-low numbers, which wouldn't be all too surprising had the 37-year-old not put together one of his finest seasons last year.

More concerning than those figures is Big Fun's shooting percentage, which is currently sitting at 39.5%.


A look at the shot chart shows just how much Duncan has fallen in love with the jumper from the elbow and top of the key, a trend that goes back a few years. Many of these shots come off the pick-and-roll with Tony, as defenses scramble to deal with Parker driving and leave Duncan free to roll. So far though, the jumpshots haven't fallen, with most looking flat and short.

Timmy is 9 of 37 from four areas around the top of key and 2 of 8 from his bank-shot sweet spot. I expect those percentages to improve regardless, but would like to see him not settle so much.


Manu Ginobili: 0.9 (Free-throw attempts per game), 3.0 (Drives to the hoop per game)

Like Tim, Manu isn't shooting particularly well right now (41.2 FG%), and his low scoring output (10.0 PPG) is a direct reflection of that.

At his peak, Manu took six free throws a game. Even last year, a down year by all estimates, he averaged 3.4 attempts a game. Now, he's shooting less than one a game.

The drop in the number of trips to the line is in large part due to how infrequently he's been driving it to the hoop. His 30 drives has him in the esteemed Gal Mekel-E'twaun Moore tier of players -- 10 behind the Miami's Norris Cole and 12 more than the Land Walrus.

This reluctance to drive isn't for a lack of scoring efficiency when he does attack. If you look at the NBA Stats link below, you'll see Manu's field-goal percentage on these drives is excellent. He hasn't had trouble getting the shots he wants when he gets into the lane, and has in many ways looked like the Manu of old. It's simply a matter of attacking more.

I expect both numbers to rise as the season progresses.


Kawhi Leonard: 0.42 (Points per half-court touch)

Kawhi leads the team in this number which, if you look at the rankings, is almost exclusively a big man's stat. That makes sense since power forwards and centers more often than not receive the ball in positions where they're ready to score. One of the few exceptions is Klay Thompson, who is putting up points at a video-game-like rate right now.

Unlike Thompson, who's been shooting lights-out early in the year, Kawhi's long ball simply isn't falling just yet. I expect that to change. He's shooting 28% from three right now and many of those have been open looks from the corner.

Where Kawhi has been getting his points is by being more aggressive, beginning on his own end of the floor by pushing the ball in transition. What we haven't seen yet are all those plays that were supposed to have been drawn up for Leonard.


Tiago Splitter: 30% (Opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim)

Tiago is one of the ultimate analytics-based signings in the NBA. Almost everything exceptional that he does on the floor doesn't show up on the box score, leading many to think the Brazilian might've been overpaid this summer. Through his first 10 games, Tiago's averaging a pedestrian 7.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. But a closer look shows that Tiago is indeed worth it.

You hear a lot about Roy Hibbert's elite defense at the rim. His practice of keeping his arms up vertically and not fouling the shooter has even resulted in some calling that move "The Hibbert". But while he's now getting his due as an elite defender, you won't hear many people saying the same thing about Splitter.

In fact, when it comes to bigs who have played significant minutes, only the Bulls' Taj Gibson has a lower percentage (28.6%). Tim Duncan (31.9%), Brook Lopez (31.5%), Anthony Davis (34.1%), and the lauded Hibbert (34.1%) all trail the forever-unappreciated Spurs center.

The Spurs boast one of the best defenses in the league right now, and Tiago is a huge reason for that.


Danny Green: 44.4 (Catch-and-shoot three-point field-goal percentage)

Verde's elite three-point shooting isn't going anywhere. What I'm wanting to see this year is how Green continues to develop by building his game around his shot. He's already looking to make a bigger impact on the glass (4 rebounds a game) and defensive end (1.0 block and 0.8 steals a game).

The question I'm waiting to have answered: Can Danny consistently make plays after being chased off the three-point line?


Boris Diaw: 45.1 (Touches per game)

For the plus-sized Frenchman, player-tracking technology might not seem like the best way to show what he brings to the team. He doesn't move particularly well, and he's not going to cover nearly as much ground as his teammates. On top of that, the view from the above-court SportVU cameras might look like this:


But 2013-14 has been a special year for Boris who, as we've mentioned before, is playing with a newfound purpose. His minutes are relatively equal to what they were last year with the Spurs (24.1 MPG compared to 22.8 in 2012-13), but his scoring has nearly doubled (11.4 PPG this year, compared to 5.8 last year).

His usage rate is way up and the offense has played through him regularly. As a result, his Player Efficiency Rating is at a career-best 18.3. Friday night's win against Utah, in which Diaw scored a season-high 17 points, is another reference point indicating that this encouraging trend isn't an early-season anomaly.

Marco Belinelli 3.14 (Assist-to-turnover ratio)

Stampler wrote a great piece on Marco's instant impact on the Spurs, so I'll try to keep my acclaim for Italian Ice to a brief. Suffice it to say, Marco has been brilliant in his role off the bench through 10 games, helping form one of the best-passing second units in the NBA. His assist-to-turnover ratio is simply a representation of his efficient ability to create on the offensive end.

Patty Mills: 57.5 (Efg% on pull-up shots*)

Patty is giving the Spurs just what they need out of the backup PG position. In 16 minutes a game, he's setting up the offense, playing 94 feet of defense and keeping his turnovers down (0.6 per game). He's not a big-time playmaker, but playing beside guys like Manu, Boris and Marco, he doesn't need to be.

Still, Mills' primary value is as a shooter who is able to create his own shot, and he's absolutely delivering in that capacity. His 57.5% effective field-goal percentage is good for third in the NBA among players averaging at least 1.5 pull-up shots a game. (Here, a pull-up shot is defined as a jump shot outside of 10 feet where a player takes one dribble before shooting.)


Jeff Ayres: 7.0 (Player Efficiency Rating)

Aron Baynes: -5.6 (Player Efficiency Rating)

If you're wondering why you might continue to see more of Ayres as the season progresses, these numbers might be the reason why. The two bigs are essentially asked to do the same thing: set screens, rebound, play serviceable D, and hit the occasional open jumper. But after looking better than Ayres in the preseason, Baynesie hasn't impressed in limited time in the regular season.

Baynes' negative PER can largely be attributed to a 16.7% field-goal shooting percentage. His stroke looks good, but the shots simply aren't falling. Ayres hasn't been on fire either yet (40.9% FG), with his struggles being around finishing at the rim, but it'll be hard to keep Baynes on the court at all if he can't be a reliable finisher.


Matt Bonner: 75% (Catch-and-shoot effective field-goal percentage)

Due to a calf injury, the Red Mamba has only appeared in three games so far this year. He remains the same player he's always been: a catch-and-shoot threat who's a better defender than people give him credit for. Once he's healthy he should still see spot minutes depending on the matchup.


Cory Joseph and Nando de Colo: 4.8 (Average in-game speed in miles per hour)

Neither backup PG has seen much time on the court through the first 10 games. But when their numbers are called, both guys are all over the place. Their 4.8 miles per hour is tied for first in the league in average speed along with Patty Mills and the Warriors' Toney Douglas.

Notice that in the sea of role players that are running their tails off, you'll once again see Tony's name.


While we're on the subject, some assorted team stats

  • 0.900 - Winning Percentage (T - 1st in the league)
  • 11.1 - Net rating, Offensive rating minus Defensive rating (2nd in the league)
  • 16.2 - Number of FT attempts per game (last in the league)
  • 78.77% - Defensive Rebounding Percentage (2nd in the league)
  • 96.77 - PACE (14th in the league)
A final note: it's important to remember that the Spurs coaching staff has had access to this information for years. While many of these numbers are new to us (making it difficult to draw comparisons to previous seasons), they're not only aware of them, but also more capable of knowing how to interpret them. I don't mean to try and out-think Pop, nor can I extrapolate the statistics too much -- I'm merely looking to point out what's standing out now.

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