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Monday, March 21, 2011

Why are the Spurs so Good--and so Underrated?

Now that the "Melo-drama" is over (and Carmelo Anthony has hardly turned the New York Knicks into a superpower, though his departure seems to have revitalized the Denver Nuggets), it would be refreshing if basketball media members turned their attention to the most underreported story of the season: the unexpected dominance of the San Antonio Spurs.

It is obvious--though ultimately not justifiable--why the Spurs have been largely ignored this season. The Spurs do not have any players who are currently among the top 10 in the league (i.e., All-NBA First or Second Team caliber) and the Spurs are not flashy or self promoting.

The Spurs are generally dismissed as boring but--whether or not you accept that criticism or even consider it a valid reason to ignore a highly successful team--there are several reasons that they deserve more attention than they are getting:

1) The Spurs are the second most successful franchise of the post-Michael Jordan era, winning four championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007); only the L.A. Lakers have captured more NBA titles during this period (2000-2002, 2009-2010). The only other teams to win at least four NBA titles in nine seasons or less are the George Mikan Lakers, the Bill Russell Celtics, the Showtime Lakers and the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls.

2) Although many people wrongly assumed prior to this season that the Spurs would no longer contend for championships, the Spurs were on pace for 70 wins more than halfway through the season and are still on pace for 67 wins.

3) The Spurs have made significant changes to their previously successful playing style yet are seemingly better than ever (though that remains to be proven in the playoffs).

If the New York Yankees won four titles in less than a decade, seemed to be declining and then reemerged with the best record in baseball while playing a completely different style this would be headline news across all sports media platforms. Yet it seems like the only time we hear about the Spurs is when TNT's Charles Barkley repeatedly insists that the Dallas Mavericks are the best team in Texas. Something is very wrong with this picture and the only way to correct it is to look at what exactly the Spurs have been doing while seemingly no one was paying attention and how this compares to what great teams from previous seasons have done.

Why are the Spurs so Good?

The Spurs won their first two championships using Tim Duncan and David Robinson as "Twin Towers" who made it virtually impossible for opposing teams to score in the paint. As Hank Egan--an assistant coach on the 1999 championship team--explained to me in an exclusive interview, the Spurs used a more sophisticated version of the "sideline" defensive scheme that dates back to Ben Carnevale's 1950's Navy teams and was also adapted by Dean Smith and various "branches" of Smith's coaching tree (including Larry Brown, who led the Detroit Pistons to the 2004 championship). The Spurs funneled ballhandlers to the baseline and then forced the ballhandler to shoot/pass over at least one of the "Twin Towers." Egan told me that the key defensive statistic that San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich looked at is defensive field goal percentage; Egan added that the Spurs rarely forced turnovers because instead of pressuring in the backcourt they retreated quickly in order to set up their stifling half court defense. The Spurs ranked in the top five in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage every season from 1999-2008, leading the league in 1999 and 2004.

Robinson retired after the 2003 championship season and the Spurs replaced him with a succession of journeyman seven footers who did not possess Robinson's all-around skills but managed to be adequate at filling the role of a large presence in the paint supporting Duncan, who was a deceptively agile and mobile shotblocker during his prime. The Spurs won two more titles with Duncan as the anchor. However, in 2009 and 2010 some cracks began to show in the Spurs' defense, as their ranking in defensive field goal percentage dropped to ninth and 12th respectively. Duncan began to lose some of his mobility, much like Robinson had a decade earlier--but while Robinson gracefully eased into a supporting role behind a young Duncan the Spurs do not have a young, multifaceted seven footer to ease Duncan's burden. The Spurs were still a very good regular season team but without their stifling defense it seemed like their days as a championship contender were numbered.

Then Coach Popovich made a very interesting decision prior to the 2010-11 season; since the Spurs could no longer thrive solely as a defensive-minded team due to Duncan's decline and the lack of a credible seven footer playing alongside of him, Popovich elected to play at a faster pace offensively but without sacrificing efficiency; the Spurs increased their own scoring to compensate for the fact that they could no longer rely on completely clamping down defensively. The 2007 NBA Champion Spurs ranked 14th (out of 30 teams) in the NBA in points per game (98.5), the 2008 Spurs ranked 27th (95.4 ppg), the 2009 Spurs ranked 23rd (97.0 ppg) and the 2010 Spurs ranked 15th (101.4 ppg)--but the 2011 Spurs currently rank sixth (103.4 ppg). The Spurs have not improved their defensive field goal percentage since last season--they again rank 12th in that category--but the combination of greatly improving their offense while preventing any further defensive slippage has proven to be very successful.

Duncan used to be the focal point of the Spurs' offense but now they feature a multi-pronged, equal opportunity offense; Manu Ginobili (17.8 ppg) and Tony Parker (17.5 ppg) are the two leading scorers but they play very differently: Parker is a slasher who finishes remarkably well in the paint for such a small guard, while Ginobili also can slash to the hoop but he fires off more than 40% of his shot attempts from behind the three point arc. Duncan is third on the team in scoring with a career-low 13.4 ppg but a significant reason that his scoring average has declined is that he is playing a career-low 28.7 mpg, a number that figures to increase in the postseason when teams no longer play games on consecutive days. Two other Spurs are averaging at least 11 ppg.

The Spurs are no longer the NBA's best defensive team, nor have they become the league's best offensive team, but their increased offensive productivity paired with a still solid defense has proved to be a formidable combination.

The (Invisible) Chase for 70 Wins

Many commentators--most famously Jeff Van Gundy--declared that the newly formed Miami Heat would win at least 70 games this season. The Heat stumbled out of the gates and quickly torpedoed any thoughts about 70 wins but with the media seemingly so interested in that magic number it is odd that no one made much mention of the fact that the Spurs started out 13-1 and were on pace for 70 wins until a February 1 loss dropped them to 40-8. Few NBA teams have kept up a 70 win pace for that long.

One of my all-time favorite Sports Illustrated cover stories is The Sixers are Going for Seventy. The article included a chart listing the best 53 game starts in NBA history, including the 1967 76ers (47-6 en route to a then-record mark of 68-13) and the 1972 Lakers (46-7 en route to a 69-13 mark that stood as the standard until the 1996 Bulls went 72-10). Though their success has not attracted much attention, the Spurs got off to a very similar 53 game start (44-9). The Moses Malone-Julius Erving 76ers (the primary subject of that SI cover story) started out 46-7 in 1982-83 but went 15-10 down the stretch as Malone and Erving missed games due to various injuries; the Sixers had lost in the Finals three times in the previous six seasons and were understandably disinclined to pursue 70 regular season victories at the expense of being fully healthy for the playoffs: many people have probably forgotten just how concerned some Sixers' insiders were at that time about Malone's aching knees--three days before the playoffs began the Philadelphia Daily News ran a story headlined "Will Moses be Able to Play?"--but after sitting out the final four regular season games Malone teamed with Erving to lead the Sixers on one of the most dominant runs in NBA postseason history, a 12-1 mark that was not surpassed until the 2000 Lakers went 15-1 (the NBA added an extra round to the playoffs in 1984).

The juxtaposition between the massive coverage devoted to the Heat--who were never "going for seventy," to borrow SI's phrase--and the paltry coverage devoted to the Spurs is striking. I cannot recall a team that so seriously threatened the 70 win mark flying more under the radar than these Spurs. The 1996 Bulls attracted enormous media coverage as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the newly acquired Dennis Rodman authored the greatest regular season in league history; the Bulls won 10 of their first 12 and then sandwiched winning streaks of 13 and 18 games around one loss to produce an astounding 41-3 record after 44 games, bettering the 40-4 mark posted by the 1967 Sixers and the 1972 Lakers. Then the Bulls lost two games in a row in the midst of a six game road trip--their only back to back losses of the regular season. The Bulls were 48-5 at the 53 game mark and their 72-10 final record will be very difficult to break; there is a huge difference between 65, 66 or 67 wins and 72 wins, because those "extra" five to seven victories are road wins after playing four games in five nights or wins when nothing seems to be going right but one guy (i.e., Michael Jordan) finds a way to will the team to victory. What many people seem to have forgotten is that the Bulls went 69-13--tying the previous record--the next season even though key players Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley each missed at least 25 games due to injury. Even if some team wins 72 games it is extremely unlikely that they will win 69 games the next season.

It is unimaginable that the 1996 Bulls would have been ignored the way that the Spurs have been ignored; the Bulls won three titles earlier in the 1990s but had morphed from an athletic team to a slower, veteran team--much like the current Spurs won several titles a few years ago before undergoing their own stylistic changes. You might argue that the Bulls were unique because Michael Jordan was already a global icon and Dennis Rodman was a notorious attention seeker but even the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks received much more coverage than this season's Spurs; in 2006-07, NBA.com featured a Chase for 70 page that compared the Mavs' game by game record with the game by game record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. I have yet to see any "Chase for 70" style coverage of the Spurs, nor any in depth stories comparing them to great teams of the past.

Are the Spurs the Top Contender to Win the 2011 Championship?

The Spurs are on pace to post one of the best regular season records in NBA history (67-15)--and most teams that have been that dominant for an entire season at least advanced to the NBA Finals, with the most notable exception being the 1972-73 Boston Celtics, who went 68-14 but lost in the Eastern Conference Finals after John Havlicek--a member of the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team that year--suffered a serious shoulder injury. It is one thing to be skeptical of a team that annually wins a lot of regular season games before falling short in the playoffs but the Spurs are a franchise with a championship pedigree, so it is strange that so many people are reflexively dismissing them as a legitimate title contender.

The Spurs have slipped ever so slightly since their great start, going 12-4 in the past 16 games, including blowout losses to the two-time defending champion Lakers and the Heat--but those setbacks do not change the fact that the Spurs have lapped the field so far, amassing six more wins than their nearest competitor. Even the 1995-96 Bulls had one clunker--a 104-72 loss to the New York Knicks on March 10--but the Bulls won the six games before that defeat and then had a six game winning streak afterward; the 1967 76ers lost three games in a row at one point, culminating in a 137-120 defeat at the hands of the San Francisco Warriors. Imagine the headlines such a losing streak would gather today: "Defenseless, Unfocused 76ers Hardly Look Championship Worthy." The Spurs won five of their six games before getting crushed by the Lakers and they won five of their next six games, so there is hardly much reason to assume that the wheels are falling off.

Duncan had 22 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots as the Spurs defeated Dallas 97-91 on Friday to essentially clinch the top seed in the West. Duncan then sat out San Antonio's 109-98 win over Charlotte, the second game of a back to back set for the Spurs; the injury report said that Duncan's condition is "trop vieux," which is French for "too old" and Coach Popovich's way of tweaking the media's apparent belief that the Spurs are more ready to be put out to pasture than to be sized up for championship rings.

I don't see the Spurs having much trouble in the first round with whichever team settles into the eighth seed. A potential second round matchup with the young Oklahoma City Thunder could be interesting--particularly now that the Thunder have added some size in the form of Kendrick Perkins and ex-Spur Nazr Mohammed--but with homecourt advantage plus three veteran playoff performers the Spurs should best the Thunder, a promising team that has yet to win a playoff series under Kevin Durant's leadership.

If form holds, the Spurs would face the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Most commentators say that the Lakers' big edge--literally and figuratively--is the Lakers' size but I don't think that the Spurs would be that afraid of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum if they didn't have to worry about Kobe Bryant; Bryant is the one Laker the Spurs simply cannot match up with, which means that Gasol and/or Bynum get to play one on one (or sometimes one on none) in the post. If Bryant is reasonably healthy then I expect the Lakers to beat the Spurs but that series promises to be a classic that will likely extend to at least six games. If Bryant is unable to average at least 25 ppg while shooting around .450 from the field then I would expect the Spurs to defeat the Lakers and most likely go on to win the championship; the Lakers are the favorites due to Bryant's ability to elevate his game in the postseason but the Spurs are far more dangerous than most people seem to think: now that the Celtics have dealt Perkins, the Spurs may be the number one threat that the Lakers will face in the 2011 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:01 AM

36 comments

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36 Comments:

At Monday, March 21, 2011 1:21:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I'm very surprised that the Spurs have played so well this year. They looked like a tired, old team in the past two seasons and it was no surprise that they suffered early exits both years.

I attributed the decline to age and the loss of Bruce Bowen, whose disruptive presence on the perimeter was one of the lynchpins to the Spurs defense. He was one of the biggest reasons their defense did not drop off after Robinson's retirement. His decline coincided almost perfectly with the demise of the Spurs, both on the defensive end and as a team.

I think they are underrated because they are thought to be regular-season darlings who are likely to fold at some point during the playoffs. The Lakers are rightly thought of as the favorites, as the two-time defending champions who are currently in good form. As for the Heat, they have the biggest star in the league in Lebron - let's be realistic; the attention paid to the Heat has been all about Lebron, and not Wade or Bosh or the basketball team itself.

While the Spurs have been underappreciated, they believe that winning is the greatest reward and media attention is secondary. This approach has led to greater success compared to their flashy counterparts and I don't see that changing any time soon.

So I wouldn't worry about the Spurs or guys like Billups, Pierce, or Kobe. Everyone will eventually get their due - and even if they don't, it won't change what they have been able to accomplish.

 
At Monday, March 21, 2011 3:55:00 PM, Blogger Lijo John said...

Hey David,
In a matchup between the Lakers and the Spurs, you stated that Kobe Bryant is the one player that the Spurs simply cannot deal with. You also mentioned that due to the match up problem that Kobe poses, Pau gets to play one on one.
While Kobe was unstoppable in the past, does this still hold true? Does Kobe not benefit from Pau's skills as match as Pau benefits from Kobe at this point in Kobe's career? Also, the Spurs do have a couple of players in Ginobili and Richard Jefferson who may be able to guard Kobe.

In the past, Kobe would torch whoever was on him. If his defender was undersized, it was hell for the other team. But I think it's getting to the point where its not automatic anymore. He's not done yet by any means, but he's not unstoppable either.

 
At Monday, March 21, 2011 4:23:00 PM, Anonymous Charliegone said...

David, you are right on about the Spurs. As a Laker fan I know that they are the team that will pose the much bigger threat to the Lakers. They have the experience, teamwork and leadership to win another title this year and if any team is going to beat they have to play at their best. You know the scariest part about this is, Duncan's minutes have been limited all season long and if I recall correctly the other Spur starters have also had their minutes cut! If the scenario in WCF turns out to be Lakers vs Spurs, it's going to be one heck of a series.

 
At Monday, March 21, 2011 6:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DanielSong39:

You are right that the Spurs' defensive decline coincided to some degree with Bowen becoming less of a factor at that end of the court.

I don't know why anyone would assume that the Spurs are "regular season darlings"; Duncan has led the Spurs to four titles with Parker and Ginobili each playing on three of those teams. It would be more accurate to say that the Mavericks or the D'Antoni Suns are "regular season darlings."

 
At Monday, March 21, 2011 6:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Lijo John:

If Kobe is reasonably healthy, the Spurs have no one who can guard him. We saw that in the 2008 Western Conference Finals and not much has changed since then; Kobe is a bit older but his skill set has not declined that drastically nor have the Spurs suddenly acquired a lock down perimeter defender.

Kobe benefits from Pau's presence in the sense that now Kobe has a credible second option, which was not the case previously--but Kobe has proven that he can play at an MVP caliber level without Gasol, while Gasol was a one-time All-Star prior to teaming up with Kobe.

The key issue with Kobe now and for the rest of his career is his health; he has long term problems (some mangled fingers and a deteriorating right knee) that he can apparently manage effectively for the time being but he also has some short term problems (a severely sprained ankle and a bruised neck). As players get older they are more apt to get hurt and it takes them longer to recover, so Kobe's health is the number one internal concern for the Lakers.

 
At Monday, March 21, 2011 6:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Charliegone:

If all of the key players from both sides are reasonably healthy then Lakers-Spurs could turn out to be a classic playoff series. Prior to the season, I thought that the Celtics and the Spurs were the two biggest threats to the Lakers but in light of this season's developments I would now flip the order; the Spurs will have homecourt advantage and are at full strength, while the Celtics are sans Perkins, could possibly be missing other key players and may not have homecourt advantage versus the Lakers.

 
At Monday, March 21, 2011 9:03:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I agree that the Spurs have not gotten as much attention as they deserve. This has always happened to them. From 2005-2007, the media liked to rave about Steve Nash and the Suns even though it should have been clear to any knowledgable basketball fan that the Suns would have great difficulty beating the Spurs. It's hard for me to remember any other team that has won a championship only the be an afterthought during the next season when it came time to discuss title contenders.

The Spurs of this season are similar in some ways to the 1972 Lakers. Both teams seemed old and washed-up before suddenly reinventing themselves by playing at a faster pace and having their pantheon-caliber big man take a lesser offensive role and focus on defense. Having said that, these Spurs are not as dominant as those Lakers were.

I actually think that Popovich tried to reinvent the Spurs (in the way you noted, by improving their offense while at least maintaining their defensive level) during the 2009-10 season. They fell short due to health issues and the difficulty integrating several new players into their system. But this year they are healthy and guys like Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair have adapted to Popovich's system.

As I've said before, I still don't think the Spurs will have a good chance to beat the Lakers in the playoffs. I agree that Kobe is a huge factor (none of the Spurs' stars can currently consistently take over games the way Kobe still can). The Lakers' size is also an issue. Can Duncan and McDyess play as many minutes as Gasol and Bynum? Those are the only two players in the Spurs' rotation who can credibly cover Gasol and Bynum.

My skepticism of the Spurs is based on the assumption that San Antonio's stars won't suddenly start playing like the 2007 versions of themselves in the playoffs. Ginobili is healthy, but he is shooting a poor percentage from the field this year and he is too inconsistent. I don't think he can have off-games as frequently in the playoffs as he has had in the regular seasons if the Spurs want to win a title. I do expect Duncan to step up his play a bit, but I don't think it will be enough. The extra rest will help him, but he still won't be able to perform like he did 3-4 years ago.

Let's look at what happened the last two seasons. Popovich greatly limited Duncan's minutes (though not quite as much as he has this year), and Duncan did step up his game in the playoffs. But he was still a badly faded version of his old self. In 2009, Duncan performed well offensively, but this left him little energy to play defense and rebound. In 2010 Duncan put together a string of impressive games against Dallas but then seemed to run out of gas. Moreover, his improved playoff numbers didn't reveal that Duncan was not commanding double teams like he used. There's a big difference between the current Duncan putting up 22 points against single coverage and the Duncan of 3-4 years ago putting up 22 points while constantly drawing double coverage and thereby providing open looks to teammates. I think this year, we'll see something similar. Duncan will play better in the playoffs, but he'll either run out of gas after a few impressive games, or he'll play well on one half of the court at the expense of the other. And he's not going to be drawing double teams (especially not against the Lakers).

I do think the Spurs can beat any other team in a 7 game series, but unless their stars play more consistently in the playoffs (to match the consistency Kobe gives the Lakers) and Popovich finds a way to minimize the Lakers' size advantage, it will be very difficult for them to get past the Lakers.

 
At Monday, March 21, 2011 11:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I agree with most of what you wrote. You are right that Popovich tried to increase the Spurs' tempo last season but that injuries and Jefferson's relative ineffectiveness somewhat stymied that plan.

A big difference between the current Spurs and the 1972 Lakers is that the Lakers had no collective championship-winning experience (Wilt had won one ring but as a 76er, not a Laker).

Although I would pick the Lakers to beat the Spurs in a seven game series at this point, I don't think that the Lakers will win the series easily; regardless of who should be favored or what ultimately happens, it is ridiculous that the media treats the Spurs as an afterthought while lavishing attention on teams like the Heat and Knicks. The three teams most likely to win the 2011 championship are the Lakers, the Spurs and the Celtics. The Bulls are a wild card and I may be guilty of underestimating them; the Heat have a lot of talent but I don't trust them to execute under pressure in a playoff series versus Boston, L.A. or San Antonio.

 
At Tuesday, March 22, 2011 3:15:00 PM, Blogger ChowNoir said...

David,

What do you think of the news that Phil Jackson had turned over defensive strategy to Chuck Person earlier in the year. Person used his San Antonio experience and implemented the same type of baseline funneling D utilizing Bynum, Pau and Lamar in much the same way San Antonio did with Duncan and Robinson.

When LA and Bynum specifically really started getting comfortable and buying into that scheme was the start of a pretty dominating stretch of defense. Especially in that recent four game road trip against top teams. They managed to hold every opponent to at least one sub 40 point half. I believe they've managed to accomplish that feat in almost every game since the All Star break.

I'm interested if you have any further insights into Person's coaching abilities and how the scheme translates from San Antonio to LA with the different personnel.

Person seems to have acquired quite a good coaching reputation the last few years. It's impressive how he went from a special assistant only a couple of years ago to being an assistant coach tasked by Phil to handle the defense. For a guy known mainly as a shooter during his career and it's impressive how he picked up on the San Antonio D scheme as a player and has been able to implement it as a coach. Not only that, but to do it to a veteran championship team that had been used to playing a different style.

 
At Wednesday, March 23, 2011 6:58:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chownoir:

Part of Jackson's brilliance as a coach is that he has always been self assured enough to delegate significant responsibilities to various assistant coaches; Jackson has long employed Tex Winter's Triangle Offense (and Winter was an integral member of Jackson's coaching staff until age/infirmities forced Winter to retire) and during the Chicago years Johnny Bach essentially served as the team's "defensive coordinator." It is not at all surprising that Jackson is open to input from Person regarding the team's defense. That said, I am not convinced that the Lakers have really made such a radical strategic change; the main things that they have improved since the All-Star break are that they are playing harder collectively and they have defended better on screen/roll plays (except for Tuesday night versus Phoenix).

 
At Wednesday, March 23, 2011 10:03:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Four points I would make. The Spurs have the best record in the league but have only the fourth best SRS. And they have been better on offense than on defense, ranking third and seventh respectively in the NBA this year.

Second, Richard Jefferson has had an unbelievable year posting a ts% over 60%, largely by taking and making more threes than ever before. Taking a lot of threes is a strategy that the Spurs continue to exploit. However, even for them, it's been a freakishly good year from behind the line.

Third, the Spurs have refined the art of finding effective replacement level players to a science.

Finally, Manu Ginobili has been the best shooting guard in the Western Conference this year. Kobe will get that credit but this might be the year Manu comes the closest to getting the recognition he deserves.

Owen

 
At Wednesday, March 23, 2011 9:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember when the Spurs clobbered the Heat by 30? The news was all about the Heat collapsing. When the Heat returned the favor, the story was again all about the Heat.

I agree.. how could anyone call the Spurs regular season darlings? No other team would sit all 4 starters just to "rest" them. (TD, TP, MG, Finley vs Nuggets)

Tiago Splitter should be getting some burn with TD down.
What do you think of his game?

Even with Bowen, Kobe was always able to get his points. The Spurs just need to shut down everyone else.
I would single cover Kobe with different guys and stay home on the other players. What would your tactic be?

 
At Thursday, March 24, 2011 3:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

1) The Spurs have the best record in the NBA by a significant margin. They have been the best, most consistent team over the course of the regular season. Does that mean that they will automatically win the championship or even that they should be considered the favorite? No, they obviously are not guaranteed a title and they should not necessarily be considered the favorite (matchups matter more than records during the playoffs sometimes)--but the Spurs' success this season combined with the track records established by Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili over the past several years mean that the Spurs should be on the short list of legitimate contenders; it seems like the national media generally treats the Spurs as afterthoughts in the championship race compared to the Lakers, Celtics and Heat (plus some other teams that should not even be mentioned at all).

2) I agree that the Spurs in general and Jefferson in particular have been very efficient from behind the three point arc.

3) I am not exactly sure what you mean by this; I would say that the Spurs are effective at finding good players who other teams overlook due to age, unconventional body types (relative to positions played) and other factors. I don't think that the Spurs' roster is loaded with "replacement level players" if by that you mean players who are merely average. For instance, McDyess is a former All-Star who is still a very effective rebounder and medium range shooter, while Blair is a very effective rebounder.

4) You have always had a great facility for unintentional comedy (assuming you did not make this last remark merely to be provocative). Kobe Bryant is clearly superior to Manu Ginobili in every relevant skill set area except for three point shooting (large career edge to Ginobili, smaller edge this season) and free throw shooting (small edge to Ginobili this season, essentially even on a career basis). There is not a coach in the NBA who would have taken Ginobili over Bryant at any stage of their careers. A major difference between Bryant and Ginobili that is not clear to someone like you who relies exclusively on "advanced stats" is that Bryant consistently draws double teams that break down opposing defenses and create opportunities for his teammates; Ginobili can certainly do this at times, particularly in screen/roll situations, but Ginobili is not unguardable one on one the same way that Bryant is.

 
At Thursday, March 24, 2011 3:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Those two blowouts are both so anomalous that it is difficult to really know what, if anything, to make of them--and since it is doubtful that the Heat will even make it to the Finals it really does not matter who we judge to be superior between the Heat and the Spurs: they likely will not face each other again until next season (or whenever the looming lockout ends).

Splitter is talented but raw. I thought that he might get more playing time this season but the Spurs have been so successful with their veteran-laden frontcourt that he has not gotten many minutes. Duncan's recent injury could turn out to be a blessing in disguise (assuming that he makes a full recovery by playoff time) because Splitter will now presumably get extended minutes for the next several games.

I don't think that a steady diet of any one defense really works against an elite level scorer, particularly one who is also a gifted (and willing) passer. Popovich likes to rotate different primary defenders onto Kobe both to keep his own guys fresh and also to try to prevent Kobe from getting into a rhythm against one particular guy.

The risk with your preferred method of single covering Kobe is that Kobe is willing and able to take 25-30 or more shots--and if he is single covered then he is going to hit a high percentage of those shots; you can't just let Kobe catch the ball in the midpost, take a few dribbles against one defender and then attempt the shot that he wants in good rhythm.

 
At Thursday, March 24, 2011 11:53:00 AM, Blogger ChowNoir said...

Dave,

I don't disagree Lakers have increased their focus and execution on defending pick and rolls.

But you don't think the switch from funneling baseline instead of middle is a big change? From what I read, many of the players said it was a big adjustment for them. They had to change habits from the last couple of years. It affected how they played the pick and roll and picking up players on the perimeter.

Also Phil pointed out that by implementing that change, it gave the players something new to focus on and combined with the renewed urgency of the second half of the season, the players executed other aspects of the defense better. Such as the pick and roll. Having to learn something new re-engaged them at a higher level. As a result just elevated their overall play. Not saying it's the only thing but it seemed like it was a big factor.

 
At Thursday, March 24, 2011 1:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ChowNoir:

It is a change but most good teams have several different coverages in their repertoire and they vary what they use depending on the situation. So, the Lakers may have switched what their primary coverage is but--based on watching them play--I am not yet convinced that they have made a radical overall philosophical change. The two biggest differences I see are that they are playing harder collectively and that Bynum seems to have more stamina and more mobility than he had earlier in the season.

 
At Friday, March 25, 2011 1:16:00 AM, Anonymous khandor said...

David:

When the Spurs beat the Lakers in the following game:

http://www.nba.com/games/20110203/SASLAL/gameinfo.html#nbaGIboxscore

Which San Antonio player do you believe was most responsible for the fact that Kobe Bryant shot just 5-18 from the floor [while, also, collecting 10 Asts and 7 Rebs]?

A. Jefferson;
B. Ginobili;
C. A combination of A and B; or, D. Someone/thing else.

 
At Friday, March 25, 2011 1:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Khandor:

I assume that this question is an oblique response to my statement that the Spurs do not have a player who can consistently guard Kobe Bryant one on one; I did not base that assessment on one particular game, because one game is a small sample size: one could just as easily ask which players are responsible for the Cavs winning regular season games against the Lakers and Celtics this year--and the answer would be that those were anomalous results considering the relative overall strengths of those teams this season.

 
At Friday, March 25, 2011 5:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

yea kobe will dominate spurs struggles agaist boston or miami with good perimeter defender and play physical with his team. butthe spurs will get to conference finals and lose if lakers are healthy. if they get by will lose in finals to boston or miami. they are the fourth best team in nba they are not a great team. they simply beat all the bad teams this year. the lakers and bostyon was more lazadazical vs. bad teams thats all it is at the end of day tim duncan isnt wat he used to be. and without dominant duncan they cant beat lakers.

 
At Saturday, March 26, 2011 1:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

I'm not convinced that the Lakers will lose in the Finals but that is a discussion for another day.

We agree about Lakers versus Spurs but I would add that even though Duncan is not as good as he used to be he still is very important, as we have seen with the Spurs losing two in a row since a sprained ankle took him out of the lineup.

 
At Saturday, March 26, 2011 1:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

i meant spurs. not lakers i believe lakers will beat miami or boston in finals. i said spurs are fourth best team david.

 
At Saturday, March 26, 2011 9:45:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

I guess I misunderstood what you meant. Sorry about that.

 
At Sunday, March 27, 2011 3:20:00 AM, Anonymous Gil Meriken said...

Khandor, the question "Which San Antonio player do you believe was most responsible for the fact that Kobe Bryant shot just 5-18 from the floor [while, also, collecting 10 Asts and 7 Rebs]?" is misleading, as the player (San Antonio or otherwise) most responsible for Kobe shooting 5-18 was Kobe himself. It's rare to find any one opposing player who can consistently affect Kobe's offensive production.

 
At Tuesday, March 29, 2011 11:40:00 AM, Anonymous st said...

so much for the spurs coasting to the end of the season. they are going through their worst stretch of the season, when typically, most title contenders play their best basketball. i know pop is trying to keep his best players healthy for the playoffs, but if he sacrifices the top seed in doing so, then i think it will backfire in the playoffs.

 
At Tuesday, March 29, 2011 12:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ST:

The Spurs are not "coasting"--Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are all out of the lineup due to injuries. This is not a case of Popovich simply "resting" players.

You may recall that both the Lakers and the Celtics did not play well down the stretch last season but both teams recovered sufficiently to make it to the NBA Finals. What matters is not so much what a team's record is down the stretch but rather what kind of condition--mental and physical--a team is in during the playoffs. If the Spurs' players are healthy in time for the playoffs then the Spurs will still be a very formidable opponent.

 
At Saturday, April 02, 2011 2:33:00 PM, Anonymous st said...

six game losing streak. they will lose their number one seed, and will definitely have no chance of defeating the lakers

 
At Sunday, April 03, 2011 12:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ST:

The Spurs may very well lose the number one seed but I stand by what I said in the article and in my previous comment: if the Spurs are healthy then they will be a formidable playoff opponent. Obviously, if they are missing at least one of their three key players then they will not be nearly as effective. Before I wrote this article there was no way to predict that injuries would soon force Duncan, Ginobili and Parker out of the lineup at the same time. The Spurs had been remarkably healthy for most of the season; they have had the same starting lineup for 60 games, posting a 49-11 record with that group.

 
At Tuesday, April 12, 2011 1:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

3) You are right that all those guys are above replacement level. Really what I should have said is replacement level contracts or something like that. The production that the Spurs get from the guys paid less than 5 million on their team is amazing.

4) You say Kobe is unguardable and he creates offensive opportunities for his teammates by drawing double teams. And as always, I ask why his TS% is a truly pedestrian 54.5% and why the Lakers were only the 7th best offense this year. The Spurs were better.

Seriously, what is Kobe doing out there that is so great on offense that Kevin Martin isn't doing to justify they 5% difference in ts%? I don't get it. Certainly, it isn't helping Gasol, who has posted basically the same (great)offensive numbers as a Laker as he did as a Grizzly. I guess your position is it doesn't matter what ts% Kobe has. He is Kobe. And math is stupid.

These arguments will go on and on. At this point, it's clear that you don't care that Kobe converts possessions into points far less efficiently than other star players.. It's frustrating but it is what is.

When you compare the TS% of the actual best offensive players in the NBA to Kobe it's almost a joke what a wide disparity there is.

Durant 59%
Wade 58%
Paul 58%
K-Mart 60%
Dirk 61.2%
Howard 61.7%
Lebron 59.4%
Pierce 62%
Nene 65.6%
Gasol 59%
Kobe 54.5%

Owen

 
At Tuesday, April 12, 2011 3:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

The Spurs have three All-Star level players who each make at least $11 million/year but you are correct that they have surrounded Duncan, Parker and Ginobili with good players who have relatively inexpensive contracts.

I am surprised that it took you three weeks to come up with the rest of your comment, because you could have just cut and pasted the nonsense that you have previously written; you have not added anything new to the discussion.

We know that you think that true shooting percentage is the best, if not only, way to evaluate a player's offensive skills and we know that you have no understanding of the concept of drawing double teams and no comprehension of the value of having a complete skill set (post up, driving ability, midrange game, three point shooting).

The top three players in TS% this season are Tyson Chandler, Nene and Arron Afflalo; do you believe that they are the three best offensive players in the NBA? Those guys are complementary offensive players who get open dunks (Chandler, Nene) or open jumpers (Afflalo) based on their limited roles within their respective teams' offenses. Jodie Meeks and Landry Fields have higher TS% than LeBron James, while Stephen Curry's TS% is the same as James'. Do you believe that those players are better offensive players and/or more difficult to guard than James is?

Here is the all-time ABA/NBA TS% leaderboard:

1) Cedric Maxwell
2) Artis Gilmore
3) James Donaldson
4) Adrian Dantley
5) Jeff Ruland
6) Reggie Miller
7) Charles Barkley
8) Magic Johnson
9) John Stockton
10) Brent Barry

If you are going to contend that TS% is the best/only way to evaluate a player's offensive skills then you are also contending that the players listed above are the 10 best offensive players of all time. That list includes one Pantheon level player (Magic) and several Hall of Famers but it also includes borderline All-Stars plus one role player (Brent Barry); in other words, TS% only provides part of the picture: the complete picture can only be seen by actually watching games with understanding.

This is reminiscent of your cult-like devotion to WoW; if you are going to assert that WoW is the best way to evaluate players then you also have to agree that Dennis Rodman was better than Michael Jordan: you cannot say that a metric is objectively correct but then cherrypick the results that you like. That is what is so amusing about "stat gurus": you try to speak like you are an objective oracle dispensing wisdom to the unwashed masses but you have at least as many biases and blind spots as anyone else.

 
At Tuesday, April 12, 2011 3:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Pau Gasol's skill set has not changed since he left the Grizzlies but he has exceeded his career field goal percentage and offensive rebounding numbers every season that he has been with the Lakers. Kobe Bryant draws double teams that enable Gasol to have many more open opportunities than he would otherwise get. I have explained this to you many times before and back when I was doing lengthy game recaps I cited numerous examples of this; feel free to go through the site archives and educate yourself.

I would hope that the Spurs, with three All-Star level players and a deeper bench, would be more efficient offensively than a Lakers' team that starts two players who are below their positional averages offensively (Artest and Fisher) and has a weak bench (other than Odom, who started nearly half of the games this season).

Kevin Martin is an injury-prone, one dimensional player who has made one playoff appearance in a seven year career. It is idiotic to compare him to Kobe Bryant--and I have no intention of engaging in a lengthy debate with an idiot.

I don't think that math is stupid at all; I use it a lot in my basketball analysis. I think that the way that YOU use math is stupid: you don't watch games with understanding, you use numbers without either understanding how they are compiled or what they really mean and you use one number (TS%) to draw broad conclusions that make no sense (such as asserting that Kevin Martin, Nene and others are better offensive players than Kobe Bryant).

 
At Tuesday, April 19, 2011 2:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Obviously, if you are a high true shooter who doesn't take a lot of shots you won't help your team as much offensively as someone who does. Volume and efficiency are both important. That's why no one thinks of Tyson Chandler as a great offensive player.

True shooting percentage isn't the be all and end all of offensive evaluation. But it's a far better measure of someone's scoring efficiency than any other. And Kobe just doesn't stack up that well to other star players in the NBA, now or historically.

And what's true throughout the game is true in crunch time also. I don't watch every game Kobe plays, but every time the Lakers play a close game I look at the play by play to see how he performed. And it's pretty clear if you do so that Kobe is far from unguardable. Game 1 was a perfect example of that.

At the end of the day what you say about Kobe isn't far wrong. He is a great player. But his greatness (which as you know I don't think rises to the all time great category) rests more on the complete nature of his game, his ability to rebound, pass, defend, and not turn the ball over, while staying on the court, than on his ability to score alone. Because just as a scorer, in crunch time or not, he isn't that great.


Re Gasol - Same player, different situation. Kobe has had no impact on his actual play, just on the perception of it. Which is something that happens all the time in the NBA.

Owen
Owen

 
At Tuesday, April 19, 2011 3:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen Owen (is that your new name?):

I think Damon Stoudemire was a "high" true shooter but that is another story.

Now that you finally have admitted that TS% "isn't the be all and end all of offensive evaluation" perhaps you will stop making comments in which you entirely base your "analysis" on that one stat.

Your statement that TS% is "a far better measure of someone's scoring efficiency than any other" is laughably wrong. As I have said previously about your beloved WoW numbers, once you buy into a theory--and I use that word very loosely concerning WoW--you have to buy into all of its conclusions; you cannot accept quantum theory but then reject "spooky action at a distance" (if you do then you are actually proposing a new theory).

If you believe in WoW, then you believe that Dennis Rodman was a more productive player than Michael Jordan; if you believe that TS% is the best measure of a player's offensive efficiency then you believe that Michael Jordan is the 79th best offensive player in ABA/NBA history, just a tick ahead of Mitch Kupchak and Frank Brickowski. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time leading scorer who had perhaps the single most unstoppable weapon in the sport's history, checks in at 27th all-time, one spot behind Steve Kerr and one spot ahead of Mark West. Here are some other rankings:

93) LeBron James
99) Larry Bird
101) Oscar Robertson

Your "analysis" of so-called "clutch" stats is equally flawed (one can detect the heavy influence of Henry Abbott's cherry picking here). These stats have to be taken with a heavy grain of salt because the sample size is so small and because some "clutch" shots are actually just desperation heaves while other ones actually result from a set out of bounds play but 82Games.com ranks Kobe first in the 2011 season in points per 48 minutes in "clutch" situations (defined as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points"). Kobe ranked second in 2010, first in 2009 and second in 2008. So, even using your beloved "advanced" stats Kobe ranks as the best "clutch" player this season and one of the top two "clutch" players in each of the past several seasons.

The reality is that Kobe's "clutch" play is best defined by the fact that his 2008-2010 playoff performances are comparable to MJ's performances during the Bulls' second three-peat, as I documented here. The ability to dominate an entire game, an entire playoff series and an entire playoff season is more significant than a player's productivity in an arbitrarily defined, small sample consisting of fewer than 200 minutes (which is what "clutch" stats are).

 
At Tuesday, April 19, 2011 3:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen Owen:

Pau Gasol is the same player that he was in Memphis except for three things: he has improved his strength a bit (at the urging of Coach Jackson and Kobe), he shoots a better FG% and he is more productive on the offensive glass. FG% and offensive rebounding are not areas in which players generally improve with age; a significant reason that Gasol is more productive in those areas now is that he benefits from the defensive coverage that Kobe receives. In Memphis, Gasol was the first option and he could not lead his team to even one playoff win; as a second option in L.A., Gasol has helped to win two championships. It is not an exaggeration to say that playing with Kobe lifted Gasol from being a one-time All-Star to being a player who will receive serious HoF consideration. Gasol still has lapses in terms of his focus/toughness--that is, after all, why the Grizzlies ultimately decided that he is not a franchise player--but with Kobe bearing the brunt of the load and Coach Jackson continually prodding Gasol to do better the Lakers have been very successful despite Gasol's lapses. Jeff Van Gundy has repeatedly pointed out that Gasol and Bynum lope up and down the court instead of sprinting; when the bigs are late, the defense gets out of whack and we saw a lot of that in game one versus New Orleans.

The only remaining question is whether you are a fool who is incapable of understanding the information listed above--information that I have provided for you many times before--or whether you are just a troll who is seeking attention.

 
At Thursday, April 21, 2011 6:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't ever say ts% was the only measure of a player's offensive value. What I clearly said is that it's the best measure of scoring efficiency. Which it is. What's so complicated about this? Why the need to beat a straw horse?

Offensive value and scoring efficiency aren't the same thing. That should be so incredibly obvious it doesn't need to be said. There are, of course, other components to offensive value including and not limited to the ability to pass, rebound, score in volume, and avoid turnovers. And you have to take into account a positional adjustment when comparing players, since different positions have different responsibilities. You also have to take account the historical era a player played in etc etc.

All of the above doesn't change the facts which we are discussing. The fact the Kobe has a much lower ts%, both this year and in his career, than his rivals for the title of best player in the NBA. And the fact that his clutch heroics are overstated, which they clearly are.

It's kind of amusing to see you blithely discount the evidence that Kobe isn't that good in crunch time. It's par for the course from you. When you don't agree with the facts you simply ignore them. That's easier I guess.

Owen

 
At Thursday, April 21, 2011 7:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

Your first comment in this thread--responding to an article that is about the Spurs, not Kobe Bryant versus Manu Ginobili--included this statement: "Manu Ginobili has been the best shooting guard in the Western Conference this year. Kobe will get that credit but this might be the year Manu comes the closest to getting the recognition he deserves." You did not say that Manu is merely better than Kobe in TS% but rather that Manu is the West's best shooting guard, period. As I noted in my response, that is a laughably absurd statement.

Then you waited a few weeks and tried to (not so subtly) shift the discussion away from Kobe versus Manu overall to Kobe versus Manu in TS%. This kind of bait and switch may work for you when you are arguing with (or among) fools but it doesn't fly here. I have already on numerous occasions refuted, in detail, your assertions about Manu's value compared to Kobe's value; the only thing that has changed since the last time we debated this subject is that Kobe's right knee issues have necessitated a reduction in his minutes, while Manu's role on the Spurs has increased as Tim Duncan's offensive role has declined--so if you had merely said that the gap between Kobe and Manu has perhaps narrowed then I could agree with that, at least in terms of the regular season (a major edge for Kobe over Manu in the past has been that Kobe was much more durable and logged much heavier minutes, while Manu benefited from a lighter workload and also from playing against the other team's reserves). Of course, even in his (relatively) reduced role, Kobe still played more minutes than Manu and still was a more productive scorer, rebounder and defender.

I am done trying to explain how to you how to properly evaluate players. You are a 100% true believer in "advanced stats" who has no interest in considering anything else. I think that you would enjoy yourself more if you just preached to the choir over at WoW.

 
At Thursday, April 21, 2011 7:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Owen:

I did not "blithely" disregard anything regarding Kobe's production in the clutch; I went to 82Games.com, clicked on their "clutch stats" and refuted the nonsense you spewed, while still maintaining what I have always said: "clutch play" is somewhat overrated, at least in terms of how it is often defined (last second shots, shots with X amount of time remaining and a score margin of less than Y)--it is much more significant to be able to control a game for long periods of time (regardless of when in the game a player exerts that control) than it is to make a few shots in a statistically insignificant sample of minutes. Kobe's string of game-winning shots last season did not inspire any writing from me other than an article restating my consistent position; I have not said that Kobe (or anyone else) is the most "clutch" player in the NBA because I think that this distinction is almost meaningless, at least the way that it is usually discussed. However, if you think that "clutch stats" are important then you have to reckon with the fact that, according to 82Games.com, Kobe has been one of the top two players in this regard for each of the past several seasons.

I know that Henry Abbott likes to cherry pick numbers and narratives but what does the 2004 season--or the 2005 season in which Kobe was banged up--have to do with the NBA today or even the NBA in the past several years? Kobe may not have been the most clutch player in the NBA by some metrics in either of those seasons and he may not be the most clutch player from 2004-2011 if you throw in all of his misses from the early years in that time frame but he has been one of the most clutch players from 2008-11. Again, I don't attach any particular significance to any of that but Abbott is such a biased fool it is amazing that anyone takes seriously anything that he says.

In contrast to Abbott, I pointed out LeBron James' skill set flaws early in his career and I correctly predicted that those flaws would be most dramatically revealed when he played in the playoffs against elite defensive teams; I also correctly predicted that Kobe's ability to consistently make midrange jumpers would enable the Lakers to repeatedly win the tough Western Conference by capturing playoff series against other elite teams, some of which were/are deeper than the Lakers (I failed to anticipate that LeBron would quit against Boston in the 2010 playoffs or that the Cavs would double team Howard too frequently in the 2009 playoffs but those are different stories for another day). How has Abbott's incessant sniping at Kobe increased anyone's understanding or enjoyment of NBA basketball? It is interesting that the two coaches who have been winning most of the NBA titles over the past decade--Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich--differ in many ways but are similar in their complete disregard for "advanced statistics."

 

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