Comparing San Antonio Spurs and OKC Thunder at Every Position

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2013

Comparing San Antonio Spurs and OKC Thunder at Every Position

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    Few matchups in the NBA are as compelling as the one we're currently witnessing between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.

    The teams spent all of last season jostling for position atop the Western Conference (and league), and it has been no different this year. San Antonio currently has a slight lead over Oklahoma City for the top seed in the conference, and the season series is notched at one game apiece.  

    Even still, one can't help but shake the feeling that it is the Spurs who are chasing the Thunder and not the other way around. Oklahoma City is the reigning Western Conference champion, a title obtained by going through San Antonio only a season ago.

    Though the Spurs are playing as though they vowed not to let last year repeat itself, do they actually have the edge, or is it the Thunder who should still be the favorites to come out of the West?

    There is no shortage of talented teams in the Western Conference, but as we prepare to watch these two powerhouses square off for the third time this season, you get the sense they're on a postseason collision course once again.

     

    *All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.

Point Guard: Tony Parker (Spurs) vs. Russell Westbrook (Thunder)

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    Yes, I'm fully aware Tony Parker is injured, but this is about how they matchup overall. And this matchup is closer than you think.

    Russell Westbrook often garners more attention than Parker, but this is hardly an indication of the latter's inferiority as a player.

    San Antonio's floor general is one of just two players averaging at least 20 points and seven assists per game on 50 percent shooting. That the other is LeBron James really speaks volumes about his effectiveness as a player.

    While Parker is easily the more efficient of the two in question, Westbrook has his own case to make.

    Not only do his 23.3 points and 7.7 assists exceed Parker's per-game figures of 21 and 7.6, but he's one of the best rebounding guards in the league (5.2 a game). He's also a more lethal finisher in transition and more aggressive on defense.

    From a leadership perspective, you have to take the seasoned Parker. He's better at controlling the tempo of a game, has won titles and currently doesn't have the luxury of playing alongside a Kevin Durant in his prime.

    Still, when pitted against one another, it's difficult to imagine Parker not being outplayed by the unrelenting Westbrook. He's had past success against Oklahoma City's (sometimes) loose cannon, but he was outperformed in this season's first two meetings of this rivalry.

    Provided Westbrook keeps his head and exploits Parker's lackluster defense, he's the one to take when these two factions wage battle at full strength. But as the former's performance has been somewhat of a wild card, we'll take the experience and efficiency.

     

    Advantage: Tony Parker 

Shooting Guard: Danny Green (Spurs) vs. Thabo Sefolosha (Thunder)

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    Thabo Sefolosha continues to be an unsung hero outside of Oklahoma City.

    While he's not much of an offensive threat, his defense borders on impenetrable. He's holding opposing shooting guards and small forwards to a combined average player efficiency rating (PER) of 13 and is among the game's most stalwart of perimeter defenders.

    You've also got to appreciate his ability to defend off the dribble. He's averaging just 0.6 blocks per game, but he's a great shot-blocker in the post. And as for his lack of offense, he's at least proved to be a deadly long-ball shooter (41.6 percent on the season).

    Sans the offensive criticism, though, much of the same can be said about Danny Green.

    Not many consider him an elite defender, but he too is among the best wing-stoppers in the game. Opposing shooting guards and small forwards are posting a PER of 13 against him as well.

    Green is also connecting on 43.5 percent of three-point attempts, making him one of 11 players (minimum one three-point attempt per game) to be shooting at least 43 percent from beyond the arc.

    Both players see fewer than 30 minutes of action per game, and their uses are similar, but Green is a more of a two-way player than Sefolosha has ever been. Push come to shove, he gives the Spurs the edge at shooting guard.

     

    Edge: Danny Green 

Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard (Spurs) vs. Kevin Durant (Thunder)

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    Kawhi Leonard simply doesn't stand a chance here.

    San Antonio's sophomore is far more talented than he receives credit for. There is a case to be made for him as a future cornerstone with his 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. 

    Against Durant, though, the ever-efficient Leonard is likely in trouble.

    One would hope Leonard's defensive savvy could help taper Durant's offensive production, and it just might. But nothing is enough to stop the league's current leading scorer completely.

    Durant is on pace to join the 50/40/90 club, and he's managed to steal some of LeBron James' thunder (pun intended) at a time when the King is making history. The Durantula was once strictly considered a scorer, but he's evolved into so much more.

    At present, he is posting per-game career highs in assists (4.7), steals (1.5), field-goal percentage (50.4), three-point percentage (41.2) and free-throw percentage (90.8). His defense has improved considerably, and he embodies potent efficiency. Keeping him off the free-throw line has become impossible at this juncture as well.

    How do you beat that?

    Unless your name is LeBron James, you can't.

     

    Edge: Kevin Durant 

Power Forward: Tim Duncan (Spurs) vs. Serge Ibaka (Thunder)

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    Not enough has been made about the strides Serge Ibaka is making this season.

    Oklahoma City's shot-swatting power forward is averaging per-game career highs in minutes (31.7), points (13.4), rebounds (7.8) and field-goal percentage (56.8). And he's still sending back three shots per game as well.

    I've also been impressed with Ibaka's defense overall. He's often perceived as a superior defender, but prior to this season, his reputation was built on blocked shots alone.

    Now, he's become much better at defending fancier footwork (spins) and more restrained when it comes to leaving his feet. At this point, I'd even say there's an All-Star appearance in his future.

    Let's not make the mistake of believing he has anything on Tim Duncan just yet, though.

    Going on 37, Duncan is absolutely killing it. He's averaging 16.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks per game on 49.8 percent shooting. His 24.2 PER also ranks seventh in the entire league.

    Perhaps his greatest advantage comes on the perimeter. Ibaka arguably has more range, since he's become something of a three-point shooter, but he's not able to defend on the outside like Duncan is.

    As one of the most resourceful defenders, scorers and even passers the low post has ever housed, there's simply no slowing Duncan down.

    Not even when he's in his 16th season, not even if you're Ibaka.

     

    Edge: Tim Duncan

Center: Tiago Splitter (Spurs) vs. Kendrick Perkins (Thunder)

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    Kendrick Perkins is a great teammate, but his execution on the floor borders on regrettable.

    He's averaging just 4.5 points per game on 47 percent shooting this season, proving to be somewhat of a liability on the offensive end. That mid-range jumper of his doesn't seem to fall anymore, and his conditioning in Oklahoma City's system remains an issue.

    Defensively, Perk still has some value, but he's more of a volume rebounder (5.9) and shot-blocker (1.1) than anything else. He's not especially mobile and has difficulty staying out of foul trouble when forced to defend a tower that knows how to pump fake.

    Enter Tiago Splitter.

    San Antonio's big man is having the best season of his three-year career. He's averaging 10.5 points and six rebounds on 59.2 percent shooting in just 24.1 minutes per game.

    While Splitter isn't the most skilled of shot contesters, he's one of the best help defenders San Antonio has.

    Neither Perkins nor Splitter play considerable minutes (both under 25 a night) but the Spurs are a plus-13 per 100 possessions with Splitter on the floor, compared to the plus-11 the Thunder are with Perk.

    Which is proof of what, exactly?

    That the stat lines don't always show just how much more valuable Splitter is to San Antonio than Perkins is to Oklahoma City.

     

    Edge: Tiago Splitter

Sixth Man: Manu Ginobili (Spurs) vs. Kevin Martin (Thunder)

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    Kevin Martin has been beyond an unbelievable fit in Oklahoma City.

    The sharpshooting guard is averaging 14.4 points and one steal per game off the bench and is also connecting on a career-high 42.6 percent of his three-point attempts.

    Often considered a poor defender, Martin has improved on that end. Going toe-to-toe with second units has helped, but he's holding opposing shooting guards to a 13.5 PER nonetheless.

    And yet, I'd still take the 35-year-old Manu Ginobili.

    Manu is posting just 12.6 points per contest, but he continues to hit on 37.3 percent of his deep balls and his playmaking (4.6 assists) has been phenomenal, especially in Parker's absence.

    His defense remains underrated as well. Per Synergy Sports (subscription required), he ranks 69th in the league in points allowed per possession (0.79). Not bad for an oft-injured 35-year-old, eh?

    Of course, 11 years into his career, Ginobili is only ably to play just above 23 minutes a game, limiting his ability to make an extensive impact. That he's able to do so much in just a short period of time, though, gives San Antonio a clear advantage.

     

    Edge: Manu Ginobili

Rest of Bench

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    Oklahoma City is actually deeper than in recent years.

    Seven players are averaging at least 19 minutes per game, and Scott Brooks currently has 10 logging at least 10 minutes of burn, which is a lot for him.

    By comparison, the Spurs have nine players (minimum of 50 games) averaging at least 20 minutes a contest. Their advanced age forces Gregg Popovich to rely on his bench more than most. And they've delivered.

    San Antonio's bench ranks seventh in points scored (39.2) per game, while Oklahoma City's comes in at 21st (29.6). In the interest of full disclosure, though, the Spurs' second-unit ranks 24th in points allowed (35). The Thunder fail to establish a significant edge there, allowing 34 points per game themselves (20th).

    Collective quality aside, each team has a number of guys that come in off the bench and fulfill a specific purpose.

    Nick Collison remains a bright spot, and Reggie Jackson has even had his moments for Oklahoma City. The Spurs house a number of players, like Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal, among others, who are effective in bursts.

    What it comes down to, though, is that the Thunder rely heavily on their Big Three (Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook). The need for a deep bench just isn't there.

    Come postseason time, that can often be construed as an edge. For the most part, it just makes the Thunder vulnerable against deeper teams.

     

    Edge: Spurs 

Conclusion

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    San Antonio owns most of the positional matchups against Oklahoma City, hence the league-leading record.

    Most scoff at the notion of the Spurs unseating the Thunder in seven-game series, though, sheerly because of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. 

    Is that right?

    To an extent, yes. We saw the Thunder turn the Spurs away in six games only last season. And come playoff time, rotations are shortened even further.

    San Antonio doesn't have that kind of luxury. Just two players (Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) are averaging at least 30 per game. As effective as a Tim Duncan is overall, there's some serious doubt as to whether he and some of his peers can withstand the rigors of playing 30-plus minutes in the playoffs.

    Even so, the Spurs are on the precipice of finishing with the NBA's best record for the third year running. That means something.

    Up and down the board, there is a case to be made that the Spurs have the edge, save for the small forward and perhaps point guard positions. Their ability to defeat the Thunder doesn't hinge on them making the most of their advantages, though.

    It rests in their ability to mitigate the disadvantage they're put at when going up against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Those two make all the difference.