The Spurs are roughly 10 percent through the season and their record is right around what one would've expected, given the schedule and the predictable complications with ingratiating the new pieces into the mix. In fact, one could argue that they've actually been unlucky so far.
NBA Team's proportion of time spent leading/tied/trailing in each quarter. pic.twitter.com/PFj0CBqTeF— Ed Küpfer (@EdKupfer) November 11, 2015
If I'm reading this chart correctly (no safe bet, that), then the Spurs have actually spent fewer fourth quarter minutes trailing than the 10-0 Golden State Warriors. You can read about specific issues that led to those losses here and here if so inclined.
Still, we've seen enough to form an opinion or two, so let's look at some developing Spurs trends.
The starting lineup might be inherently flawed
The quintet of Duncan-Aldridge-Leonard-Green-Parker have played 118 minutes together so far, which is still a tiny sample but far more than any other Spurs lineup (the next-closest has logged 30 minutes). They've been bad. Their offensive rating is 93.0 and defensive rating is 103.7, according to NBA.com's stats tool. Obviously, you don't need me to tell you a -10.7 net rating is not ideal, but it's probably worse than you think.
That 93.0 offensive rating would rank dead last in the league, while the 103.7 defensive rating would be tied-for-20th in Nugget-ville. I wouldn't necessarily freak out over the latter number. This group is almost always facing the opponent's best lineups, and teams have been pretty consistently targeting mismatches against Parker. Later on in the season and in playoff situations Gregg Popovich will be more willing to hide Parker on weaker perimeter players and leave the talented points guards for Green or Leonard to guard. The on/off numbers for every starter but Leonard is pretty grizzly so far, and he's played a bunch with the second unit. Parker and Green are faring especially poorly, per basketball-reference.com.
This starting group has been outscored by 23 points in 118 minutes, and have passed for just 48 assists on 87 field goals, meaning that just 55 percent of their buckets have been assisted. Not only have they shot poorly from downtown --26.3 percent-- but they're not getting many attempts. They're just 10-of-38, which means only 18.5 percent of their shot attempts are coming from outside.
Contrast that to the Spurs' best lineup, Aldridge-Diaw-Leonard-Ginobili-Mills, which have launched from deep on just over a third (33.9) of their attempts --19-of-56-- and hit at a much better clip, making 47.4 percent of them. This group has a 111.9 offensive rating.
What may surprise you is that even though the Spurs currently lead the league in field goal percentage --49.7 percent overall-- the starters have shot only 42.4 percent from the field. Four of the five are shooting well above that figure --only Green is really slumping-- and three of those four have shot better than even the team's average, with Aldridge not far behind. Collectively though, it's just not working.
It's not necessarily Aldridge's fault, either. David West is a similar player in that he likes pick-and-pop long twos and the other four starters plus him have a horrific net rating of -32.3 in 16 minutes.
Now it's pointless to blame any individual player. The problem is systemic. An offense centered around a big who specializes in long twos can be efficient, but only in certain circumstances. You need to make maximum use of spacing and shooting with the other four guys.
The Blazers made it work with Aldridge and another big because they had three high-volume three-point shooters around them in Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum. 26.9 percent --9.5 out of 35.3-- of their field goal attempts were threes in 2013-14 and that number rose to 27.8 percent --9.7 out of 34.9-- last year.
The Clippers, by contrast, do it a different way. They too have two bigs, one with no shooting range at all, but they fare very well year after year after year, always posting 115-plus offensive ratings with whoever starts around the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, even though their small forwards haven't been marksmen from outside.
How do they pull it off? Well, for starters, they have Paul, who's unparalleled at getting high efficiency shots for himself and his teammates. He's not nearly as prolific from outside as Lillard or Stephen Curry, but he shoots enough of them and at a good enough percentage to keep people honest.
Obviously Parker cannot match that skill set, on either score.
Also, the Clips get to the free throw line a ton. They don't shoot them very well of course, with Jordan in particular being a disaster, but all those attempts add up and Paul in particular is adept at getting to the line when he wants to.
There is a disparity between how the two teams rank in free throw attempts so far -- L.A. is second in the league with almost 31 a game, San Antonio is last at 17.5.
Finally there's the dunks. Griffin and Jordan have 30 dunks between them, both ranking in the top ten in the league. Leonard leads the Spurs with nine, while no one else is in the top 50.
Here in Spurs-land, we usually think of dunks as fickle, showy accessories. They're nice, but not necessary or conducive to winning. But the Clippers offense excels in using the threat of the dunk --the alley-oop in particular-- to create space.
Think of a basketball floor in your mind. Usually we just think of it in two-dimensional terms, length and width. That's how we think of space on the court. Now think of an apartment or home you'd be looking to purchase. You wouldn't just look at how long and wide the floor-space was but also how high the ceiling is. They could offer you an acre of land for the price of a studio, but if it's only five feet high, what good is it gonna do you?
The Clippers create space the same way. They have two guys who can go up --way up-- to slam home alley-oops. We're talking 11.5, maybe 12 feet here. And both Paul and Griffin excel at making that alley-oop pass from anywhere on the court, at all sorts of contorted body positions, or while they themselves are in mid-air. That threat of the alley-oop changes the geometry of the court for the opponent. The defense must constantly hang back, keep a body snug on Jordan, another body snug on Griffin and be wary of denying those passing lanes like defensive linemen do with quarterbacks in football. That level of attention opens up more space for everyone else on the floor, and that helps their overall offense.
The Spurs don't have that kind of athleticism from their bigs, not from Aldridge and certainly not from Duncan. Leonard can go up and get 'em, but not to the extent of the Clippers' dudes, and he doesn't have as many passers who can get it to him, especially as far as the starters are concerned.
The bottom line is that I'm not sure if even the ceiling for the Spurs' starting unit will be enough for them to threaten the league's very best teams. They'll get better, maybe in the low 100's range, in terms of offensive rating, but I don't see it improving beyond that. Leonard and Green have to get --and make-- a heckuva lot more threes than they have so far and ideally Aldridge would take some as well to open the paint up for Duncan and driving lanes for Leonard and Parker.
The Spurs have shown they can be very good by staggering their lineups and using more small ball, but this is definitely gonna be complicated and require some expert juggling by Pop.