Through the first quarter of the season it's difficult to find much to complain about if you're a Spurs fan. They're 18-4, the second-best start in franchise history (they were 25-3 and then 29-4 in 2010-2011). They're on pace for a 67-15 record, which would both be a franchise best, and also leave them a scant 15 games behind the Warriors in the standings if Golden State continues undefeated.
The schedule has been very soft so far, as Gregg Popovich has pointed out, but the Spurs are still +3 by my own personal rating system. I give a team a +1.5 for every road game they win over a playoff team and a -1 for every home game they lose or road game to a non-playoff team they lose. San Antonio has won on the road at Boston and at Memphis and they don't have any bad losses yet, so they're +3. (By this measure, the Warriors are +7.5).
In case you're curious about the methodology, it's a bit fluid. Because of off-season moves and early-season results I've dumped Portland, Brooklyn and now Milwaukee into the "bad loss" bin and promoted Oklahoma City, Miami and Indiana in their place. For now I'm keeping the Pelicans on the positive side of the ledger, but if they don't pick it up quickly I'll have to swap them with Utah or somebody, and that would give the Spurs a bad loss already.
The main thing to like about the Spurs is that their defense has the potential to be historic, to the point that their ceiling defensively rivals what the Warriors are doing offensively. The all-time record for defensive rating, at least from when NBA.com started keeping track of such things beginning with the 1996-97 season, is the 91.6 mark the 2003-04 Spurs recorded. Incidentally, that was also the year they had a franchise record 63 wins.
Right now, after their 51-point drubbing of Philadelphia, the Spurs are leading the world with a 92.0 defensive rating. For some perspective, the Warriors led the league last season at 98.2, while the Spurs were third at 99.6. The odds are pretty high that both the Spurs and their closest pursuers will have more games like the one we saw against Boston than the bunch of sub-90 point efforts we've seen the past month. It's far more likely that 92.0 will climb higher than sink lower, and it wouldn't at all be an indictment of the Spurs if it does.
Many factors have contributed to the Spurs playing so phenomenally in their own end. Not only have they played an easy schedule, but they haven't had many back-to-backs yet or faced many elite point guards. Super quick, athletic guys like Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry will be their Achilles Heel, I believe, as we saw in the later stages of the Celtics game with Isaiah Thomas having his way. What's encouraging in that regard, to a degree, is that Tony Parker has picked up his defensive energy considerably the past ten games or so. Popovich is consistently praising his work there, which I don't remember him doing before.
The thing that's been unique about Spurs games so far is that it's like they exist in an time warp. They're the team Byron Scott would love to coach. They play with two bigs (if you count Boris Diaw and David West as such) more than just about anyone else, they don't shoot or allow many threes and they don't foul or get fouled very much. Take away a few TV timeouts and some commercials here and there and their games would last about as long as a soccer match.
Chris Itz already pointed out that the Spurs are fouling at a historically low rate, and indeed they lead the league in fewest made free throws and free throw attempts against them. Naturally, Mike Budenholzer's Hawks rank second. But the Spurs rank dead last in both free throw attempts and makes on offense, too. The average Spurs game has only 35.5 free throw attempts by both teams combined. The Clippers get to the line 30.6 times just by themselves.
It's a similar story from three-point land. Even though the Spurs are shooting threes pretty well (sixth overall at 36.6 percent) they're only 25th in makes and 26th in attempts. In other words, as a team they're only making two more threes per game than Stephen Curry. However, they're also allowing the fewest makes and attempts in the league, and opponents have only shot 31.8 percent against them, which ranks fifth overall. Somehow, someway, the Spurs are still winning the three-point battle by almost one per game.
Even with the soft schedule, we can't dismiss the numbers completely. The Spurs have held opponents to 85 points or less in 12 of 22 games -- all last season they turned that trick just seven times. No one has shot a higher percentage against them than the 48.8 the Thunder managed on opening night. San Antonio has led by at least eight points in every game, led by at least 10 in 19 of 22 and led by at least 15 in 14 of 22. (h/t Paul Garcia.)
In fact, the Spurs have trailed for fewer fourth quarter minutes this season than the Warriors.
Having two of the five best defenders in the league in Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan contributes to that of course, and it's noteworthy that Pop is playing Leonard 34.1 minutes per game compared to 31.8 last year. But don't discount how useful LaMarcus Aldridge has been. While I can't definitively make a case for him being a better or worse defender than Tiago Splitter, what cannot be argued is that Aldridge is more durable and has more stamina. Splitter was a low-20-minutes-a-night player, when he was healthy enough to play. Aldridge is giving them a dependable 30 minutes per game, and obviously he's a huge upgrade from Aron Baynes.
Interestingly, while Popovich has largely backed off from staggering his two rim protectors with the smaller, "stretch-four" types in Boris Diaw and David West, the numbers show that every combination you can come up with involving the four bigs has been more effective than the main two he's used.
Combo Minutes Off Rating Def Rating Net Rating
Duncan-Aldridge 383 105.9 94.4 11.5
Diaw-West 178 105.3 97.3 8.0
Aldridge-Diaw 140 101.0 83.2 17.8
Duncan-West 72 101.8 88.7 13.1
Duncan-Diaw 51 100.6 82.8 17.8
Aldridge-West 20 103.5 85.2 18.3
Granted, the sample sizes fall off pretty dramatically after the first three pairings and there are a million variables that go into it, from how much Leonard is playing with these combinations to who the opponents are and who they have on the floor, game situation, etc. I've never made secret of the fact that I dislike the Diaw-West pairing defensively because of their inability to protect the rim or to secure rebounds, but Pop has generally been pretty good about playing them only against opposing bench units. It's also worth noting that for all the concerns I've raised about the floor spacing issues of the Duncan-Aldridge pairing, they've produced the best offensive rating of any combination (which may have something to do with playing a lion's share of their minutes with Leonard).
As long as the Spurs remain a defensive juggernaut, they'll be in any game, even if their offense goes cold or stagnant for a few minutes here and there. Tougher tests await for sure, but adding another shot-blocking threat in Aldridge, some youthful energy and long arms with Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons, a healthier Parker and Leonard having even more time on the floor, have all combined to form the Voltron that just might put an end to the carnage the Warriors are inflicting across the league.
Those guys just want to watch the world burn and the Spurs might have the kryptonite to cool them off.
(And yes, I've gone from Voltron to a Batman reference to Superman to an awkward metaphor to end this off. Please forgive me.)