The Spurs are the best team in the league through the second week in January. This should not surprise anyone. Despite one questionable decision that may have led to a lost title last year, Gregg Popovich remains the benchmark by which all other coaches are measured. R. C. Buford and the personnel staff keep bringing in the right pieces to plug into Pop’s system, and Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili keep performing like the all-time greats that they are. The only reasons for doubt coming into the season were the ages Manu and Tim and the possibility of an emotional let-down after such a dramatic loss in the finals last summer. So far so good, Tim and the team continue to play with the even keel that earned the nickname Groundhog Day. It’s the same story every season.
The team stats are absolutely superb. The Spurs boast the league’s best Simple Rating System score which factors margin of victory and strength of schedule. They have the second best raw margin of victory and the second best per 100 possession point differential (the Indiana Pacers rank first in both), second best effective field goal percentage (Miami is first), and they are first in team assists. They are also the only team in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (points scored per possession and points allowed per possession).
As a team they continue to defy conventional wisdom in that they don’t rely on their stars to do heavy lifting. The double pick and roll sets they run have been augmented by more high post passing and off ball screens, and the results have been great distribution of shots. People expecting Kawhi Leonard to become an all-star may be disappointed by this continued egalitarian success, but people expecting the Spurs to remain an unpredictable cover should be very pleased. Defensively the team is sticking to the same key concepts as they have the last few seasons. They don’t foul, and they dominate the defensive glass. Pop likes to play lineups with conventional size, which makes them big in today’s league, giving the team the ability to play straight man most nights. They mix up coverages on pick and rolls and are one of the better teams at sagging back and forcing shots over the top without giving too much space.
There are some areas of concern with San Antonio. As with all teams that lean on older players for stability, health is a worry. They also lag behind league average in free throw rate, offensive rebound percentage, and three pointers attempted. This isn’t a problem as long as their eFG% remains so high, but against tough playoff defenses, they may need to find ways to augment their half court scoring. They also have a poor record against the elite western conference teams thus far, having lost to Rockets twice, Thunder twice, and split their two meetings with the Clippers. However, regular season series records aren’t a great indicator of playoff series outcomes, and the fact that the Spurs maintain great margin of victory numbers in the face of one of the harder early schedules is a good sign.
The best projector for Spurs’ fans is how Pop has been able to maintain great success while keeping the Spurs old guard well rested. I don’t say that because of injury concerns but because it means that when it is time to ramp up their play in the playoffs, they should be able to do so simply by giving more minutes to their best players. The Spurs should have another level they can reach when the going gets tough, and that’s crucial. As Michael Jordan said in one of his commercials may years ago, it’s not how you get there that counts, it’s having something left to finish that matters. Though the West is really tough, I think San Antonio should be favored over the rest of the in-conference competition to repeat as NBA finalists this season.