1. Spuriffic: The best team in the NBA right now by both conventional win-loss, and SRS is the Spurs. The Spurs actually don’t have the best point-differential in the NBA (at +8.8 the Spurs are second to the Heat, who have +9.4). Going into the season, the conventional wisdom was that the Spurs were pretty good but a little long in the tooth. I viewed them as a potential contender if the Lakers faltered but no more likely to win the West than several other good teams. The 29-4 start, however, is pretty impressive. How are they doing it? Let’s take a quick look.
The Spurs are now an offensive juggernaut. This was highlighted by the Spurs running the Lakers off the court last week. The Spurs victory featured their ability to score more than anything and, for once, they looked like the more spry and athletic team. The Spurs have basically flipped their usual deliberate defense-first formula on its head. Check out the offensive, defensive, and pace ratings for the Spurs since Tim Duncan came to town:
|Year||W-L||SRS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Pace||Playoff|
As can be seen, the 2010-11 are a polar opposite of years past. Sure the Spurs have had good offensive teams occasionally but they were always plodding and slow. The new Spurs are not superfast but are way quicker than any previous Spur team.
This is a bit weird because the core is the same. TD, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, who are still their three best players, are not exactly young. Looking at the Big Three’s stats, the one main difference is Duncan, who is playing and shooting a lot less:
TD is still very effective but his minutes are really being saved. Parker and Ginobili are both healthier and scoring more (Manu, on the strength of more three-pointers, and Parker is just shooting much better). Is the aggregate improvement of Manu and Parker sufficient to offset and get gains after you factor in Duncan’s decline in shots and minutes? Let’s look at the 2009-10 Spurs team totals to see where the big differences are:
The Spurs and their opponents have nearly identical shooting performances last year as this but both are shooting much better from three and the Spurs have improved their free throw attempts and makes, while greatly reducing opponents free throws as well (though this is offset by opponents shooting well from three asl). In reviewing the three-point shooting of the Spurs, Manu and George Hill both are shooting at the same rate as last year but Parker is up from horrid (29%) to below average (32%) and Richard Jefferson is way up (.432%) and Matt Bonner has been unconscious (.495%). Throw in Gary Neal and the Spurs have a ton of good three-point shooters.
Can the Spurs keep this shooting up all year? RJ has never shot better than .397% and is a career .358% shooter, so it seems unlikely. Also, Jefferson’s volume of threes is its highest of his career (4.8 per 36 minutes when his previous high was 3.6). Bonner, while a very good three-point shooter, has never shot .495 for a season (though he has usually broken 40% and is a career .412% shooter). If Bonner kept this pace, his accuracy would be tenth best in NBA history for a season. So, some regression seem likely.
As for the Spurs as a whole, there are a number of factors that favor some decline: (1) the usual rodeo trip. From January 22nd to February 17th, the SPurs will have 12 road games out of the 13 total. The Spurs are 10-2 on the road but are a great 19-2 at home. (2) Injuries. Ginobili has a reputation for being brittle but with the exception of 2008-09, Ginobili usually averages close to 75 games a year. Parker and Duncan also have isolated injuries. But they aren’t young and going through the rest of the season with all three players going 80 games seems unlikely. (3) Three-point regression. See above for details.
But none of these factors are particularly acute and on the other side, their opponents probably won’t shoot 40% from three all season too. The Spurs are a good road team, the Big Three usually stay pretty healthy, and jump in three-point shooting by RJ and Bonner is not so ridiculous that they might totally fall off. The combined risks here are not huge. The Spurs should win a ton of games with a usual Spurs’ type win-pace going forward (i.e. a 50ish win-pace). This should give San Antonio the number one seed and a serious shot at the NBA Finals.
2. Love and Rebounding Percentage: One of the great stories of the season is the improvement of Kevin Love, who has grabbed 15.3 rpg, to lead the league. Love’s improvement is, in part, due to getting the minutes he had earned but not gotten the last two years (Love had only 28.6 mpg last year for some unknown reason). But minutes aren’t everything…Love is grabbing more rebounds per-minute than last year (13.8 per 36 minutes in 2009-10 and is at 15.3 at the per 36 this season). On top of that, Love has shot 44% from three and scored at a higher rate too. While Love rightfully has earned his status as newly emergent star (and hopefully All-Star) he isn’t actually the best rebounder in the NBA.
Love has grabbed 23.5% of available rebounds for the Wolves, a team that is first in the NBA in pace (and 29th in defense). Marcus Camby, however, has grabbed an amazing 24.1% of available rebounds for the Blazers (note that this data only goes back reliably to 1973-74 when the NBA started tracking possessions more thoroughly). As usual, the Blazers are the slowest team in the NBA and Camby plays only 29 mpg so his 11.2 rpg look merely good when it is, in fact, the best in the NBA since Dennis Rodman grabbed 25.6% in 1996-97 with the Bulls. Camby’s rate is also the best percentage by any player not named Dennis Rodman (Rodman has the top six seasons, led by a remarkable 29.7% in 1994-95). This is not to discount Love, whose 23.5% ranks 11th in NBA history at the moment (just ahead of Moeses Malone’s 1976-77 season) but Camby is doing something special too and is someone who could help a real contender right now and could be the key acquisition to all the possible contenders out there right now (imagine Camby on the Lakers or Heat?). Whether the Blazer bite on trading Portland is another issue but given his age and where the Portland is at the moment (fringe playoff team), they could probably get a lot for him as we approach the trade deadline.
Incidentally, the best non-Dennis Rodman rebounders, on a percentage basis, before Camby and Love of 2010-11 are factored in are as follows:
1. Jayson Williams, 1995-96: 23.78%
2. Danny Fortson, 1998-99: 23.70%
3. Moses Malone, 1976-77: 23.38%
4. Ben Wallace, 2002-03: 23.24%
5. Moses Malone, 1978-79: 23.21%
6. Swen Nater, 1979-80: 22.98%
7. Swen Nater, 1976-77: 22.83%
8. Tom Boerwinkle, 1970-71: 22.60%
9. Roy Tarpley, 1987-88: 22.59%
10. Kevin Willis, 1991-92: 22.57%
This list does remind us how impressive Love’s season has been. Camby and all these guys spend/spent their time in the paint crashing the boards and not doing too much else. How Love is able to track boards while also shooting plenty from outside is a truly hard to fathom.
Harlan Schreiber can be contacted at Info@Hoopsanalyst.com