Making Sense of the Spurs' Losses with Numbers, Plus Raja Bell Talk

Robert KleemanSenior Analyst IDecember 7, 2009

SAN ANTONIO - DECEMBER 03:  Forward Richard Jefferson #24 of the San Antonio Spurs takes a shot against Rasheed Wallace #30 of the Boston Celtics on December 3, 2009 at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I do not worship statistics the way John Schumann and John Hollinger do. However, I wanted to see if numbers might help me understand the San Antonio Spurs' early season struggles.

The Spurs' two-game losing streak is perplexing, infuriating, and frustrating.

Didn't Owner Peter Holt sign off on a $80 million payroll so his squad would have no trouble dispatching the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics?

The team's performance thus far has been inconsistent, to be kind. One night, they defend like the Spurs of old but shoot like blind men. The next, they cannot secure any rebounds or suppress the itch to give the ball to the opposing squad.

The second game of the season in Chicago offers the best example. The offense was dreadful for most of the night, but the defense and rebounding showed promise.

In the first half, initial shot coverage was stupendous, but Chicago stayed close with offensive board after offensive board.

In the second half, the Spurs out-rebounded the Bulls but couldn't keep them out of the paint or from getting high-percentage looks.

The team's best defensive moments have been as good as those of the L.A. Lakers, Celtics, Nuggets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, and Orlando Magic.

At times, the Spurs show the capability to defend the way they would have to in a Game Seven at Staples Center.

At times, the offense flows the way it would have to in the NBA Finals.

The resulting product looks messier than a celebrity divorce.

There are some understandable problems.

Few teams will beat the Celtics and Nuggets in any building with 18-plus turnovers. Donations can work wonders for needy families but not for professional basketball teams.

Even the most inept NBA unit boasts at least two players capable of running down the court after a miscue and laying in the ball.

If the Spurs allow this uncharacteristic turnover disease to metastasize, they will struggle to beat the 1-19 New Jersey Nets, the three-win Minnesota Timberwolves, and the three-win New York Knicks.

No defense or offense can compensate for 19 giveaways against an elite foe with any frequency.

In many cases, bad offense has forced what looks like bad defense. If Carmelo Anthony strips the ball from Keith Bogans behind the arc and takes off for a breakaway slam, Gregg Popovich cannot blame transition defense for the score.

Nine times out of 10, a turnover close to midcourt will result in an easy score for the other guys. When Josh Smith or Dwyane Wade blocks one of those seemingly easy shots, it makes every sports top 10 list imaginable that night.

Eight times out of 10, a defender trying to block a breakaway layup will either commit a foul, or worse, allow a three-point play.

The solution is not to shore up shoddy transition defense but to stop giving away the damn ball.

That much of the equation seems easy, the rest does not.

Chew on these numbers, and decide for yourself what they signify.

  • In 70 percent of the Spurs games, they have won the points in the paint battle.
  • 96, the number of total points scored in the paint versus the Celtics and Nuggets. The Celtics and Nuggets scored a combined 72 points.
  • 10 free throw misses for the Spurs in Thursday's defeat.
  • 55-32, the Spurs rebound margin over the Celtics.
  • Rookie DeJuan Blair's 18-point, 11-rebound night against Boston.
  • A season-low five trey attempts in a win at Houston.
  • Two, the number of shots in nine attempts Paul Pierce made against Richard Jefferson.
  • Tim Duncan's 2009-2010 season averages: 19 points on 50 percent shooting, 11 rebounds, 3.5 assists, two blocks. His averages in the 1999 title season? 21 points on 49 percent shooting, 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocks. Those numbers look similar.
  • 32, the average number of minutes Duncan has played this season, a career low.
  • 1.73, Duncan's career-low average in turnovers.
  • Antonio McDyess's 15-point, 14-rebound performance in Houston
  • According to, the Spurs maintain a +10.7 rating with Matt Bonner on the floor.
  • 40, win percentage (according to when Bonner plays alongside Duncan, Tony Parker, Richard Jefferson, and Michael Finley
  • Jefferson is a member of three of the four five-player combinations that allow a less than 38 percent effective shooting percentage to opponents. The stats site adjusts these numbers to add the value of three-point shots.
  • Less than 30 percent of opponents' field goal makes from positions one through four have come inside the paint. Opposing centers are scoring 44 percent of their buckets inside.
  • The centers force an average of one more foul than they commit.
  • If you use Hollinger's intricate PER, the Spurs win at point guard, small forward, and center, but not shooting guard or power forward.
  • Jefferson has connected on 71 percent of his free throws, a significant drop from previous stellar seasons in which he swooshed better than 80 percent of his freebies.
  • Only 34 percent of Jefferson's shots have come inside. Six percent of those are dunks.
  • 50 percent of Ginobili's shot attempts in "clutch" time have come between zero and 10 seconds of the clock and the other 50 have come with 16-20 seconds left.

Enough numbers for now. Again, I'm not Hollinger. Don't hate me for it.


Marc Stein wrote Dec. 3 ( ) that the Spurs have expressed interest in trading for Raja Bell.

Has any contender not given the Golden State Warriors a phone call? Bell is a clingy wing defender with some offensive punch and loads of pro experience.

Of course the Spurs have inquired about him. That does not mean a trade is imminent or that Malik Hairston's assignment to Austin the same day of Stein's piece says anything about the prospect of a deal.

There are two roadblocks when it comes to Bell.

First, while his $5.3 million expiring contract might entice some contenders, it wouldn't be enough to make a significant difference in the Spurs' available cap space next summer.

Bonner, Finley, Mason, and Ginobili's deals end after this year. Of the four, only Ginobili is a probable return. Bonner's and Mason's fates will depend on their consistency in whatever role Popovich carves for them (whether as starters or reserves) for the remainder of the season.

Marcus Haislip and Keith Bogans signed one-year deals.

So, if the Warriors want more than just expiring contracts for Bell, as Stein said, what could the Spurs offer?

DeJuan Blair, George Hill, Roger Mason Jr., and Keith Bogans?

Bell might not play again until March, a second roadblock for sure, and no one knows how good he will be then.

There is no guarantee he would be better for the Spurs than Bogans has been thus far.

Given that a sane R.C. Buford would not trade Hill or Blair now, a deal for the veteran swingman seems unlikely.

Bells will continue to ring in San Antonio, but Raja probably won't be one of them.