San Antonio Spurs: Dancing to the Beat of an Old Drum

This image is a derivative of 2013 San Antonio Spurs  1 by Michael Tipton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The San Antonio Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons.

Led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich for the bulk of that period, we've heard about the impending 'end of the streak' since the group started to break up. 

Duncan left the league following the 2015-16 season while Parker and Ginobili's time came to an end after 2017-18. Coach Popovich is all that remains, but only now do those predicting an end to the playoff streak look likely to be right.

With a 7-14 record (which includes their worst losing streak in 22 years - 8 games), the San Antonio Spurs are finally in trouble. As far as those with a focus on analytics are concerned, the Spurs are committing heinous crimes on the offensive end of the floor. On the other end, they're on pace for their worst ever defensive rating.

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We would have blindly assumed they would work their way out of a hole like this and return to relevance in years gone by. It's not safe to make that assumption this year, though.

The Western Conference is stacked with elite rosters, and the Spurs, right now, aren't one of them.

It doesn't look like they will be any time soon either.

Dancing To The Beat Of An Old Drum

The Spurs have long been regarded as one of the most progressive teams in the NBA. A testament to his ability to adjust and adapt to the times and extend his career as an elite NBA head coach, 'Pop' keeps up with current trends.

As the analytics movement started to take over the league, Popovich was acutely aware of the benefits , but also the potential for overstating their importance.

 "I look at the analytics. Some of it is very worthwhile. Some of it is superfluous poppycock."

But what has really made Popovich so successful for so long is how he manages his players and is able to get the most out of them. Careers have been forged in San Antonio that wouldn't have seen the light of day elsewhere.

With Popovich's stance on analytics of the game, and his approach to coaching that crafts a team-first, winning culture, it's strange to see the Spurs sticking to what most consider an out-dated approach to an NBA offence. 

Stats Insider's own James Rosewarne  recently highlighted the stats and trends defining the modern NBA  with the three-point shot at the top of the list:

"Each season we witness a significant uptick in the amount of taken - and made - three-point shots, with the very nature of the game changing dramatically, pivoting toward a perimeter-orientated sport, as opposed to its post-play-dominated former self."

This trend is one that DeMar DeRozan focused on for a season when he averaged 3.6 three-point attempts per game with the Toronto Raptors in 2017-18. However, his willingness to shoot from long-range didn't make it across the border when he arrived at the Spurs via the Kawhi Leonard trade, averaging just 0.5 three-point attempts per game since then.

Popovich said early on that he isn't going to force 4-time All Star, DeRozan, to change the way he plays. He talks about any potential changes being made if the erstwhile Raptor is "willing".

It's clear now that he isn't.

Per stats.nba.com, of all guards to have attempted more than 100 field goals so far this season, only Ben Simmons (3) and T.J. McConnell (3) have attempted fewer three-point shots than DeRozan's eight.  Simmons' struggles are well-documented, and McConnell has played less than a third of DeRozan's total minutes.

He's 11th in the list of 123 guards that qualify in field goal attempts, but 121st in three-point field goal attempts.

Instead, DeRozan has shot 139 times from the mid-range - the second-most in the league behind teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge (151).

As a result of San Antonio's two most active players on the offensive end combining for more shots from mid-range than 22 NBA teams, the Spurs shoot an NBA-low 25.7 shots from beyond the arc per game.

Overall, their current offensive rating is a mediocre 109.9 for 12th in the NBA. It's not terrible, but it's their second-worst offensive rating relative to the rest of league over the last decade.

Would DeRozan spending more time on the perimeter help balance the floor and improve the offence?

It doesn't look like we're going to find out.

However, the mid-range heavy offense that goes against everything the best analytical minds tell us isn't San Antonio's biggest issue.

Making History On Defence

Now 21 games into the season, the Spurs are playing with a 114.1 defensive rating. That number ranks 27th in the NBA, but most notably, it would be the worst defensive rating in franchise history if it sticks through to the end of the season.

A lot of San Antonio's early-season defensive numbers make for ugly reading.

  • The 115.1 points the Spurs give up per game is equal with the 4-18 Golden State Warriors for 25th in the NBA
  • When you're not making the most of the three-point shot yourself, you can't allow the opposition to shoot 39.1% (29th in the NBA) from beyond the arc like the Spurs have done so far in 2019-20.
  • Only three teams allow the opposition to shoot better than the 47.8% from the field the Spurs currently do.
  • No player in the roster is playing with a better defensive rating than the 108.4 league average.

A franchise built on consistently being amongst the best defensive teams in the league is looking a shadow of its former self.

Forget the affinity to shooting from the mid-range; Popovich can work around that if his team comes to the party defensively.

While they did take a step forward in keeping the LA Clippers to 97 points and showed positive signs out of the losing streak, having the Detroit Pistons heap 132 points on them saw the Spurs take two steps back in the end.

The Spurs were 10-11 at this point last season and used a 14-5 run to get back into the playoff picture. They're already three wins behind that mark and have the Clippers, Raptors, Houston Rockets (twice), Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks (twice), and Boston Celtics throughout the next 16 games on their schedule.

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We've learned to always trust Popovich and the Spurs, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to do so with confidence.

If the Spurs are to rise from near-death to make the playoffs for a 23rd consecutive season, their run needs to start now.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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