After a 5-3 start which included three straight home losses, the Spurs have quietly won five in a row. At 10-3, they’re on pace to win 63 games, well above estimates the pundits and algorithms predicted before the start of the season.
It was always going to be a three team race in the West. Most didn’t expect the Clippers to jump out to such a great start, but the Spurs are just a game and a half behind them and a game behind the Warriors. That’s the good news.
On the other hand, although it’s early to draw conclusions, statistically the Spurs do not yet look like a contender. They’re tied for fifth in offensive rating and are tenth in defensive rating. Last year the Spurs were first in defense and third in offense.
They’re sixth in assists, fifth best in turnovers, tenth in rebounding rate, 21st in offensive rebounding rate, and 27th in possessions per game (pace).
The Spurs clearly want to slow the game down and win differently than the general NBA trend of playing fast and small. That much was clear when Pau Gasol was brought in to start at center and David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon were brought in to anchor the second unit.
Playing two bigs is still a formula that can work. But they’re not getting the rebounding edge you’d expect. The Spurs should be better on the offensive glass. At just 11th in effective field goal percentage, there are enough opportunities to grab rebounds.
There is a school of thought that transition defense is more valuable than chasing offensive rebounds: it is better to have all five guys sprint back and set up the defense rather than have people crash the glass and be out of position. But the Spurs are 19th in transition defense. San Antonio is neither preventing the fast break nor getting extra chance opportunities.
Defensively, the finger has been pointed at Pau Gasol, and there’s reason to believe that may be fair. In Tom Thibodeau’s first four seasons in Chicago, he guided the Bulls to defensive ratings of one, one, five, and two. In year five, after signing Pau to a two year deal, the Bulls fell to 11th with largely the same roster. Last year, under Fred Hoiberg, they dropped even further to 15th.
It will take time to figure out how to best utilize a roster with so many new faces. But tenth in defense is not a formula for contention.
The Spurs offense though? It still works. One tool San Antonio utilized Friday in Los Angeles was attacking off the catch. When you play four shooters, the spacing alone creates room. When you have two bigs on the floor it takes more effort to create openings.
Watch the Spurs use the drive to force multiple help defenders to converge:
The beginning should look familiar, as it’s the same set-up as a play we looked at from the win over the Warriors. The Spurs run a 1/5 high pick and roll with LaMarcus Aldridge ducking to the strong side block. Whereas against Golden State, the first option was there and LaMarcus got a good look inside, this time it doesn’t work. The Lakers big men stay disciplined with Julius Randle zoning up the pick and roll and Timofey Mosgov staying with Aldridge. Luol Deng stays home on Kawhi Leonard and Nick Young stays put on Manu Ginobili. Even Jose Calderon does a decent job of going over the screen and getting back to Tony Parker.
While the Lakers initial defense stops the Spurs, the decision to zone up the pick and roll and have Calderon go over leaves them vulnerable. Pau Gasol is wide open at the three point line. All night the Lakers were able to bottle up Parker on the pick and roll, but they left Gasol and Aldridge with a lot of room.
Gasol catches with a ton of room and a 39 percent three-point shot. But Randle closes out, and Gasol pump-fakes and attacks off the catch. With his limited speed, Gasol heads toward the wing and initiates a dribble-hand-off with Leonard. At the point of the hand-off, Gasol delays both Deng and Randle, giving Leonard room to attack middle.
Pause at the seven second mark and you’ll see Leonard’s drive forces Calderon to come into the lane. At the eight second mark, all five Lakers are in the lane with both Parker and Ginobili open on the weak side. The Spurs force this through dribble penetration from Parker, then Gasol, then Leonard — all attacking off the catch.
Kawhi then makes the only pass available; back to Parker outside. Nick Young has rotated over since Calderon had to help. Parker knows this before he even catches the ball. He fakes the swing pass to Ginobili in the corner and gets Nick Young to bite, which is worth a second look from the nine to ten second mark on the clip. With Young returning to Ginobili and Calderon trying to get back, Parker attacks again. This time he gets all the way into the teeth of the defense as Randle chooses not to help on the drive because Leonard is alone at the top of the key (he switched onto him on the dribble hand-off).
Parker forces Mosgov to leave Aldridge to protect the rim. Often we would see a dump off to Aldridge for the finish, but the Lakers once again have all five guys in the paint. LaMarcus slips out to the elbow and Parker finds him with a jump-pass. This leaves Nick Young in between Aldridge and Ginobili. He has no choice but to close out onto Aldridge, so LaMarcus swings it to Ginobili who finishes the play with the corner three.
This play features five passes, but it is the Spurs’ ability to put pressure on the basket off the catch that keeps the Lakers scrambling. The Lakers do a good job of helping in the lane off the penetration, but after four drives, the Lakers are packed in the paint which enables the perimeter game. The Spurs show how you can free up the arc without a bunch of shooters.
Credit is due to Tony Parker, who continues to draw multiple defenders off the dribble. His ball fake to Ginobili and feed to Aldridge are savvy plays that many NBA players would not have the presence of mind to complete. And it was his mid-range jumper that sealed the game late for the Spurs.
The Spurs offense still works, and could continue to climb from fifth to the top three as Gasol becomes more comfortable. But the Spurs have real challenges defensively and on the glass. They’re deep enough to solve their issues through the bench, and time is on their side. But they are in the bottom half of the league in offensive rebounding and transition defense. Keep an eye on Popovich and how he addresses those areas as the season progresses.