The blowout loss against the Warriors on Wednesday didn’t really reveal new weaknesses for the Spurs as much as it exposed the ones they had all along.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s lack of mobility and athleticism on defense makes him a bad fit to defend pull-up threats and explosive bigs and the team’s shooting is not really reliable, which is proved by the fact that San Antonio has shot under 32 percent from beyond the arc seven times this season and over 40 percent another seven. Golden State targeted Aldridge and benefited from a particularly cold shooting night by the Spurs to easily win.
Beyond those two hard to solve issues, the Warriors also benefited from another weakness that has been around all season: The Spurs are often terrible in transition defense and on Wednesday they conceded a whopping 21 points on the break. Here they are, if you want to watch them, but this example should be enough.
The Spurs' transition defense has been bad all season, which is understandable since they are mostly a young team. But some mistakes are still frustrating. They had good floor balance initially here, until both Johnson and Murray try to pick up Curry. Bad communication. pic.twitter.com/jRh2Zwv9OX— Jeje Gomez (@JejeGomezNBA) January 21, 2021
Luckily, the problem has little to do with personnel, so it should be fixable, at least in the long run.
It’s important to note that the issues in transition are not the result of sloppy play. The Spurs are the best in the league at avoiding turnovers and concede the least amount of points as a result of their turnovers. It’s not like teams are just taking advantage of situations in which there’s an inevitable numbers superiority, like backcourt steals or lazy passes. A lot of the points San Antonio allows on the break — come after made buckets or defensive rebounds for their opponents. In some cases the breakdowns come as a result of bad floor balance, but equally often they are the result of poor communication. We saw plenty of that against the Warriors, but also throughout the season.
The Spurs make a lot of small, frustrating mistakes on the break. They sometimes don’t pick up the ball handler until it’s too late, but they also sometimes have two guys try to pick him up, giving their opponent numbers they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They also lose trailers often in an effort to return quickly to the paint, giving up open threes. It’s all basic stuff that eventually adds up. In wins, San Antonio allows the ninth fewest fastbreak points in the league. In losses, they allow the 11th most. When the Spurs are not sharp when running back, they pay for it.
Transition defense is definitely a problem, but luckily not a long-term one in all likelihood. A lack of effort doesn’t appear to be to blame for the issues, which is encouraging. These Spurs are young and they have not been playing together for long, which explains why the communication is often poor. It’s not a surprise that the bench, which has largely had the same core for the past few years, struggles less on the break. Experience in the league and with teammates goes a long way on defense, and the young starters will have it in time.
For now, there will be nights in which the Spurs will struggle to get back on defense in an orderly manner, giving opponents easy points. It will be frustrating when it happens, but it helps to think that it’s just part of the growing pains of a team that is trying to win while developing young talent.