A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Questioning whether the Spurs dominance will translate into the playoffs

with 7 comments

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Nearing the all-star break, the San Antonio Spurs have the best record in the league at a crisp 42-8, an astonishing 69 (!) win pace. With the Lakers having the hardest remaining schedule in the league so far it appears no-one will challenge them for the #1 seed in the West. The Spurs also have the best SRS in the league albeit it indicates the they are playing at a level below their W/L pace.

Yet I am not convinced.  I believe one of the reason even point differential can prove misleading towards projecting playoff success, is what it takes to succeed in either is often different. This appears in other sports as well. Most recently the New England Patriots put up one of the greatest offensive regular seasons ever statistically, but looked pedestrian in the playoffs offensively. In truth the Patriots lacked deep ball passing and power running dimensions to their game and the Jets exposed these weaknesses by solely covering the short passing game. The playoffs showed what regular season stats did not – the Patriots offense was flawed.

Similarly, last year in the playoffs the Orlando Magic had their dominant offense shut down because Boston had the personnel to guard Dwight Howard with single coverage and stay on all of Orlando’s 3pt shooters, normally open when teams left them to double team Howard. The lack of a true double team attracting perimeter player allowed the Magic to be shut down.

The Spurs appear a candidate for a similar lack of correlation to the playoffs.  First off, the weaknesses making them pretenders since their last title in 2007 are still present. The Spurs defense has not been dominant for the last 4 seasons. Parker, Manu and Jefferson are smart defenders, but none bring the defensive X factor perimeter defenders like Derrick Rose and Lebron James do or Bruce Bowen did on previous Spurs teams. Beside Tim Duncan the team lacks size with 6’7 Dejaun Blair, Matt Bonner and a very old Antonio McDyess getting most of the minutes at PF. Thus they lack the dominant rebounding the champion Spurs teams had. Finally, while still a good defender, Duncan himself is no longer in all-time defensive anchor form.

The Spurs calling card this year is offense, so it would appear the lack of a stingy d shouldn’t sink them. But this is where I believe the regular season stats could be misleading. The Spurs mammoth rise offensively this year is related to Popovich willingly increasing the pace with Tony Parker leading the way and making the 3pt shot the calling card of the offense. Transition buckets and 3 point shots are the most liable to become suddenly unavailable in the playoffs. Good defensive teams will slow the game down and leave players back to protect transition scores, often turning the game into a halfcourt grinder. Meanwhile while the 3 is a great shot, strong defenses know this and will neglect helping off the 3pt line if they can. The Spurs know very well how playoff defenses slow games down – in their prime they consistently beat the Suns by forcing them to play a halfcourt, defense and size dominated game. The Spurs this year have more in common with those Suns than the 2003-2007 title winning Spurs.

The Spurs are a very good team, but like the Patriots, I believe their offense is more flawed than the stats show. The dominant defense and rebounding of the title Spurs has been replaced by a fast pace and 3s – a much less reliable playoff strategy historically. Despite their league best record I would rank the Spurs with the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, and Oklahoma City Thunder as teams I suspect are not complete enough to win the title this year despite strong regular season play.

7 Responses

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  1. I’m inclined to agree. It’s funny, not so long ago, you’d have to pick the Spurs over teams with comparable records, but with their new setup, they’ve got a lot to prove.

    I don’t think they beat the Lakers in the playoffs, if the Lakers play like they did last year. Of course, that is very much an if.

    I’m inclined to say that the Celtics are the title favorites right now. What do you say?

    Matt Johnson

    February 6, 2011 at 12:22 pm

  2. With Boston, my concern is health. They’re one tough team, but they do have a very old core. But taking the team as they are now? Well… can’t argue (although I wouldn’t count out either Miami or LA at this point).


    February 6, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    • Agree with all of that.

      Interesting to note though that the Celtics have proven remarkably robust despite injuries to Rondo, Garnett & Perkins. I’d agree it’d be hard to imagine them winning the whole shebang with a serious injury issue though.

      Matt Johnson

      February 6, 2011 at 2:08 pm

  3. Nice analysis. I would add the spurs have really slowed down since the new year.

    I think Miami is the favorite the rest of the way. There slow start has masked how good they’ve been. Miami is 24-2 since December when they’ve had the BIG 3 in the lineup. They’re winning games by an average of 11.76.

    With regards to last years two finalists, LA and Boston, I think less highly of them than other people.

    The 08 match-up was a great final match-up by NBA standards which masks how much worse the 10 match-up was. To me the 10 finals was like the thrila-in-manila, in that the names and rivalry allowed fans to ignore the substantial decline in quality of play in the two clubs.

    Both teams were sub-standard by point differential for NBA champions.

    This year LA is playing actually slightly better than last year mostly due to Bryant’s hot shooting. I don’t think he’ll sustain it. Furthermore, they are now a very poor defensive rebounding team due to the continued decline of Artest. Two of their starters Artest and Fisher are at replacement level or below. Finally, I think three years of long playoff runs will wear the lakers out such that they’ll be unable to three-peat.

    Boston has also had injuries and it is fair to ask why I ignore the injuries to Miami and hold it against Boston. I hold the injuries against the Celtics because of their advanced age. I also doubt the Celtics will win it besides injuries because of their offense.

    Right now they are at the league average even with almost every player on the roster having career shooting years. FG% is a stat that fluctuates a lot. I think their shooting will slow down and with that they’ll have a below average offense that doesn’t generate enough points to hang with Miami.


    February 6, 2011 at 2:11 pm

  4. I have the top 4 teams are Boston, LA, Chicago, and Miami in that order, and then San Antonio 5. I feel the top 3 are the most complete teams in the league, whereas Miami is very incomplete but their strengths are so enormous that it might not matter. Chicago is the one I think people would dispute but when you play defense and rebound like that with star offense in Rose, Boozer, you can win a title

    My biggest darkhorse is actually New Orleans because I feel like if they start hitting 3s, a part of their game weirdly absent this year for a Paul team, it could take them up a level with their defense, strong frontcourt and superstar creator making an otherwise complete team. I like that they’ve had two 10 game winning streaks this year too, it shows they can get to that dominant level

    Dr Mufasa

    February 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm

  5. Don’t know about NO. One-star teams generally don’t get it done in the playoffs. Chicago for the same reason (as good as Boozer has been this year).

    LA? Well… they’re a flaky team, which I really wouldn’t have said about them over the past three or four. Is Phil Losing his touch, or is the core just ageing beyond his ability to compensate?


    February 6, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    • I really don’t see that much of a difference between this year’s lakers team and last. Both are a step down in quality. In retrospect, I think the Artest was a trade despite winning the title and Fisher has become an open wound. He’s flat out awful. The last time I remember a vet getting minutes like this based on NVE instead of Udrich which cost SAS the Dallas series.

      I really don’t feel the NOH at all.

      Chicago is a good choice for the dark horse team of the East. Actually I think Chicago is slightly better than Boston and that will be exposed once the Celtics shooting goes back down to Earth.


      February 7, 2011 at 4:32 am

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