The beginning of the NBA season is incredibly fun, and equally frustrating. It’s cathartic to watch your favorite sport after months of speculating about what the new year will bring. At the same time, seeing rash reactions to early returns can make you (or maybe just me) want to rip your hair out.
“Small sample size theater” is rampant to start the NBA season. It seems nuts to make sweeping judgements about a team or player after 5 games. But 10 games? I’ll bite. That’s about an eight of the NBA schedule, and gives enough time to have a grasp on a team’s strategy and rotation to start the year. It’s still a relatively small sample size that will cause some striking outliers, but it’s just big enough to analyze.
The San Antonio Spurs are 3-7 in their first 10 games. It’s been an uneven start, with a few blowout losses to the Clippers, Knicks and Pacers, two major wins against Phoenix, and some blown leads to Miami, Minnesota and Toronto. Only the Grizzlies, Wizards and Pistons have a worse record.
The Spurs have the worst net rating in the NBA (-10.8.) Their offensive rating is 25th in the league at 109.3, but it’s the defensive rating that’s concerning. They have the 28th ranked defense in the league with a 120.1 defensive rating, essentially the same number (120 flat) as last season. The addition of Victor Wembanyama and an emphasis on defense was supposed to sure up their problems on that end.
So what’s been the issue? Perimeter defense to start. The Spurs have not been able to stop teams from hitting threes. They are giving up 37.8 attempts per game (24th,) and allowing teams to hit them at a 40.5% clip, the highest percentage in the NBA. It doesn’t stop there. The Spurs have the highest opponent field goal percentage in the league at 49.7%, so of course they are giving up the most points in the league at 124.2 a game.
San Antonio is the bottom-10 in the league in steals and opponent turnovers. So they aren’t generating a lot of extra possessions for themselves. They are however 6th in the NBA in blocks with 6.2 a game. They can thank their first-overall pick for that uptick. Wembanyama has a team high 2.4 blocks per game. Right behind him is Zach Collins with 1.1 blocks.
So they can’t stop teams. Can they score on them? The offensive returns are somewhat positive. The offensive rating isn’t great, but they are scoring 113 points a game. They are second in the NBA in assists at 29.9 a game. They are shooting a decent percentage from the field (47.3%, 13th in the NBA) and from deep (35.3%, 18th in the NBA.) They are still playing fast, as they are seventh in the league in pace of play. Playing fast and shooting a good percentage from deep usually equates to a good NBA offense. As the season progresses, those are two numbers to watch.
The big debate to start the season has been the right players to surround Wembanyama with offensively. The Jeremy Sochan vs. Tre Jones point guard question has been at the heart of that conversation. With Jones, Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Wembanyama and Collins on the floor, the Spurs are +29 in 16 minutes (114.3 OFFRTG, 85.3 DEFRTG.) Swap out Jones for Sochan, and San Antonio is -13.8 (90.4 OFFRTG, 104.2 DEFRTG) in 76 minutes.
This is still a small sample size, but early returns suggest that the tall ball lineup hasn’t worked yet. Based on quotes from Gregg Popovich and the rest of the team, the goal seems to be more about getting Sochan reps running point, and less about running a highly efficient offense. Another interesting stat, the Spurs two-player lineups with the highest net rating (minimum 100 minutes) are Jones + Wembanyama at 19.3, and Jones + Collins at 7.
A few interesting individual player stats to highlight:
- Wembanyama leads all rookies in points and blocks, averaging 19.7 and 2.4 a game. He’s second in rebounding behind Pistons rookie, Ausar Thompson in rebounds, averaging 8.8 a game.
- Doug McDermott is hitting over 50% of his threes, converting on 52.4% of his 4.2 attempts a game. Cedi Osman and Vassell are also hitting over 40% of their deep ball attempts, shooting 45.5% and 42.9% respectively.
- For all the hubbub about “point Sochan,” he’s statistically having an improved start to the season. He’s increased his efficiency across the board, made a leap in playmaking and maintained a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. He’s averaging 10.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists while shooting 46.2% from the field. An interesting stat: he’s hitting 38.9% of his three pointers, shooting 2.4 a game.
- Vassell’s scoring efficiency has been outstanding to start the season. In eight games he’s averaging 18 points on 50.5% shooting from the field and 42.9% from deep, for an effective field goal percentage of 60.9%. He’s doing that despite having the second highest usage rate on the roster at 22.5%. Number one you might ask? Wembanyama at 30.9%.
These numbers aren’t the gospel, but are a helpful tool to monitor what’s going on with the team. San Antonio has a lot of season left, but 10 games feels like a good spot to look at where the team is as they hurdle towards the quarter mark of the season.