Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The San Antonio Spurs and the Art of Subtle Stability

Image courtesy of Nathaniel E. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images.
The Spurs are 13-1, leading the Western Conference, riding an eye-popping, pace-setting 11 game winning streak, and yet, this is not news. Fourteen games into the regular season marathon, the silver and black hold a 93% winning ratio. Whilst some have sought to assess and scrutinise the legitimacy of the Trail Blazers' wildly hot stretch (and rightfully so), San Antonio continues it's excellence of execution in this, Tim Duncan's 17th season, stereotypically unnoticed and absent from public fandom and consciousness. Duncan, participant in a total of 1192 regular season bouts and 211 postseason showings, has featured in twelve of the team's 14 games thus far, and remains the centrepiece of the ever-reliable San Antonio locomotive. "The Big Fundamental" logged a cumbersome 2,813 minutes across standard and playoff contests last year, and is certain to have his court time intricately managed and carefully placed, yet again. It is almost as if basketball enthusiasts have become so blissfully accustomed to the recurring success of the franchise from the Southwest of Texas that it casually seeps through the everyday clutter of talking heads, and acquiesces to a status of lesser importance.

This season, it seems, has been no different. The insignia of the team's offensive output has, in a more recent context, proven to be remarkable spacing, copious amounts of shooters, and the usage of Tony Parker's penchant for slashing as the instigator for fluid, intelligent passing. It's early, to be sure, but the Spurs currently rank 4th in the league for assists per game, and 61.7% of the team's converted field goals directly result from teammate setups. Historically, San Antonio have found a way to implement solid, accomplished, bit-part, veteran contributors into their polished schemes, whether it be Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Glenn Robinson, Michael Finley, Fabricio Oberto, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, Matt Bonner, or any other member of the Spurs' assorted casts who honed in on a regular role. Perhaps the 2013-14 version of this concept will be Italian guard Marco Belinelli, formerly of the Chicago Bulls. Of course, these names arrived in San Antonio with differing resumes and achieved varying levels of success once competing in a Spurs uniform, nevertheless, there is enough of a track record to trust in the managerial ingenuity of this front office. These complimentary pieces have allowed Popovich's men to take advantage of the roster's balance and flexibility, and experiment with new structures on both sides of the ball. 

The Spurs stand at 7-0 on their home floor, with a hearty net-rating of +15.0, and a handy pace of 96.92 possessions per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com statistics. These healthy numbers are reflective of the regenerated offense that vaulted the team to a 61-win, #1 seed season in 2010-11, followed by a Conference Finals placing in the 2012 season, and earned them an NBA Finals berth this past June. This season, San Antonio have registered a number of double-digit victories, including a pummelling of a Cleveland outfit in utter disarray just three days ago, and a 31pt romp of New York at Madison Square Garden. The win over the Cavaliers, according to Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld.com, is the 37th time that the team has amassed that margin of victory (min. 30pts) in the Tim Duncan era. Kennedy noted that this is equivalent to eight more of those wins than any other NBA franchise in that window. It is comprehensive routs of this nature that create the luxury of resting key, ageing players for the Spurs, the significance of which simply cannot be overstated. 

Distinct from the offensive prowess of Duncan's squad, the tangible defensive presence of Tiago Splitter, forever lurking in the paint, is not to be dismissed. Analysis of San Antonio's two-man lineup figures highlight that Splitter, in almost any pairing (even with reserve guard Patty Mills), is able to heavily deteriorate the conversation rate of opposition scoring attempts. Measured on a per 100 possessions basis, Splitter (thus far), when paired with any of Mills, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, Kawhi Leonard, or Tony Parker, assists in restricting the opponent's field goal percentage below a meagre 41%. Splitter's role as a stalwart in the post is a primary factor behind the limiting of Tim Duncan's minutes to a career-low 27.3 per game. The sturdiness contributed by Splitter, in congruence with the creativity and unconventional play of bench bigs Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner, gift the Spurs the chance to rest their 37 year old future Hall-of-Famer extensively, and rely on guard-heavy units that look to compensate for the loss of Duncan's multifaceted offensive production. Behind all of this, clearly, is a conscientious strategy to pick spots on the floor, utilise the corner three as a predominant weapon, and maximise the value of good, well-balanced shot selection.
San Antonio's shot distribution chart through fourteen regular season games.
The above diagram illustrates the offensive decision-making of the Spurs to date, amplifying explicit points of emphasis. The shades of blue (ascending from below to above league average) portray how the team fares when compared to the remaining 29 squads, with the left baseline/block semi-circular region and three-fifths of the available three-point territories obviously favoured. Conversely, they appear to hold a deliberate aversion to the top-of-the-key region, hesitating to launch "long twos", widely acknowledged as some of the (statistically) least efficient spots to fire from. It is not difficult to fathom how this team has developed into an unequivocal offensive juggernaut, artfully whisking together heady play with above-average shooting capabilities. As a collective, San Antonio is nailing an average of eight threes per game, at a scary rate of 40.5%, in addition to owning quality percentages both at the line, and from the field. Tony Parker, perennially an undersized problem-maker in the paint for opposition teams, is leading the league in field goal percentage on drives (of players averaging at least 30mpg), netting an absurd 67.9% of his driving tries, per SportsVU player tracking data. Moreover, three of the Spurs' regular backcourt rotation (Parker, Danny Green, and Patty Mills) feature in the top ten in the NBA in average speed traveled (measured in miles per hour), ranging between 4.6 and 4.8mph, helping the team to counterbalance the low-post play of Duncan with a host of speedy, tempo-pushing guards. This is an offense unparalleled in its diversity and complexity, regularly punishing subpar opposing defenses and assaulting the basket from an assemblage of angles.

With this, and the spectacular defensive impact of the Splitter-Duncan combination (Splitter stifles the interior, limiting opposition FG% at the rim to 32.8% - good for league-leading status of those playing 20+ minutes and regularly contesting shots), San Antonio is set. In an odd way, having considered all of the above, it is unsurprising that the win-loss ratio is 13-1 to this point - indirectly feeding into the absence of popular attention. The ideal, perfectly scripted scenario would be a top two seed in the West, with a healthy core entering the postseason. Evidently, it is health - and not consistency of performance - that will persist as the overwhelming concern. To the basketball junkie, it is tough not to appreciate the unique beauty and unmatched dependability of the San Antonio Spurs.

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