In what feels like an annual tradition, the San Antonio Spurs are gliding under the surface.
Following a 37-point win over the Utah Jazz on Monday, the Spurs are now 21-5, second place in the Western Conference.
As Yahoo’s Dan Devine put it on Monday, imagine being the Golden State Warriors, at 24-1, fresh off the best start in NBA history, looking at the standings, and realising your incredible start has only given you 3.5-game lead for first place.
For all of the talk of how the Warriors have not only beaten their competition, but dominated them, the Spurs now own the NBA’s highest margin of victory. The Warriors have beaten opponents by a combined 327 points — the Spurs have beaten opponents by a combined 342.
Through 26 games, it seems the Spurs’ financial efforts to build a juggernaut are already paying off. The Spurs, of course, landed the biggest free agent of the summer in LaMarcus Aldridge, signing him to a four-year, $84 million contract, but the Spurs committed money across the board to build a contender for years to come.
Their biggest investment was in Kawhi Leonard, who hit restricted free agency, then was immediately given a five-year, $94 million max. They also re-signed Danny Green to a four-year, $40 million contract, Tim Duncan to a two-year, $10.8 million contract, and Manu Ginobili to a two-year, $5.8 million contract. The Spurs landed perhaps the biggest steal of the summer, nabbing David West on a two-year, veteran’s minimum contract worth about $3 million total, after West gave up $11 million to join them.
In total, this is a $237 million commitment to build perhaps the deepest, strongest team the Spurs have had. And despite the age of their usual Big 3 of Duncan, Ginobili, and Tony Parker, the Spurs now have youth in Leonard and Aldridge to carry the load, while Duncan and Ginobili, in particular, are reduced to more effective, lesser roles.
A huge part of the Spurs’ success has been Leonard’s emergence as a legitimate MVP candidate. San Antonio has the league’s best defensive rating, giving up a paltry 91.8 points per 100 possessions. Leonard heads this defensive beast — with Leonard on the floor, the Spurs’ defensive rating improves to 91.4.
Leonard also hounds opponents. According to NBA.com’s player tracking, Leonard has allowed just .7 points per possession while guarding isolations, .65 points per possession while guarding opposing ball-handlers, and .5 points per possession while guarding spot-up shooters — all impressive numbers considering Leonard is often tasked with guarding the opponent’s best player.
Yet Leonard hasn’t let his defensive responsibilities take away from his offensive production (or vice versa). He’s leading the Spurs in scoring with nearly 21 points per game while shooting an efficient 50.8% from the field and 49% from three on four attempts per game. That makes Leonard the NBA’s leader in three-point shooting, once considered his biggest weakness.
This is a different Spurs team from what we’ve come to expect. They’re third in offensive rating, but play at the fourth-slowest pace. Compare that to 2013-14, when they won the championship, and played at the league’s 12th-fastest pace. These Spurs also only launch 19 three-point attempts per game, fifth-fewest in the league, after taking nearly 23 per game last season.
Instead, Gregg Popovich has moulded an offence to his personnel, particularly to Aldridge. The Spurs are third in the NBA in midrange shot attempts, and Aldridge and Duncan are both in the top 20 in post touches per game, making the Spurs one of three teams in the league with two players in the top 20. They’re second in the league in shot attempts with 4-7 seconds left in the shot clock — “late” in the shot clock, as the NBA classifies it — meaning they’re running a slow, grinding style of offence.
What makes the Spurs even scarier: they’re still adjusting to Aldridge’s presence. Aldridge admitted he had concerns about joining the Spurs because he wasn’t sure their selfless, pass-happy, quick-moving style of basketball would suit him. So far, there’s been some give-and-take — Aldridge is averaging 15 points per game in 29 minutes per game, his lowest figures since his rookie year.
The Spurs, in turn, have adapted their offence to suit Aldridge’s game, and as R.J. Walsh of Number Fire notes, they have committed to getting Aldridge easier shots near the rim. But for a player who’s been one of the NBA’s best scorers in recent years, there’s still an adjustment period. The Spurs haven’t had an isolation-heavy scorer in a long time, and they’re still figuring out how to let Aldridge play his natural game while fitting him into what they do. As a result, we’ve already seen that mix in the Spurs, slow, grinding style on offence, while still landing fifth in the league in assist percentage.
This kind of depth and versatility that should frighten teams, namely the Warriors. Golden State began the season with a historic run of dominance and only find themselves slightly better than the Spurs. According to ESPN, the Spurs have had an easier schedule than the Warriors, but nonetheless, this is a team that’s dominating opponents and basking in considerably less attention than Golden State.
For a small-market team, the Spurs made a giant offseason investment to keep their unparalleled run of dominance going. Through nearly a third of the season, that investment appears to be paying off, and the Spurs, despite half the fanfare of the Warriors, are as dominant as we’ve ever seen them.
This is all business-as-usual to Popovich, who told reporters after Monday’s win, “We just do what we do. We’ve been the same boring team for 20 years, and whatever happens, happens, and we move on.”
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