The 5 Biggest Concerns for San Antonio Spurs Before 2014 Playoffs
Beyond the ebbs and flows and inconsistent rotations, the San Antonio Spurs have been trying to establish some sort of identity as the team heads into the final 22 games of the regular season. And that seems a bit weird, as unfamiliarity is the last thing you'd associate with this team in terms of in-house problems.
But with all the absences due to injury and inconsistent play from some of the featured players, questions abound as to whether this team can make the kind of playoff run we've come to expect.
Will the defense regain its championship-level form? Will the Spurs find a way to once again be dominant on the defensive glass?
Can they begin forcing turnovers the way they did last season? And perhaps most importantly, can the starting lineup find its groove again offensively?
Relatively speaking, these questions are small potatoes when compared to those surrounding the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. But they're questions nonetheless, and if San Antonio doesn't answer them sufficiently, it might be toast come playoff time.
The Recovery of the Defense
The importance that Gregg Popovich places on the defensive side of the ball has never been a secret since he's been in control of the franchise. It's the reason the Spurs won those titles in 1999 and the early to mid-2000s, and it's how they've been able to return to a place of prominence in the championship conversation in the second decade of the 21st century.
But the defensive numbers have experienced a substantial drop-off over the last couple of months, and there is no shortage of reasons why that has been the case.
First, San Antonio has been ravaged by injuries to some of its most important defenders. At one point, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard were all out of the lineup for a significant stretch of time after going down with injuries within 18 days of one another.
While none of them—depending on how you view Leonard—is part of the Spurs' Big Three core (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili), they're vital for their defensive impact and peripheral offensive contributions.
In a sense, Splitter, Green and Leonard represent San Antonio's defensive backbone. On any given night, these three players will likely be guarding the opposition's top three offensive players while allowing Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to play off the main point of attack.
The eye is always attracted to high point totals and explosive offenses, but defense has long been a common denominator among previous NBA Finals winners, and the Spurs know that.
San Antonio is allowing just 91.4 points per 100 possessions when Splitter, Green and Leonard are on the floor together, which is the equivalent of what the Bulls are getting when Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich are on the floor. It's even better than what the Pacers get with Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and David West (92.1 defensive-efficiency rating).
The trio of Leonard, Green and Splitter has only made four appearances on the court together since Jan. 5, the day after Splitter's shoulder sprain set off a chain of injuries that would put the Spurs under for roughly two months. But in that limited time, they have given up fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions while those three have been on the court, and they've been in front of opponents by a net rating of better than 10 per night.
In the grand scheme of things, San Antonio is somehow still the fifth-best defense in the league (100.6 defensive rating), per the NBA's stats page, despite being 10th-best over the last two months (102.6 DRtg). Furthermore, the Duncan-Splitter-Green-Leonard lineup is giving up just 90.9 points per 100 possessions this season, which is a trend to watch as we inch closer to the playoffs.
When the Spurs are healthy, they're a defensive force. We've only seen glimpses of it this season, but it's there, and San Antonio remains a contender because of it.
Regaining Control of the Boards
Defensive rebounding has long been an understated aspect of team success.
Typically speaking, the most difficult way to score is against a set defense that's positioned for the initial attack, while the easiest way to convert is off offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities. Defending the first shot is a substantial part of the equation, but not allowing a second or third chance is the crucial element of defending a possession.
Historically, the Spurs have been an interesting team to watch on the boards. They have little to no interest in chasing down offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
If it comes to them, great; if not, get the heck back on defense. But because they're regularly at the bottom of the league in terms of offensive-rebounding percentage, the importance placed on snagging as many defensive boards as possible becomes massive.
San Antonio has ranked outside of the top four in terms of defensive-rebounding percentage just twice in the last decade, and one of those teams was that flawed 2010-11 group that was beaten up by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
So far this season, the Spurs have been the sixth-best defensive-rebounding team in the NBA, securing 75.8 percent of opponents' misses. But prior to the Splitter injury that kicked off the parade of setbacks, the team was in fourth place and less than a percentage point away from boasting the top defensive-rebounding numbers in the league.
The story has been different over the last couple of months. San Antonio dropped to 11th in the defensive-rebounding rankings since Jan. 4, thanks to noticeable absences from key players. During that span, the Spurs managed to outscore their opponents by only 4.8 points per 100 possessions, down from their normal margin of 6.8 this season.
We've seen the difference that a couple of extra points in a game can make over the course of a competitive playoff series, so these rebounding numbers are something to consider. What has made this defense great over the last couple of seasons has been its ability to hold opponents to just one shot, and that's got to continue this time around if it wants any shot at another title run.
Inquiries to the Theft Department
One of the most out-of-character, significant leaps the San Antonio defense made last season was in the steals department. They had rarely dabbled in this area previously, but it paid off in a big way last year.
For the majority of his career, Popovich has valued thievery just slightly more than the Pope, so the quick shift in strategy—whether it was intended or not—is quite interesting. However, it might be more a result of Leonard's on-court impact than a change in game-planning.
The Spurs ranked sixth in the league in 2012-13 with 8.5 steals per game; prior to that, they hadn't ranked in the top 10 in terms of steals per game during this millennium. So last season was a bit of a surprise that meant good things for a typically conservative defense.
Those numbers are back down this season, however, as the Spurs are averaging 7.4 steals per game, good for 17th in the league. The top three thieves on the roster—Leonard, Green and Ginobili—combine for 3.7 thefts a contest after averaging 4.2 last season, and that was at a very similar pace.
For San Antonio, forced turnovers have always been a luxury, which is why last season was such a pleasant surprise. Whether or not they were crucial to the 2012-13 team's success remains to be seen in this version of the Spurs, but it certainly made a difference.
Steals are weird. They're difficult to come by, their production is generally dependent on a certain type of roster or various types of aggressive game plans, and despite their impact, they're not always a sign of defensive quality.
Still, San Antonio made good with them last season.
I'm not sure if this team can recreate that aspect of its game, either. While the same personnel that achieved those numbers last season are still big contributors, those players haven't shown the ability to produce steals at the same rate they did last season.
Perhaps that can change, though I'm not sure it matters.
The Spurs are scoring 12.6 points off turnovers per game, which is down from 12.9 points on average in 2012-13. How much of an impact do turnovers have? Teams are turning the ball over 14.4 percent of the time against San Antonio, which is down from 15.3 percent last season.
While the Spurs are forcing fewer turnovers per game this season, it hasn't created some huge swing in defensive impact. But as a healthy Leonard-Green tandem starts to find more and more minutes, you'd expect this team to perhaps pick up the steals pace just a bit.
What Is Wrong with the Starting Offense?
One of the biggest concerns remains on the offensive side of the ball, where the starting group just can't find a way to get going despite all of its success last season.
When Parker, Green, Leonard, Duncan and Splitter are on the floor together, the Spurs are being beaten by 1.1 points per 100 possessions. This is a problem, considering this is the lineup Popovich wants to run out on a nightly basis.
Between all those pieces, the lineup theoretically has everything the coach is looking for: ball-handlers, pick-and-roll practitioners and shooters. But something has gone awry, considering the success this lineup experienced last year.
Duncan is at war with his mid-range jumper, and Splitter has elected to post up more often than setting up for pick-and-rolls, which doesn't make sense considering the numbers.
He is used as the roll man on just 18.7 percent of his individual plays (plays ending in a field-goal attempt, free throws or a turnover), per mySynergySports, which is down from 25.8 percent last season when he scored 1.25 points per possession rolling to the hoop. This season he's scoring just 1.05 points per possession on the same type of plays.
Furthermore, 21.5 percent of his plays have come via post-up this season, which is up nearly five percentage points from last. At the same time, he's connecting on just .8 points per possession, down slightly from .83 during the previous year.
Then there's Duncan, whose jumper hasn't been flawless. The Big Fundamental hit better than 42 percent of his mid-range shots last season, but that number has folded to 35.8 percent during this campaign. That's actually up from earlier in the season when he was caught between 32 and 33 percent for so long.
There's more evidence that this lineup works than there is proof that it doesn't, but those numbers haven't shown themselves this season. The Spurs have 22 games to figure things out with their two starting big men, but that's a ton of time relative to an NBA season, and this team deserves the benefit of the doubt.
To think: This was about the time the Spurs caved in due to injury last season, pushing them toward an eventual 10-10 finish over the final 20 games of the regular season. This time around, they're just getting healthy.
But speaking of health...
It's All About Health for the Spurs
No other issue affects this team more than health concerns when looking ahead toward the postseason. Without healthy players, the Spurs won't have a chance against the incredible competition in the Western Conference.
And they've already taken their lumps. The team's top eight players in terms of minutes played per game have missed a combined 76 games, and the preferred starting lineup has appeared in just 19 games together total—16 as starters.
That's still the top overall lineup in terms of appearances.
All numbers aside, dealing with teams like the Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Warriors and whichever other club shows its face as the playoffs roll around, will be an impossible feat without full health. But this has been the story around the Spurs for years.
So what's new? Without all their best players healthy, they'll never emerge from the West.
This is something you could say about basically any team. However, preserving that health is more painstaking in San Antonio than it might be elsewhere, given all the aging joints and muscles in that locker room.
But getting healthy is the top concern of the Spurs heading into the postseason, and that will never change. After all, when you have players who have been around one another for as long as the Big Three have, finding the same rhythm is often the least of a coach's worry.