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NBA Contenders: 3rd Quarter Report, Part 2

The season is past the 3/4 pole and is now loping down the back stretch. Which teams have what it takes to win as the days get longer and the season nears its end?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

To enjoy this piece in context, see Part 1 of my Differential Report that posted yesterday. For the ambitious among you, there's last May's introductory 32-year statistical survey, as well as part one and part two of this season's first quarter report, not to mention part one and part two of this year's mid-season report.

The Contenders

Below are those teams still in the hunt for the 2012-2013 NBA title. Some seem to have very little chance at this point, while others look primed for a serious run. So, I'll draw upon some of the data from the previous post, other key stats, and pertinent personnel updates to offer a "sound bite" about each of the top twelve teams in differential rating at this point in the regular season.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The defending Western Conference Champions have thus far led wire-to-wire in EDS. They are also 1st in the Power Rankings, number 2nd in offensive efficiency, and have now crept up to 5th in defensive efficiency. Compared to last year with Harden, this year they have a larger differential (+3.9), a higher 3-point % (+.340), and a higher rate of assists per FG made (.574 vs .494).

Remaining Schedule: Difficult

Notable Roster Changes: Recently picked up the veterans Brewer and Fisher

Strength: Top-tier talent, youth, athleticism, speed, perimeter shooting, FT shooting (% - 1st, makes - 1st)

Weakness: Turnovers (tied for last in TR), low-post scoring

Key: Can Martin perform consistently as well in the playoffs as he has in the regular season?

Bottom line: The Thunder is still probably the biggest threat in the league for the Spurs.

Miami Heat

The defending NBA Champions started out slowly, but have made steady and significant progress in EDS throughout the first three quarters (5.9 to 9.2, a +3.3). They are 3rd in the Power Rankings, 1st in offensive efficiency, and 2nd in 3-point %. Closing out Q-3 on a 15-game winning streak isn't too shabby either. Compared to last year without Allen, this year they have a larger differential (+2.0), a higher 3-point percentage (+.340), and a much better ranking in turnover rate (4th vs. 23rd).

Remaining Schedule: Highly favorable

Notable Roster Changes: Recently signed "Birdman" for the rest of the season

Strength: Have the best player in the world, offensive efficiency, opponent fast break points per game (2nd)

Weakness: rebounding, opponent percent of points from 3-pointers (27th)

Key: Can they adequately stop a high ball movement, top 3-point shooting team that also has an advantage in the paint in the half court?

Bottom line: Obviously still a major threat to any team, but if the Spurs control their turnovers, they have the type of team that could potentially upset Miami.

Los Angeles Clippers

Have the 4th best record and differential in the NBA this season and are also 4th in the Power Rankings. The Clippers have seen their differential move dramatically up and down by quarter based on the health and availability of their star PG, Chris Paul (CP3 missed nearly half of his team's games in Q-3). In fact, compared to the first year, in the second year of the Paul era the team's differential has improved dramatically (+4.7, led by their defensive efficiency, -3.4), as have their steals (+1.5, also the league-leader), their opponents FG% (-1.0), and their team's assists per game (+2.4).

Remaining Schedule: Highly favorable

Notable Roster Changes: None since the beginning of season - Billups is now healthy.

Strength: Athleticism, team depth, defensive disruptiveness (1st in steals)

Weakness: perimeter shooting, including free throws (27th in %), inside scoring from the half court.

Key: Can the Clippers get sufficient scoring in the paint out of their half court sets?

Bottom line: The Clippers are a dangerous foe because of Chris Paul and their team depth; but their weaknesses are large enough to likely preclude them from a WC Finals appearance this season.

Indiana Pacers

Last season's Eastern Conference Semifinalist's got off to an extremely slow start this season without their star scorer at the wing, Danny Granger. To dig themselves out of a hole, they transformed their already strong defense into a smoldering powerhouse. As a result, they've risen from 14th in EDS at the end of Q-1 to 9th at the end of Q-2 and finally, to 5th at the end of Q-3. Compared to last year, the Pacers have gone from 10th to 1st in defensive efficiency, from 6th to 1st in OFG%, from 16th to 1st in opponent 3-point %, and from 18th to 1st in opponent fast break efficiency. In short, this team can be like hell to score against.

Remaining Schedule: Average

Notable Roster Changes: Granger recently came back from injury (although apparently the knee just acted up again).

Strength: defensive efficiency (1st), both offensive (4th) and defensive rebounding (8th)

Weakness: offensive efficiency (19th), turnover rate (26th)

Key: With a top-rated defense, can the Pacers offense execute and deliver consistently enough when it matters most?

Bottom line: Offense probably not good enough to get back to the Finals - nevertheless, a formidable foe as far as they go.

New York Knicks

This team got off to a screaming start to begin the season, led by a career year from Anthony, the defense and rebounding of Chandler, the ball movement spearheaded by their new PGs (Felton & Kidd), and the gunslinging from Smith and Novak. Unfortunately for New York fans, they've been heading in the wrong direction ever since: from a 9.3 EDS at the end of Q-1, down to 4.9 at the end of Q-3. Still, the Knicks have improved from last season, particularly on the offensive end: from 19th to 3rd in offensive efficiency, and from 21st to 1st in turnover rate are probably the most notable data points.

Remaining Schedule: Highly unfavorable

Notable Roster Changes: Iman Shumpert returned from a season-ending ACL tear from last season - as yet, not the same player. Recently signed Kenyon Martin through the rest of the season, and sent Brewer to OKC for a future draft pick.

Strength: offensive efficiency (3rd), defensive rebounding (1st), turnover differential (+3.2 - 1st)

Weakness: opponent FG% (.458 - 18th), assist ratio (27th), defensive efficiency (15th)

Key: Can the Knicks consistently get enough disciplined ball movement to create high percentage opportunities down the stretch of tight games?

Bottom line: Team defense may not be taut and efficient enough when the going gets tough - they should still be a tough out though for any top-tier opponent.

Denver Nuggets

Had a tough early schedule, and so got off to a slow start, but they have continued to surge ahead in Q-3, raising their EDS from 2.6 to 4.4. Compared to last season, Denver has improved in some key areas, going from 19th to 13th in defensive efficiency, from 18th to 9th in turnover rate, from 12th to 2nd in offensive rebound rate. And of course, they remain the top fast break scoring team in the league. Turn the ball over against them and you're asking for trouble.

Remaining Schedule: Highly favorable

Notable Roster Changes: None since the season started.

Strength: speed and athleticism, team depth, offensive rebounding (1st), fast break points (1st)

Weakness: no established go-to scorer, perimeter shooting (e.g., 3-point % - 27th, free throws - 29th), scoring efficiency in the half court

Key: Can they make the big plays at both ends when the game slows down late, during critical moments?

Bottom line: The Nuggets have some issues on both ends of the ball in the half court, which should result in key losses in tight games against top competition - even so, they can scare any opponent, and are capable of a series upset with George Karl at the helm.

Memphis Grizzlies

Have had a pretty up and down season to date. They finished Q-1 in the top eight, and then dropped out for a relatively short period at the end of Q-2 and the beginning of Q-3. Now they're back in the eighth spot, and have seemed to weather the trade deadline loss of Rudy Gay reasonably well (their differential is holding steady or modestly improving). Overall, the Grizzlies have played a bit better this year than last year: 3.6 vs. 2.1 in EDS, 2nd vs. 7th in defensive efficiency, and 2nd vs. 11th in total rebound rate.

Remaining Schedule: Slightly unfavorable

Notable Roster Changes: Grizzlies sent Rudy Gay to the Raptors for Prince, Davis, and Daye, and sent Speights to Cleveland.

Strength: size and talent up front, experience and disruptive defense in the back court, defensive efficiency (2nd), offensive (1st) and defensive rebounding (5th)

Weakness: offensive efficiency (21st), 3-point shooting (23rd)

Key: Can Memphis successfully adapt to the loss of Gay, and can they execute consistently and well enough offensively throughout a 7-game series against top-level competition?

Bottom line: Teams often need to be able to consistently hit big shots from the perimeter to push them over the top. At the end of the day, though a tough out, I think the Grizzlies come up just short against the best in the West (p.s., this team is similar to Indiana in the East).

The following are what I consider long shots for cracking the top-eight by season's end. As a result, the focus is on those key factors that will ultimately be killers for them (most of these teams should/will make the playoffs, but all would pose only a remote threat to whoever their first round opponent is). Truly, I don't see a dark horse in the bunch.

Houston Rockets

This team has some really nice young talent, and they can score the ball, but they have too many other weaknesses that should preclude them from contender status by season's end. They're clearly the worst team in defensive efficiency (24th) out of the top 12, they have the worst turnover rate in the league, and frankly, they're just too young and inexperienced to get past Memphis or Denver.

Los Angeles Lakers

While at least this team has recently figured out how to win close games (5 of their last 7 wins have been by 7 points or less), and are on a nice run (13-5 in last 18 games), they simply have too many problems to contend this year: injuries and mismatched personnel result in key players assuming improper roles. They turn the ball over at too high a rate (21st), and their defense is pretty much a disgrace in transition (30th in fast break points allowed per game). So which is it, Lakers, playoff void, or first round exit?

Atlanta Hawks

As usual, the Hawks are not terrible (though rebounding and turnovers are pretty close) at too many things (e.g., 10th in DE, and 13th in OE). But once again they're just that middle of the road playoff caliber team in a weak Eastern Conference. They're still notoriously substandard in the mental aspects of the game (competitive desire, morale, focus). For example, a blowout loss against even average competition is not really a rare occurrence for this team. On the bright side, they do share the ball (2nd in assist ratio) and shoot well (7th in TS%), but that's simply not enough to even get to the margins of contention in my book.

Chicago Bulls

Obviously, if this team had a healthy Derrick Rose all season, they would be somewhere in the top eight right now. And while it is true that Rose could be back soon, the type of injury he suffered often takes a good deal of time to fully recover from. I have serious doubts that enough time is left this season to effectively incorporate Rose into a contender formula in Chicago. In the meantime, though Chicago defends and rebounds well overall, they have the lowest offensive efficiency (24th) of any in the top 12, and their team turnover rate is also quite poor (19th). Hopefully they all stay healthy next year to give it a real shot.

San Antonio Spurs

In concluding the mid-season report, I wrote:

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.

Wow, at the time I wasn't thinking of starting Joseph in place of our injured MVP and then just slaughtering that poor team for forty-eight full minutes. Seriously though, what an impressive way to end the third quarter, with back-to-back absolute blowouts that shot our EDS up from 9.0 to 9.7! The injury to Parker in the previous game was scary, but it could actually be a good thing (except of course for his pain!). First of all, Tony will probably get at least three weeks of downtime, the team will have the opportunity to push the skill sets of a few key players (backup PGs, Kawhi, Danny), and it may allow Manu to find a bit more consistent mojo and get into better playoff shape. Don't underestimate rest for Parker. He's not super high on the stamina meter. It could help a lot if he's fresher heading into the playoffs. Also, if everything goes as planned, Tony should get in enough work before the playoffs to get back his conditioning and rhythm. Furthermore, if he gets back by the game on the 27th, because the schedule is moderate and home-healthy up until then, the team still would have a shot at the number one seed in the West. This injury might actually be a blessing in disguise.

So, let's take a look at the Spurs performance in the third quarter and season-to-date as it relates to a few key metrics. The team through Q-3 has a league-leading record of 47-14 (17-3 in the 3rd quarter). We are 2nd in EDS and in the Power Rankings, 5th in offensive efficiency, and 3rd in defensive efficiency (the best number of the season at 97.7). Those are some really impressive numbers, with some improvement since the mid-season report. Now for some important stats: 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 OFG% 3-Pt%
9.2 (2nd) 43.7 (4th) 38.1 (5th) 19.4 (1st) 13.9 (13th) 74.5 (6th)

After a surge in the last week of Q-3, the Spurs moved up one spot in the differential rankings and managed to pull within 1.3 points (from 2.0 back at mid season) of the Thunder in EDS. The team has been solid and consistent all year, with an upward bias in EDS. If they can finish the year close to 10.0, The Spurs are in good shape (I'm not ready to use Parker as an excuse for a fall-off). The 0.9 increase in EDS this quarter was helped the most on the defensive end (0.6), very nice to see this late in the season. The biggest break in EDS scores among the top eight is now between the top three and the next five, with a gap of 2.5 points. The top three range from 9.2 to 10.9, while the bottom five range from 3.6 to 6.8. Something to keep an eye on throughout Q-4.

We also saw some improvement in OFG%, increasing from 10th (.440) to 4th ranked (.437). Defensive efficiency (DE) improved slightly from 4th to 3rd, but the DE score improved more noticeably from 98.3 to 97.7. The Spurs have slipped to 2nd in opponent 3-pt. percentage (behind Indiana), but the percentage has only increased from .321 to .324. This is still outstanding. Keep it up!

Team three-point percentage has dropped a little, but the team has led the league in assist ratio wire-to-wire. The three-point percentage decreased from 39.1 at mid-season (2nd ranked) to 38.1 at the end of Q-3 (4th), yet the assist ratio held at a 1st-ranked 19.4. While these important indicators of offensive performance are very good, I'd still like to see our 3-point percentage return to the 39.0+ area before the playoffs start. While the defense has improved this season, offensive efficiency will still be a big key for the Spurs to ultimately succeed against the best competition.

The one statistical area that still concerns me the most is turnovers. They currently rank 13th in turnover rate, with over 14.7 turnovers per game. The good news is that it's finally started to improve, from 14.5 at mid-season to 13.9 at the end of Q-3. Since the Spurs are ranked 18th in opponent fast break points, this is an area that must continue to improve. The team needs to limit easy scoring opportunities for opponents, especially against the quick and athletic teams (e.g., OKC, MIA, LAC, DEN). In fact, I'd like to again highlight a fabulous quote from J. Gomez in his post on Spurs turnovers:

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.

Well said, indeed. So keep the trend going in the right direction by establishing better ball-control habits that will become less and less susceptible to regression during the heat of playoff action.

Finally, our defensive rebound rate (DRR) has basically sustained the gains we obtained during Q-2. Our rate is now 6th (74.5), up slightly from 7th (74.4). The Spurs need to hold the line, or even edge higher, since their total rebound rate is still under 50.0 (the offensive rebound rate has slid a bit further). 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 (Denver, Memphis, LAC) for easy put-backs and second chance opportunities.

With a quarter of the regular season to go, I think the Spurs are in the best position for a long playoff run than at any time since 2007. In fact, compared to last year, this year's team has a larger differential (7.9 vs 9.7) and a lower opponent FG% (.452 vs. .437). Those two key areas showed meaningful improvement, with little drop-off in other areas, other than turnovers. At least the Spurs' turnover differential (-.6 to -.1) is actually a bit better this season than last, due mainly to the Stl% increase this year.

So again, Pounders, put on your analyst hats and feel free to question my assumptions and disagree with the assertions. Your input could help improve the 4th quarter report (and if you spot any data errors, please point them out). See you in April, probably right after our reserves (with a number one seed wrapped up) humiliate those lottery-picking T-Wolves

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!