I see there's been a lot of reaction, both positive and negative to my observation that the Spurs' starters haven't hit their stride yet. While I stand behind everything I wrote, I understand the opposition's argument. Starting lineup aside, there's been a lot to be happy about so far and it's only worth going into a detail with all of the the positives.
After all, the Spurs are 7-2, both of their losses have come on the road to quality opponents, and even with the struggles of the starting unit, they're still in the top four in both offensive and defensive rating, according to basketball-reference.com, leading the league in the latter category. I did not see that coming so early in the season.
How good have the Spurs been? Well, their scoring differential is 10.8, which not only ranks second in the league, but is better than the Warriors' league-leading 10.1 margin from last season. If San Antonio could maintain this pace (don't count on it), it'd be the seventh best mark in NBA history. It's just that nobody is paying attention to it right now because the current Warriors, 10-0, are destroying people to the tune of 17.1 points per game. I'll take a wild guess that that's not going to hold up either.
So what, besides a soft opening schedule, has made the Spurs so good?
1) Kawhi Leonard is wrecking people
There was concern in the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge's signing that Leonard's development would be somewhat stalled and that he'd lose too many touches to the perennial All-Star from Portland. So far that hasn't been the case. Not only is Leonard's usage rate at a career-high and his field goal attempts far exceeding any of previous seasons, but Leonard has looked more comfortable playing with Aldridge than any of the other holdovers from the starting lineup.
The Leonard/Aldridge pairing has logged more court time together than any other Spurs twosome and they have a 5.0 net rating, easily the best of any two-man combination you can make form the starters (to be fair, the fact that they've played more with the Foreign Legion than any of the other starters probably has a lot to do with that).
Yes, Leonard's assist rate is way down, and that's concerning in the long run, but also completely understandable when you consider how well he's been shooting. In just his fifth season, Leonard has not only developed his mid-range game and his crossover dribble to elite levels, but what's really stood out to me is how he's seemingly figured out how to get the shots he feels comfortable taking within the offense.
Replay the games in your mental projector real quick. How many times do you remember Leonard forcing up a bad shot? I'd argue it's been twice per game or fewer. He's not Kobe Bryant out there, taking shots that make you cringe the instant you see him rise up. Almost everything Leonard's putting up are quality looks and shots he can make. His percentages are reflective of that.
Even more encouraging --but certainly not surprising-- has been Leonard's defense, which continues to be DPOY-caliber despite his heightened offensive load. He's dominated his match-ups against Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, among others. The only guy who's scored well against him so far was Washington's Otto Porter, and in retrospect that wasn't that surprising considering that Leonard never faced him before (he was hurt for both Wizards games last season and Porter didn't crack Washington's rotation as a rookie). Leonard has said in the past that he doesn't like to watch video of opponents and that he prefers to learn by doing and to keep a mental book on people he guards. I'm guessing he'll be ready for Porter next time.
There's no doubt that Leonard needs to create more for his teammates --especially Danny Green-- but he's been the most consistent part of the starting lineup and has as legitimate a claim for early MVP consideration as anyone outside of that hell-demon with the angelic face raining fiery death from above for Golden State.
2. Patty Mills is back
Mills leads the Spurs at plus-89 and has played 168 minutes so far. In the 216 minutes he's been on the bench, they've been outscored by three. That kind of says it all, no?
If you want more proof, however, Mills is shooting 55.1 percent from the floor, a team-leading 48.1 percent from three, and though he's not the nominal playmaker of the second unit, his assist rate of 18.5 is nearly as good as Tony Parker's 19.1. They're both averaging 4.7 dimes per 36 minutes. Mills' assists are way up --he had an 8 assist game recently-- and he's been better about moving the ball from a good look for himself to a better one for someone else, which he'd been reluctant to do in the past. It's made the second unit even more unpredictable and that much harder to guard.
I don't remember seeing Mills make passes like this before, and it's a welcome sight.
3. Boris Diaw continues to be a match-up nightmare
In the off-season, I predicted that Diaw would in hibernation til the All-Star break and be leapfrogged by David West in the rotation. It's the wrongest I've been about anything involving the Spurs so far and it's a good thing I was, because the Frenchman's contributions have been sorely needed.
His field goal attempts are way down --as you'd expect when he's playing in lineups featuring Aldridge and Leonard-- but Diaw is getting the ball where it needs to go, tied with Ginobili for the team lead with 3.8 assists per game and shooting very efficiently when he does put it up.
He continues to be a burly Baryshnikov around the bucket, flummoxing opposing bigs with pump fakes and up-and-unders like this
6 seconds of Boris Diaw: gets the ball at 3pt line, pump fake, dribble, spin, back in, up and under, easy l... https://t.co/CjooffBtYU— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) November 12, 2015
or just backing down guards with his derriere when a small finds himself in the unfortunate position of being matched up on him. I wish Diaw would shoot more, frankly, because he makes scoring look so easy when he does, but he's also been playing with a lot of talented dudes out there, so the pass-first mentality hasn't been an issue.
4. Manu Ginobili has been 6MOY good
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Ginobili has not only been one of the Spurs' two best players, but he's been playing better than any reserve in the league so far. The 38-year-old is averaging 19.7/5.8/6.7 per-36 minutes, with a .500/.414/.800 shooting line and team-leading marks in both PER (24.6) and WS/48 (.251). His steal rate is a career-high and his turnover rate is the lowest its been since 2010-11.
Ginobili is playing within himself, driving to the bucket only when there's a clear lane or otherwise passing it off. He's not dribbling into too many threes, which has helped his accuracy, and he's one of the few guys on the team who's had no trouble adjusting to Aldridge (his net ratings with pretty much any teammate are above 20).
One thing that's been very noticeable is that Ginobili hasn't been in the pick-and-roll as much. The Spurs give the ball to Leonard when he's out there or just run motion. The ball is pinging around and everyone is moving at a fast pace. It's not the usual bench attack where the Argentine is at the top of the key waiting to be aggressively trapped. They're playing far freer and the unpredictability of it has caught people off guard. It seems to have rejuvenated Ginobili and it's been awesome to watch. Hopefully his adductor strain isn't too serious.