As the season approaches 25% complete, it’s appropriate to examine some general performance indicators. But unfortunately, broad indices can mislead and dilute an analysis. Thus, I’m exploring the Spurs relationship with the league across the quarters in this article to add detail and better understanding. So grab your replica of Occam’s Razor and join me at the podium in the Professor’s Corner.
The first chart displays offensive rating across the NBA for all four quarters. To improve focus, I’ve highlighted the Spur’s journey in pink. The Spurs have an overall offensive rating of 108.2 (27th in the league) with a league median of ~112.0. San Antonio starts games clicking near the league average. Unfortunately, this drops to near the bottom five in the league in the second quarter. This makes sense for a developing team. Arguably, the team starts three clear starters on an above-500 team (Johnson, Vassell, and Poeltl). Thus, as the squad transitions deeper into the bench, more fringe rotational players play minutes.
Things improve significantly returning from halftime. The Spur’s offensive rating increases to 8th in the league after the coaching staff provides guidance and feedback. Again, this tracks logically. There is limited practice time in the current NBA. Modern players develop through game experience—hence Spur’s G-League emphasis on player development. Young players can refocus and learn from coaches during a 15-minute break. The third quarter performances reflect this.
Unfortunately, the shark gets jumped in the fourth. San Antonio crashes to the bottom 6th in the league in the final quarter. The Spurs have yet to win when trailing after the third quarter this season. The cause of the poor fourth quarters is multifactorial, and the score is one reason. San Antonio has trailed by over 20 points after three quarters in a third of its games this season (all in November). Hence, the “competitive” phase of the game has ended, and deeper rotational players occupy more remaining minutes. Another reason is that the other team is better. The Spurs are 5-2 when leading after three quarters. The losses were to the Grizzlies (OT) and the Clippers, and both hope to play games in May.
Offensive rating is the product of multiple factors, and shooting accuracy is the most significant contributor. Fortunately, shooting isn’t a problem. The Spurs start cool and hover right above the bottom 25th percentile in the opening period. But this improves to above league median in the second and pushes to nearly the top 10 in the third. Then, unfortunately, this decreases to the bottom 10 in the fourth. San Antonio has several strong shooters. Vassell (43.6%, 7.2 3PA per game), McDermott (40.5%, 4.6 3PA per game), Johnson (39.1%, 8.6 3PA per game) and even Tre Jones (37.8.%, 2.2 3PA per game) are comfortably above the league median of 35.5%. Outside of Sochan (a low-volume but horrific 15.4%), only Bates-Diop has launched more than 20 3-pointers and made less than league average.
Statistical Deep Dive
The NBA displays a trend toward a decrease in true shooting percentage in the 4th quarter. Although not statistically significant, true shooting edges downward from a third quarter mean of 57.5% to 56.5% (p = 0.29, not significant). This is caused by deeper bench minutes (primary cause) and augmented defensive intensity during competitive games.
Please note that the discrepancy between offensive rating and shooting can significantly be attributed to turnovers. Below lists the frequency and rank. In my previous article, I focused on turnovers, and the consensus is that developing players commit more as they experiment and test their capabilities.
The Spurs are tied with the Pistons as the worst defensive team in the NBA (118.3 per 100 possessions). Specifically, San Antonio has the worst defense in the first and fourth quarters. Only in the second quarter does the team display better than the league-average defense. Great defense requires experience, effort, and communication. This team lacks the former and needs MUCH more of the latter. But it’s not all bad news.
On a positive, although counterintuitive note, the Spur’s opponents are shooting EXTREMELY well. The Bad Guys lead the league with a 57.9% effective field goal percentage and 40% from behind the arc. Only the 2010-11 Cavs (19 wins) and the 2008-09 Kings (17 wins) have opponents over 40% in the last 26 years. Moreover, teams are hitting 50.6% of their shots, which is historically significant— it hasn’t happened in 26 years! Not since the 1996-97 Celtics (15 wins) have opponents of a team hit over half their shots. Percentages this bad nearly always regress to the mean through the season. To translate, although the Spurs are not the Duncan-led defensive juggernauts of bygone years, other teams are experiencing some luck that will dilute with increased sample size.
For 5-man lineups that have played at least 100 possessions, the Spurs starters of Jones, Vassell, Johnson, Sochan, and Poeltl are near the league average in offensive and defensive rating. In addition, this group commits a below-average number of turnovers. Essentially, the starters are .500-level basketball team. But winning 1/2 of the games this season would be short sided on multiple levels. The organization must develop other players and combinations, and we fans must pay close attention to the subtle but forthcoming improvements.