clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Proof that the Spurs have the NBA's best defense

This just in: The Spurs have young wing players who can do things too. (And some bigs who can protect the rim!) Does that mean that they can play defense with anybody?

The Spurs pictured here have the best five-man-unit defensive numbers in the league.
The Spurs pictured here have the best five-man-unit defensive numbers in the league.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I realized last night why the national media largely ignores the Spurs. It's because it's better to not say anything and have people wonder if you're a fool than to open your mouth and have it confirmed. The pundits pay so little attention to the guys in the silver and black over the course of the regular season that inevitably their narratives are months -- even years -- behind reality.

From 2010-2012, the Spurs were an average at best defensive club, and downright porous on that end when Tim Duncan wasn't on the floor, yet they continued to rack up the regular season wins because they played at an up-tempo pace, with their perennially underrated Hall-of-Fame back court playing efficient, brilliant basketball and leading the way for what were really the best offensive clubs in franchise history. Yet, because nobody was really paying attention, the narrative about the Spurs was, "They must be grinding out wins with defense and Duncan."

In 2013, for several season, the Spurs offense has never soared to the heights of the 2012 version. Injuries contributed to that heavily, as a whole rotation 1 through 10 could never develop a rhythm and flow together. The years have caught up to Manu Ginobili and he's just not the same player he was a year ago. He's still capable of moments of greatness here and there, but they're fleeting and far between. Tiago Splitter was promoted, which strengthened an already formidable starting five, but considerably weakened the second unit. In fact, pretty much everyone on the second five had a down year. Boris Diaw wasn't as consistent as he was down the stretch last season. Stephen Jackson broke a finger early in the season, never recovered from that, and was eventually such a cancer that he had to be released. Gary Neal struggled all season with an injured calf and plantar fasciitis. The constant shuffling at backup point guard didn't help matters any either.

Here's the funny thing though: Despite the horrid bench, a rash of injuries that limited the team's four best players to 66 games or fewer, and an offense that went from other-worldly to merely "good," the Spurs kept piling up the wins (until April at least). Again, what little attention the team got for their feats was mostly misplaced, with the focus going to the offensive heroics of the ageless Duncan and the superlative Parker. What they failed to notice -- really what they've missed completely -- is that away from the public glare, Pop and the Spurs have quietly once again turned into a defensive juggernaut, and though they're not quite at the form of their championship seasons, they're as close to it as any team can be under these new rules that don't allow hand checking or much contact anywhere on the floor. And they've done it, mostly, with a positively dominant, stifling starting five.

I'm not really blaming or calling out anybody here. It's easy to ignore the Spurs starting five. I'm sure only the hardest of hard core fans can even name our five guys, with most folks assuming Ginobili is still a part of it, or Diaw, Bonner, Blair, whoever. Danny Green and Tiago Splitter haven't quite become household names just yet, and don't forget that during last season's Western Conference Finals, perhaps the first games where the casual fan paid attention to the Spurs in 2012, those guys were benched. Even Kawhi Leonard didn't become a starter until mid-season last year.

You want a real surprising stat though? Because of injuries our starting five was only healthy for 31 games during the season. 31. Think about that. Even crazier, they only played 364 minutes as a quintet all season, an average of 11.75 minutes in those 31 games (pretty much the first six of each half, you'd guess). After that came the constant Pop lineup shuffling, the insistence on keeping Duncan and Parker fresh, finding 24 minutes for Ginobili, etc.

For comparison's sake, the Thunder's starting five played 1,307 minutes together. Indiana's played 1,218. The Warriors had three separate five-man permutations log more minutes together than the Spurs starters. So, no, quantity wasn't a virtue for the San Antonio's starters. But man, quality sure was.

They were +132 in those 364 minutes, the fifth-best quintet in the league, despite the severe minute handicap. Their rate of +.363 per minute was obviously far higher than the top units OKC, Miami and Indiana threw out there (oddly enough, the Knicks somehow found a quintet that was a true anomaly, with Chandler-Melo-Smith-Kidd-Felton just destroying people in 269 minutes, mostly with three pointers).

It gets better though.

Poss Opponent (Per 100 Possessions)
Rk Lineup Tm Season G MP Tm Opp Pace FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% eFG% FT FTA FT% PTS
1 T. Duncan | D. Green | K. Leonard | T. Parker | T. Splitter SAS 2012-13 31 362.4 693 693 91.8 37.4 91.6 .408 5.6 17.2 .328 .439 8.8 13.6 .649 89.2
2 T. Allen | M. Conley | M. Gasol | T. Prince | Z. Randolph MEM 2012-13 31 556.8 973 977 84.1 37.5 89.7 .418 5.5 19.9 .278 .449 12.0 15.9 .755 92.4
3 T. Allen | M. Conley | M. Gasol | R. Gay | Z. Randolph MEM 2012-13 35 630.5 1156 1164 88.3 37.5 85.4 .440 6.4 18.0 .359 .477 13.7 18.6 .737 95.3
4 D. Harris | A. Horford | K. Korver | J. Smith | J. Teague ATL 2012-13 29 351.2 696 692 94.9 39.3 90.9 .432 7.1 18.6 .380 .471 12.1 15.3 .792 97.8
5 P. George | R. Hibbert | G. Hill | L. Stephenson | D. West IND 2012-13 64 1218.2 2278 2267 89.5 38.6 90.3 .427 6.0 16.6 .362 .461 16.1 20.5 .787 99.3
6 C. Boozer | L. Deng | R. Hamilton | K. Hinrich | J. Noah CHI 2012-13 25 428.8 806 808 90.3 41.0 91.8 .446 5.2 15.6 .333 .474 12.6 16.3 .773 99.8
7 C. Bosh | M. Chalmers | U. Haslem | L. James | D. Wade MIA 2012-13 47 687.3 1293 1291 90.2 39.7 88.0 .452 6.4 20.4 .314 .488 14.0 18.8 .745 99.9
8 K. Durant | S. Ibaka | K. Perkins | T. Sefolosha | R. Westbrook OKC 2012-13 76 1306.5 2542 2528 93.1 39.2 93.4 .419 7.3 22.2 .330 .459 14.7 18.8 .779 100.3
9 M. Ellis | E. Ilyasova | B. Jennings | L. Mbah a Moute | L. Sanders MIL 2012-13 31 388.8 764 770 94.7 39.9 93.2 .428 6.4 16.5 .386 .462 14.4 17.8 .810 100.5
10 K. Faried | D. Gallinari | A. Iguodala | K. Koufos | T. Lawson DEN 2012-13 62 795.6 1541 1549 93.2 40.0 89.7 .446 8.3 19.9 .419 .492 14.9 19.6 .760 103.3
11 B. Knight | J. Maxiell | G. Monroe | T. Prince | K. Singler DET 2012-13 40 605.8 1124 1118 88.8 41.3 93.5 .442 8.6 22.4 .384 .488 12.1 16.2 .746 103.3
12 L. Allen | J. Holiday | J. Richardson | E. Turner | T. Young PHI 2012-13 27 382.2 718 725 90.6 41.5 87.7 .473 6.6 20.4 .324 .511 13.8 18.8 .735 103.4
13 K. Durant | S. Ibaka | K. Martin | K. Perkins | R. Westbrook OKC 2012-13 70 357.5 712 709 95.4 37.8 88.4 .427 7.2 23.4 .307 .468 21.7 25.8 .842 104.5
14 G. Dragic | J. Dudley | M. Gortat | L. Scola | P. Tucker PHO 2012-13 38 440.8 851 847 92.4 43.2 91.3 .473 6.3 16.9 .371 .508 11.9 16.4 .727 104.6

As you can see, not only is the Spurs starting five more stifling than their more celebrated counterparts at Memphis and Indiana, but really it's not even close. Over three points less per 100 possessions over the second-best lineup is obscene, folks. And it's a number that I can't believe isn't getting more attention. The Spurs starters allowed less than 41% shooting during the season, and while their 3-point defense wasn't quite as ridiculous as the 28% Memphis' crew allowed, 33% is nothing to sneeze at. And our starters fouled less than theirs.

(The most interesting aspect of this above chart is that the Grizzlies had the second and third best starting lineups defensively, with the much-maligned Rudy Gay a part of the latter. Gay is known as primarily an offensive player, but really he wasn't hurting the Grizzlies on defense at all. It was on offense where he was killing them, with his horribly inefficient shooting. Once he got shipped out to Toronto, his ration of shots went to Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, and voila, the Grizzles got better. If you want further proof of Gay's defensive talents, check out what happens when we expand the lineup field from a 350 minute minimum to 250. It's a relatively small sample size, but still intriguing.)

I don't think it's much of an accident that the Spurs, Grizzlies, Heat and Pacers have dominated the league's team defense stats and that they're going to be the final four teams left standing. If you've been paying attention, this postseason, particularly the at-times-hard-to-watch second round, has been a referendum on defensive basketball, with the shooting numbers of teams as a whole in general and star players in particular (Melo, Durant, etc.) plummeting to NCAA levels of mediocrity.

It's quite possible that, barring overtime, we won't see any team reach triple digits during the final two rounds of the playoffs. The defenses are just too good; they communicate too well, and once they get a couple of "feel out" games under their belts to figure out what their opponents like to do, they just snuff out all that easy stuff and make you go to Plan C, D, E on offense. And that usually gets ugly. Really, I think that's what gives the Spurs the faint hope of contending for the LOB. Their fourth and fifth options are more attractive than Memphis' or Indiana's, and quite possibly Miami's as well -- assuming that Norris Cole will cool down eventually.

Why are the Spurs starting five so good? Simply put, I think together they're better than the sum of their parts, and I suppose Pop has to get a lot of credit for that. Individually, they all have weaknesses.

Parker's effort on that end comes and goes, though he usually gets geeked up facing any star, and motivation shouldn't be a problem for him from here on out.

Similarly, Leonard too tends to float at times if his man isn't a star, and I could see how that could present a problem against the perimeter-challenged Grizzlies, but I can envision Pop telling him, "I don't care how crappy your man is, you've got to be engaged and make things happen on defense, because we might not crack 80 points against these guys in the half court."

Green gets lost on screens at times, but he's been much better at that of late, with Stephen Curry giving him plenty of practice at it.

Splitter is the cliche "much quicker than he looks" (because he's white, you see), but he's not the most rugged guy out there and finishing off the defensive possession with a rebound is a challenge for him. Still, he's a guy whose defensive value isn't always understood by casual fans because he doesn't produce the defensive "stats." He's not blocking shots and Duncan's the one scooping up the boards, so Splitter's work, the way he hedges on pick-and-rolls and alters shots down low, doesn't really show up in the box score.

Duncan has days where his knee feels good and days where it doesn't, and it affects his mobility and ability to get out and challenge shots.

Individually these guys range from above average defenders to very good, but because there isn't a weak link among them, they're an elite unit. On other teams, Green might be in trouble having to be the top perimeter defender, but as a secondary defender (checking guards rather than forwards), he looks much better. Similarly, Splitter would be so-so as the top defensive big on other teams (notice his uninspiring work with Bonner against the Warriors). However as the Robin to Duncan's Batman, he's superb. Parker would be a train wreck in his own end playing for half the coaches in the league. Pop demands 94 feet of greatness out of him though.

These playoffs are progressing into kind of a Pop daydream, with defense as the dominating theme, not just for his team, but league wide. I think the further we go, the more he'll shift on the side of conservatism with his lineups, always going with defense over dynamism, hoping to string stops together, not let games slip away, and generate easy buckets through turnovers. Look at how little Neal played and how much Joseph played in Game 5. That was a sign.

The good news is that the Spurs defensive prowess isn't limited to the starting five. There might be a few backup swing men in the league who are as good defensively as Ginobili, but none of them are in his league from a play-making or shot-making standpoint on the other end. Diaw plays smart positional defense and like Splitter he's good as long as he doesn't have to be the main guy. Joseph is tenacious and unafraid.

Where it gets intriguing is beyond those eight guys. I think points will be at such a premium in the conference finals that no defensive weak links will be allowed to participate, except in cases of injury, blowouts or foul trouble. Playing a guy like Matt Bonner or Gary Neal for a couple minutes here and there might seem harmless, but these teams we're going to face are so talented, so smart and so well-coached, that having even one pigeon on the floor is enough to set off a chain reaction where the entire defense gets compromised and looks rather ordinary.

I don't believe I'm saying this, but don't be surprised if Tracy McGrady gets a trial run by Pop (an audition if you will) in Game 6 against the Warriors in Neal's place just to see how he fares. Ironically given McGrady's prolific career as a scorer, it's his size and defense that Pop will value, not his rusty jumper. (Remember, we brought in Glenn Robinson for Game 1 of the 2005 Finals and he changed the momentum of that game with three blocked shots). Having McGrady on the floor to fill not only Neal's eight minutes but also maybe Bonner's four and will enable Pop to play small-ball longer, which is perfectly effective against the Warriors. Having one guy who could remove both of those guys from the rotation and give us 12 solid defensive minutes would be quite a godsend. And if we do need a fourth big, Baynes seems to make more sense than Bonner at this point. The Red Mamba is just too soft.


I hope Game 5 ended the silly notion that Stephen Curry is the best point guard in this series. Maybe someday, definitely not now. Parker is just the more complete player. He's got more clubs in his bag, more weapons in his arsenal and more tricks up his sleeve. He's got the experience to know how to compensate for various bumps and bruises and to accommodate and adjust his game around them. Curry hasn't gained that experience yet and doesn't have as many ways to score the ball as Parker does. Much has been made of Curry's shooting prowess, and he's obviously a gifted marksman from deep, but from 20 feet and in Parker shoots it just as well, and the closer you get to the rim, the more pronounced Parker's edge becomes. He's a much better finisher, he attacks the rim way more often and gets to the line a hell of a lot more.

I lost a little bit of respect for Curry because I think he mentally and physically quit in the second half. I don't know how much his ankle was bothering him, but he played embarrassingly bad on defense. He was basically Pete Maravich out there, just taking possessions off, not focusing at all, just trying to rest on defense to save his energy for offense. It looked like he was spending his time on defense thinking about what he'd do next time he had the ball, instead of concentrating on his man.

Curry's never been a great defender in the best of times (and never will be with his size limitations), but he was atrocious on Tuesday. His man scored 30 points on him with 11-of-16 shooting, 4-of-6 from downtown and 4-of-4 free throws.

The breakdown as follows: Green 4-of-7, 2-of-4 from 3, 2-of-2 FTs, 12 points; Parker 3-of-4, 2-of-2 FTs, 8 points; Leonard 2-of-2, 1-of-1 from 3, 5 points; Ginobili 1-of-1, 1-of-1 from 3, 3 points; Joseph 1-of-2, 2 points.

Conversely, Parker's man was 7-of-14, 1-of-3 from 3, for 15 points.

(Curry 2-of-6, 0-of-2 from 3, 4 points; Jack 3-of-5, 1-of-1 from 3, 7 points; Barnes 2-of-2, 4 points; Thompson 0-of-1, 0 points.)


I was at a bar next to this obnoxious Warriors fan who kept making dumb comments and wasn't at all knowledgeable about the Spurs. He saw the starting lineup and asked if Ginobili was injured and kept clapping after every Warriors basket. Eventually I got annoyed enough that I pointed out with glee that Curry was the worst player on the floor and that he's killing them on defense.

"He's a hell of a scorer," the guy said.

"Defense is half the game," I said.

"The crappy half," he replied. And that's probably why he's a Warriors fan. It's a fan-base that hasn't realized they won't ever truly contend as long as David Lee is on their team. Holy cow, is he atrocious. He'd have to average 35 a game to make up for his shortcomings on the other end. (The Spurs were 4-of-4 against him on the night, in limited minutes, with the likes of Diaw and Bonner lighting him up.)


Chris Webber suggested that Manu will be getting called in by the league for flopping on a play where Andrew Bogut horse-collared him on a rebound and he couldn't believe that the referees were suckered into calling that a flagrant foul.

Just one problem... they didn't call it a flagrant foul. The Spurs were already in the penalty and they were two regular free throws. Idiot.


Speaking of Bogut, it's shocking how much his offensive game has regressed. I know the big guy has dealt with a couple of serious injuries the past few seasons, but we're talking about a former No. 1 overall pick here. Sure, he was never going to be a Duncan or a Shaq, but he wasn't Joe Smith or Michael Olowokandi either. Bogut at his peak had some solid post moves, a decent enough short jumper and averaged 15.9 points per game at his peak. Now he hardly ever attempts any shots that aren't dunks or follow lay-ins and he's deathly afraid of putting the ball on the floor. His offensive game is more limited than Splitter's. It's just sad to see.


Yes, I checked because I was morbidly curious-- Richard Jefferson did score more than seven points for the Spurs in a playoff game. Several times, in fact. He averaged a whopping 9.7 points in the 2010 postseason and 6.5 in 2011. I just can't seem to remember any of them.


After I railed on Bonner's softness for the fourth time in the span of a minute at the bar, Manoli said, "Yeah, that's not a good thing to have on the team you root for, but imagine how comfortable he'd be on your bed."

I think he meant as a pillow, but I didn't ask.


The annoying Warriors fan kept referring to Bonner as "The Red Mamba," so Manoli and I decided we need more mambas. Parker was French Mamba. Diaw was Fat Mamba. Manu was Floppy Mamba. And Jefferson was Alternate Lifestyle Mamba.


I mean, seriously, what is this? Blocking Joseph from wiping off his feet? What a troll. Go away.


Now that the Thunder have officially been eliminated, I guess Pop was right and I'm an idiot. There was no sense pushing the guys for home court advantage. There were too many injuries and even if there weren't, I don't think the Spurs could've won 66 games to catch the Heat. Just about everything would've had to go perfect, winning every 50/50 game all year, to do that.

Who knew Russell Westbrook wasn't an indestructable alien? Maybe if we were the one-seed instead of the Thunder, Patrick Beverley would've taken out Tony's knee instead and that would've been unpleasant. I apologize Pop.

Now win nine more games and really make me look stupid.