The San Antonio Spurs Move To The Top Of The West

It was just last week that the Oklahoma City Thunder looked to have control of the NBA’s Western Conference. They were featured in TheSportsNotebook last Monday with the thought being that the #1 seed in the West was all but theirs. Talk about jumping the gun. Because the San Antonio Spurs just refuse to lose. They’ve now won 11 in a row and as of Monday morning it’s the Spurs who have nudged ahead of the Thunder in the West, are even with Miami and San Antonio has pulled even with Chicago in the loss column for the best record in the NBA overall (though the Spurs are three back in the win column). TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the Spurs—who they have, how they’ve got here, what they’re doing well right now and what lies ahead.

San Antonio is built around offensive execution and depth. Their efficiency with the ball (measured by points adjusted for tempo) is the best in the league and no less than eleven players draw significant minutes. No other contender even comes close. San Antonio rebounds the ball well, ranking seventh and the defense is above average, at 13th in the efficiency standings.

Personnel-wise, the lineup is still founded on Tim Duncan in the post, who averages 15 points/9 rebounds a game, and Tony Parker at the point, with his 19 points and 8 assists per game. Then the waves of veteran talent comes at you in role spots. Manu Ginobli is a lot more than a role player as long as he’s healthy, and the 34-year-old is lights-out from behind the three-point line. Kawhi Leonard is a very good perimeter shooter at small forward, while DeJuan Blair can occupy the post. Daniel Green comes off the bench or plays in Ginobli’s stead and is a 40 percent shooter from three-point range himself. Then let’s shift over to power forward, a spot the Spurs use for three-point shooting. Matt Bonner connects 44 percent of the time from behind the arc. One problem at this spot is that Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw, who also get 20-plus minutes per game, attempt their threes, but are none too successful. Backing up Duncan at center is Tiago Splitter, a solid rebounder who can chip in some shotblocking. And behind Parker at the point is Gary Neal, who kicks in 10 ppg.

The first thing we need to do is give a salute to head coach Gregg Popovich for putting all these pieces into the right places. There’s no clear star here—Duncan has the reputation, but he’s also 35 years old, Ginobli isn’t healthy enough and Parker isn’t quite at elite levels—and in a league that’s usually star-driven, Popovich has found the right formula for another big year. And starting on March 21 the year started to get even bigger. Let’s run down the games that comprise the 11-game win streak…

March 21: Minnesota (116-100): San Antonio owned the boards, 56-41, with Duncan delivering a 21/15 night. The defense on Kevin Love, who was “held” to 17/12 is just as noteworthy.

March 23: Dallas (104-87): Another big rebounding effort, 54-34, with twelve rebounds from Duncan. But while the future Hall of Famer is always the leader in rebounding, there’s consistent effort in this area up and down the lineup.

March 24: at New Orleans (89-86): The backcourt won this one and in non-sexy fashion. They won the turnover battle 16-7 and Parker dished 10 assists.

March 25: Philadelphia (93-76): Perimeter defense helped here, as Philadelphia only hit one trey. Parker got 21 points, and with Duncan taking the night off to rest his veteran legs for the playoffs, Leonard stepped up with ten rebounds.

March 27: at Phoenix (107-100): Rebounding delivers again, 48-38 and a rested Duncan goes off for 26/11, while Parker scores 24.

March 28: at Sacramento (117-112): Ginobili steps up with 20 points, while Duncan and Leonard combine for 37.

March 31: Indiana (112-103): San Antonio’s always going to win bench points, but 52-29 in a close game like they did tonight? That’s depth.

April 3: at Cleveland (125-90): When you shoot 59% and attack to the glass to the tune of a 46-27 edge you aren’t going to lose. Lesser-used point guard Patrick Mills got to be the lead scorer tonight with 20 points.

April 4: at Boston (87-86): Duncan delivered in the Garden, as his 16 rebounds keyed a 53-39 team advantage against one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams.

April 6: at New Orleans (128-103): Another hot shooting night, this time 61 percent. With a 27-point lead at halftime, the starters got even more rest than normal. Duncan was the only one in double figures, while four bench players scored 10-plus.

Aoril 8: Utah (114-104): The Spurs spent last night at the foul line, with a 38-16 edge in free throw points, 14 from Ginobli. Duncan owned the glass with 16 rebounds.

The biggest positive that jumps out at me from this is how many different players contribute. That may seem obvious in light of the emphasis placed on the Spurs’ depth, but when we reviewed this team back in February they were still playing a lot of people, but there was a tendency for the team to need Duncan and Parker to lead the way if they were going to win. We see in this 11-game run that the rest of the team is no longer just using up minutes, but showing themselves capable of winning games. The concern would be defense. Usually when you a go through this kind of sample of successful games, you come across situations where the winning team has big edges in shooting percentages from the floor and holds the opponent under 40 percent from the floor. That’s not the case with San Antonio and I have to question whether they can beat a great defensive team like Chicago or Miami in a seven-game series.

An NBA Finals scenario is still a long way off, and the regular season has to be closed strong. The schedule favors San Antonio, as there’s only two road games with playoff contenders. One of them is tonight at Utah, and the other is next Tuesday at the Lakers. Otherwise its home games or winnable road games. Last week, TheSportsNotebook relegated San Antonio to the #2 seed a bit too quickly. I won’t get carried away to the other extreme this time, but the race for the Finals is clearly more than the Oklahoma City/Chicago/Miami trifecta that’s getting all the attention.