With the arrival of Victor Wembanyama, the 2023-24 San Antonio Spurs have looked like a new team in the preseason. The defense looks a lot better, the offense is smoother, and it’s begging the question if the Spurs just might be better than the Vegas predictions. While data availability is limited in the preseason, I gathered what I could to look at how the Spurs performed in the preseason relative to last season and provide some insights into how it could translate to the regular season.
First, let’s dive into shooting and opponent shooting stats by zone. Due to Wemby’s tremendous reach, I anticipated improved rim blocking. Jeremy Sochan and Keldon Johnson also showed their ability to be decent three-point threats who could slash and draw fouls at the rim as well. Below is a plot showcasing the field goal percentage in each zone for the Spurs. It includes the statistics from their six-game preseason stretch this year, along with their numbers from last year. The league average for both timeframes is also included for reference. Lastly, the size of the scatter point is relative to the number of field goals attempted in that zone.
As expected, the Silver and Black saw an increase in made field goals inside the paint. The Spurs ranked 24th in efficiency for above the break threes last year and 22nd for corner threes. Note that not only did their FG percentage from deep improve, it improved relative to the league as well. For the preseason, they ranked 14th for above the break and 7th in corner threes.
The drop in mid-range percentage isn’t alarming for the time being as the shot is continuing to fade away in the league. However, modern defenses have become better at running catch-and-shoot players off of the line and sliding a big man into the paint, thus forcing the long two. Ideally, counter strategy will be the threat of having several big bodies who can shoot and are not afraid to take it to the house.
On the flip side, the Spurs were 30th in defending the corner three last year and 29th in threes above the break. Below is a similar graph but displaying how Spurs opponents have performed in the preseason.
Just based on the preseason data, San Antonio moves to 18th in defending corner threes and jumps to 4th for threes above the break. Wemby has already proven himself to be a Rudy Gobert type of menace, drastically dropping opponents’ percentage in the paint. The restricted area shots are highly influenced to points allowed off of turnovers, where the paint is unoccupied, but should gain more clarity as the season progresses to identify whether Wembanyama’s split is statistically significant in that zone as well.
The next graph displays net offensive and defensive rating for individual players (only players who played at least 10 minutes and appeared in at least two games were included in the data set). This isn’t the most reliable metric to judge a player’s contribution while on the court as it is equally influenced by the teammates paired with them. This will become clearer as lineup data becomes available when the season starts, but for the time being, we can still draw some conclusions. All Spurs players who meet the previously mentioned requirements are labeled along with any players in the league who ranked in the top 1% of offensive or defensive rating for comparison.
Tre Jones has been a value-add at point guard and is excellent at facilitating the pick and roll, but his size is a liability on defense, especially if he is forced to switch onto larger wings. Devonte Graham is susceptible on defense for the same reason, which might lead us to believe his high defensive rating was due to being paired with Wemby and Sochan a lot of the time he played, while Tre was leading the bench bigs in Julian Champagnie and Charles Bassey.
On the offensive front, stars like Devin Booker and Bradley Beal are valid data points that provide a frame of reference. Wemby already has an offensive efficiency that ranks in the top five percent of players (granted it has just been four games). Johnson and Sochan look poised to be the factors that help pivot the Spurs upwards on both ends of the floor, and Devin Vassell’s pull-up jumper will surely elevate the offense to another dimension as well.
Another metric to view is the NBA’s own PIE (Player Impact Estimate). You can read more about the calculation here. It aims to be a simpler version of PER while also accounting for defensive measures. I compared this to usage rate as it really helps define which players are the most efficient. Jokic won back-to-back MVP’s putting up an incredibly high PIE while maintaining just an above average usage rate for a starter. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook’s PIE reached an all-time high during his 2017 MVP campaign in which he averaged a triple double, but that was with a usage rate miles ahead of other superstars at the time. Like the previous graph, all San Antonio players are labeled as well as other players who rank in the top percentile for usage rate or PIE.
Trae Young and Luka Doncic are the usual suspects for high usage players, but Bam Adebayo stands out more than expected in his previous seasons. Jordan Poole has also seemed to take over as the primary scoring option for the Wizards. There is only a handful of players ranking higher than Wembanyama in both usage and PIE at this stage. As we see some more minutes from veteran stars in the regular season, he may shift further away from that upper echelon. But nonetheless, he has already displayed the impact he has while on the court. Paired with him is Zach Collins at center, he may continue to serve as the off-ball rolling big for dinks and dimes in the paint as Wemby can get more touches in isolation.
As the season gets underway, we will continue to investigate further area of improvement for the Spurs and highlight the many milestones Wemby will surely hit. The newly developed in-season tournament will provided an even more competitive landscape earlier on with some recent rivals. Those include the Warriors, who Wemby dominated with five blocks earlier this week, as well as another matchup with Chet Holmgren from the Thunder.