Alright, everybody! We have now come to the last stat to be keeping track of throughout the season that will tell the story of how the Spurs season plays out. Here are the five one more time: three-point attempts and percentage, free throw attempts, passes per game, turnovers, and defensive rating. Today’s stat may be the most important of them all, so without further ado, here it is...
Defense: It’s what has defined the Spurs for the entirety of Coach Gregg Popovich’s tenure — or at least until Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio. In the three seasons since he left and was replaced by DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs finished 19th, 25th, and 17th in defensive rating. Those were the worst numbers since Pop took over the helm, and while I know there was that Tim Duncan fellow for a good chunk before then, the dramatic drop is still alarming. This isn’t to say DeRozan was the problem, he was merely a part of it.
The thing is, the Spurs had a weird mix of young players and vets the last three seasons, and unfortunately the puzzle pieces didn’t always quite fit together. Last season’s starting lineup of DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson, and Derrick White was 8.6 points better per 100 possessions than when White was replaced by Lonnie Walker. And that number goes up to nearly 12 points better than when White was replaced by Patty Mills or Devin Vassell.
What does this all have to do with defensive rating? Well, it seems like the current roster is better equipped to defend than last year season. While Doug McDermott may have similar defensive liabilities as DeRozan, his presence allows Johnson to slide to a more natural position of small forward. And while Mills may have been replaced by an even bigger defensive liability (but one who tries equally has hard) in Bryn Forbes, they have a superior defensive option in Tre Jones (once he gets healthy) if Forbes’ scoring isn’t outweighing his negative defensive presence.
There’s also the pros of what a healthy Derrick White playing a full season, as well as Jakob Poeltl being the starting center all year, could do for the starting unit. With White on the court, the Spurs had a defensive rating of 110.9, which would have been good for sixth best in the league. With Poeltl as the starter center, the Spurs’ defensive rating was 111, again good for sixth best.
Everything points to the Spurs being ready to get back to that defensive stalwart they used to be. That’s important because 10 of the top-12 defensive teams made the playoffs, with the Warriors being one of the two (the Bulls are the other, believe it or not). In fact, when it comes to the Western Conference, only the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers were able to make the playoffs despite lacking a the top-12 defense. The adage is defense wins championships, but it seems to also help teams make the playoffs in the first place.
So go ahead and bookmark this page to keep tabs on where the Spurs stand amongst the league in defensive rating, and don’t forget to go bookmark the other links from the previous four stats I’ve listed, because at the end of the season these numbers won’t lie about how the Spurs season went.