In case you missed it, the clock struck midnight on the San Antonio Spurs’ 5-2 start to the year, transforming it into a glorious pumpkin powering the league’s 27th ranked offense and last-ranked defense.
You don’t drop 8 straight and 15 of your first 21 without being poor across a few areas, but one of the Spurs’ most glaring statistical rankings has been in their transition defense. The definitions vary a bit depending on if you’re talking fast break points (where the Spurs defense ranks 27th at 17.1 per game) or transition points (28th, 25.3 per), but whether it’s after a made basket or off live balls, teams are pushing the pace against San Antonio and, more often than not, getting easy buckets. Overall they’re in the 77th percentile in terms of frequency of possessions ended in transition and, per Synergy, no team is worse than the 1.27 points per possession they’re giving up. When you see the various factors affecting those numbers, you see that transition defense is as much a barometer for the team’s struggles as it is a cause in of itself.
Live-ball turnovers are a good way to give up points, and only 4 teams are worse than San Antonio in turnover rate (16.3%) right now. They’re also 2nd to last in the NBA in opponent points off turnovers, with 21.3, with only the Rockets ranking worse. Not all of those lead to transition opportunities, but many do, as you might expect.
The Spurs had a season-worst 23 turnovers against Toronto a few weeks ago, leading to their most lopsided loss of the year. Coincidentally, they gave up a season-worst 52 points in transition in the rout, which led to much of the night looking like a Raptors layup line.
Gregg Popovich has said that the Spurs’ uncharacteristically high turnover rate comes with the territory in a developmental year, and it’s likely the area that may be hardest to shore up as they continue to experiment with Point Sochan and possessing few ball-handlers to begin with.
Commitment to offensive rebounding creates more opportunities — for both sides
The Spurs are 7th in offensive rebounds per game and 12th in offensive rebound rate, paced by Jakob Poeltl’s 3.9, 4th among all players. Charles Bassey isn’t too far behind in rebound rate, and the team is collectively one of the most efficient in put-backs (1.26 points per possession) in the NBA. Given their overall shortcomings in the half-court, ranking 9th in 2nd chance points shakes out as one of their paths to high-percentage looks, but that can come at a price when the main rim deterrent is overextended and his man begins sprinting the other way.
Other teams that are poor in transition D are similarly trading off on the other end: the Rockets, who give up the most points in transition, are first in offensive rebound rate, and the Jazz, fourth in that category, are also fourth in offensive rebound rate.
Sometimes the Spurs crash the glass without much rhyme or reason. Part of that could be scheme in the moment, but there are definitely instances of young guys selling out too much, which can lead to transition opportunities off a defensive rebound. In the two-game home series vs the Lakers, San Antonio gave up a combined 59 points in transition, with LA not shy about pushing the ball up the court whenever possible.
Experimenting with schemes has helped some
The Spurs have actually had success in pressing opponents deeper into the shot clock, ranking middle-of-the-pack overall in those situations, per Synergy. When defensive possessions result in half-court attempts (rather than transition attempts), the numbers look even better, and when you’re one of the worst defensive teams in the league anyway, you have to mix up looks and try to junk a game up.
Consider this overall a strength for the team, but it’s worth sharing the pair of clips below if only for how similar they look, but also for the margin of error they’re sometimes dealing with.
An anemic offense doesn’t help
Bad defense typically feeds into bad defense, and vice versa. The Spurs are averaging under 0.92 points per possession in the half court, and rank 27th overall in offensive rating, which means they’re less frequently getting back and setting their defense.
Opponents shoot routinely and proficiently against the Spurs in the three main early shot-clock situations: 24-22 seconds (5th in frequency), 22-18 seconds (5th), and 18-15 (3rd), hitting at 69 eFG% and 59 eFG% in the latter two situations. Here are the Nuggets wisely pushing the ball up off a seemingly routine miss.
It’s hard to say what miscues might come from playing a switchable scheme in which anyone outside the 5s can theoretically mark any other non-5, but I’d assume it happens more frequently with a young group that’s routinely missing a different rotation piece each night. Someone picks up the ball-handler rather than their own assignment, someone else lags behind a bit, someone calls out for someone else to pick up their man, etcetera.
Sometimes you get the perfect storm: a big crashing the offensive glass and falling out of position, the opponent running and finding a great white shark in the open floor, a decade older than anyone in turquoise and experienced enough to know an easy bucket when he sees one.
Sometimes everyone is back and it still happens anyway.
Then there’s this shot of Doug McDermott, which tells us nothing and everything about an easy Raptors bucket at the same time.
The Spurs’ average margin on losses this season is 18 points. They’re giving up 125.5 points in those results, and they weren’t all that disciplined in transition defense through their surprising 5-2 start. It takes a rich patchwork of missteps that gets you to 6-15, and what happens in the early window of each possession is just a piece of that puzzle. While the team’s transition woes are a meaningful factor for why they’re currently in the NBA’s cellar, they serve more as a handy lens through which to view their overall performance until now.