Long before a team known as the San Antonio Spurs wiled its way into our hearts, the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs kicked off the second half of Super Bowl I. And then they did it again. CBS ordered the redo because it had failed to cut quickly enough from a halftime interview of Bob Hope. ESPN named the snafu the 93rd Greatest Super Bowl moment.
The first month of 2015 not only ushered in the second half of this NBA season, it also acted as a sort of redo for a Spurs team that had just endured a December From Hell. With the turning of the calendar, San Antonio was gifted a lighter, home-heavy schedule with match-ups against Eastern Conference lightweights sprinkled liberally into the mix.
Statistically, the Spurs' blowout losses to Chicago and the Clippers put a damper on what was otherwise a positive month. The loss also embellished the difference in both the Spurs' home/road splits and their won/loss splits. Obviously, any team will have a negative point and efficiency differential in losses, but given that SA's non-Bulls and Clippers losses came by a total of nine points, the -16.4 net rating in January losses looks a bit more dire than it might actually be. This is especially striking when you compare it to the -6.3 net rating the Spurs produced during losses in October though December, months in which they lost more frequently but by a much smaller average margin. This trade-off produced an overall net rating that was better in Oct-Dec (4.5) than in January (2.6), despite the Spurs playing more than half their January games against teams with losing records.
A quick aside to show the impact a single game can have: Prior to Saturday night's loss to the Clippers, the Spurs' efficiency differential was roughly identical before and after January 1st. After that loss, it dropped from 4.6 to 2.6. That's over two points for the month. All because of that one game.
In January, SA went 10-4 compared to 19-14 the prior three months, which makes them one of the top 5 teams by record in the new year. Committed basketball observers know W-L record can be misleading, so do our eyes deceive us regarding the Spurs' improvement over the past month? No - and yes. Over the past 14 games (January), the Spurs' pace has quickened slightly (96.23 possessions per 48 min vs. 95.48 for Oct-Dec), while offensive efficiency has declined from 104.5 (points per 100 possessions) to 101.1. Some of this may be explained in a broad sense by Kawhi Leonard using up more of the Spurs' offensive possessions. As Leonard adapts to taking on more of the primary scoring duties, his efficiency has declined (his usage rating between this year and last is up 4%, while his true shooting percentage is down by over 6%.)
Fortunately, there has been a commensurate improvement in team defensive efficiency this season since The Hand came back from his ligament tear (100 to 98.6), indicating that the defensive impact of Kawhi's return has balanced out whatever negative impact he's had on the offense. This is not to say any offensive setbacks are purely Leonard's fault, since the team is also attempting to work Tony Parker back into the offense and clarify the backup point guard situation. They're also dealing with a worn-down Danny Green, an up and down Boris Diaw, and no Marco Bellinelli (the latter of whom will defend his 3-point contest crown in New York.)
One surprise, given the rebounding numbers Leonard has put up over the past few games, is that the Spurs are actually rebounding at a lower rate in 2015. Granted, it's not a tremendous drop (49.5% of available rebounds vs. 50.9% in 2014), and their offensive rebounding rate had gone up over a full percentage point before the Clippers had their board-stravaganza Saturday night (after which it was still 23.1% ORB in Jan vs. 23% in Oct-Dec). Kawhi's personal rebounding percentage numbers have gone up over two points from last season, along with his assist percentage. (On the theme of sharing, the biggest team increase statistically has been the percentage of Spurs' shots which have been assisted. This increased from 63% in Oct-Dec to 66.1% in January.)
Another Kawhi tidbit: as Trevor Zyckgraf at 48 Minutes of Hell pointed out, his 3-point shooting has improved since a poor start, which should help the rest of his offensive repertoire.
Overall, Kawhi has been a net positive on both ends. But you already knew that.
Of course, the defense has been consistently anchored by the man who's making his 15th All-Star appearance in February. Tim Duncan makes the Spurs 1.6 points stingier on the defensive end when he's playing (that figure is skewed quite a bit by the month of December, in which the Spurs produced their lowest win total ever with Duncan on the team.) That said, while the team's defense has gotten better through January, there's a ways to go before the Spurs can get back to the stinginess they exhibited in November (94.7 defensive rating; 9.7 net rating), to say nothing of last season's performance.
"He's having a good year," Pop said of Duncan following the All-Star announcement. "We've been a little up and down but he's been really steady. He's carried us to this point with his consistency."
Of the chance to enjoy a week off from games-that-matter, Duncan told Mike Monroe of the Express-News:
"We've had kind of a grind this first half of the season. I know a lot of guys are looking forward to it. But we're not there yet and we're not looking ahead. We have to finish it out before the break."
But what about the Spurs' other
All-Star star who got snubbed because he didn't play enough games (although he's played more than reserve selection Kevin Durant)? Leonard's lost December complicates his already hard-to-quantify growth process. Ian Thompson of NBA.com wrote about that process last week.
"I'm out there talking on defense," (Leonard) said slowly, squinting like the guest at the dinner party who hates the food he is forcing himself to eat. "I'm going to do the best I can. But it's just hard, because guys don't really look at me first to lead the team. They look to Tony, Tim and Manu."
"I'm trying to see what way I could lead," Leonard went on, "so when the opportunity comes it won't just hit me in the face."
"It's a big deal," said Popovich. "He has to become more social."
Duncan and Ginobili will eventually depart, but Leonard won't be left entirely void of veteran mentors. By all indications, Pop will still be around a few more years. It would seem that Parker might no longer be able to carry the team for a prolonged stretch, but if Kawhi is a willing and able #1 option then Tony can surely provide a few more years as a solid #2 (or #3, in the unlikely event the Spurs actually land a Gasol or Aldridge type.)
As January comes to a close, the Spurs find themselves in a more stable position but still far from where they'd like to be. The win over Portland was rousing, but not particularly indicative of any trend since SA ended up losing rather badly to the other top-tier squads they played late in the month. Who knows, maybe that in and of itself is indicative, since I seem to recall last year's team laying some eggs against top teams as well.
Any complaint about a 10-win month always carries with it a hint of #entitledfan, but it's undeniable that the Spurs are still searching for some consistency. Historically, the Rodeo Road Trip and the tightening focus of the stretch run has proved a timely prescription for getting the necessary results. Since their 10-win month left them with zero net movement in the Western Conference standings (they started and ended the month in the seventh seed), San Antonio will need any motivational advantage they can get. For as long as this season has seemed already, time is still on the Spurs' side.