The San Antonio Spurs lost the guy who led them to five championships and 19 straight playoff appearances, but are right back near the top of the Western Conference, just a game in the loss column behind the Golden State Warriors.
Tim Duncan is gone, while Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are a year older. The offense is different and the defense isn't quite as good. But this team is still winning games (mostly close ones).
Sixteen of the Spurs' 24 games have been within five points in the last five minutes, and they're 13-3 in those 16 games. They've been remarkably efficient, scoring a league-best 128 points per 100 possessions, in the clutch. Time will tell if that can continue or if a little luck has played a part in the Spurs' strong start.
The Basics - San Antonio Spurs (19-5)
The Spurs have spent most of the last month on the road, but only one of their last eight opponents is currently over .500. So Wednesday's game at home against a good team will be somewhat of a change. The Spurs host the Boston Celtics (13-11) in the second half of ESPN's Wednesday double-header (9:30 p.m. ET).
Here are a few numbers to know about the Spurs' first 24 games ...
The Spurs have taken 32.1 percent of their shots from mid-range (between the paint and the 3-point line), the highest rate in the league.
Five seasons ago, the league, as a whole, took a little more than 30 percent of its shots from mid-range. Now, the Spurs are the only team at or above 30 percent.
A year ago, we wondered how LaMarcus Aldridge - the leader in mid-range shots in each of his last three seasons in Portland - would adjust to the Spurs' offense, which, in 2014-15, ranked 20th in percentage of shots that came from mid-range. It turns out that the Spurs' shot selection bent more toward that of Aldridge than vice versa.
The percentage of Spurs' shots that came from mid-range increased from 24.7 percent in '14-15 to 32.3 percent in '15-16. That was the biggest increase in the league by a wide margin. Years ago, San Antonio was one of the first teams to embrace the efficiency corner three. But as the rest of the league was looking to eliminate mid-range shots, they went back in the other direction.
Talking to NBA.com this summer about the use of analytics, Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks, formerly with the Spurs, said, "Are you going to tell LaMarcus Aldridge, 'Don't take long twos'? He's the best in the game at it. Dirk Nowitzki? Dirk can hit threes too, but that's his game. So I don't think there's a be-all and end-all for it. It depends on the player and the player makeup."
Aldridge did reduce the number of shots he took from mid-range last season, but he still ranked fourth in the league with 523. This year, he ranks sixth, taking a larger percentage of his shots from mid-range (57.3 percent) than he did in his last season in Portland (55.7 percent). Kawhi Leonard and Pau Gasol rank eighth and 25th, respectively, in mid-range attempts.
But the Spurs have made it work and managed to build a great offense around high-volume mid-range shooters. They ranked third in offensive efficiency last season and rank sixth this season.
It helps that the Spurs take better mid-range shots than most of the league. And it's not just about having good shooters. It's also about how those good shooters get those shots.
League-wide, about 75 percent of 3-point attempts this season have been off-the-catch, according to SportVU. But only about 28 percent of 2-point jump shots have been off the catch. (Oversimplifying things a bit...) Most shooters are spaced out beyond the 3-point line, where they either catch and shoot or step in and shoot off the dribble.
But the Spurs have taken 42 percent of their 2-point jump shots off the catch. That's the second highest rate in the league, behind only that of the Memphis Grizzlies (46 percent). Their shooters are more likely to be positioned in the mid-range area, from where they can catch and shoot.
Fun with SportVU: While the Spurs have taken 267 catch-and-shoot 2-point jumpers, the Houston Rockets have taken 31.
The Spurs also have the league's fourth best field goal percentage (47.2 percent) on catch-and-shoot 2-point jumpers, according to SportVU. A yield of 0.94 points per attempt isn't great, it's not terrible either.
Still, turning some of those mid-range shots into layups or threes would help the offense. Only the Dallas Mavericks have taken a lower percentage of their shots from the restricted area than the Spurs, with Aldridge (20 percent), Gasol (21 percent), Manu Ginobili (22 percent), Leonard (19 percent) and Tony Parker (29 percent) all holding career-low marks in their individual percentages this season. Leonard has become a very good shooter, but has 27 fewer layups and dunks than Stephen Curry this season.
Aldridge and Gasol, meanwhile, have only taken 51 total 3-pointers, even though they've shot a combined 47 percent from beyond the arc. They could take a lesson from Gasol's brother Marc and step back behind the line a little more often.
The Spurs have allowed 5.0 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season, the biggest increase in the league.
Last season, the Spurs were one of the best defensive teams we've ever seen. They allowed 7.3 points per 100 possessions fewer than the league average, the eight best mark of the last 39 years (since the league started counting turnovers in 1977).
So their defense could only get worse. Improvement or decline is as much about where you came from as it about where you're at. The Spurs still rank in the top five (though in a virtual, 5-6-7 tie with Atlanta and Charlotte), the Spurs have taken a big step backward on that end of the floor.
The Spurs miss the rim protection of Tim Duncan. One area where they've taken a step backward is in their opponents' field goal percentage in the restricted area. But a bigger issue is that they've forced fewer of the least efficient shots on the floor, those between the restricted area and 3-point range.
San Antonio ranks fifth in 3-point defense, but is allowing about five more points per game at the 3-point line, because of the increase in volume.
Interestingly, their opponent 3-point rate (3PA/FGA) is highest with reserves on the floor, while their opponent 3-point percentage and their overall defensive efficiency has been worst with Aldridge and Gasol on the floor together. They've allowed 107.6 points per 100 possessions in 430 minutes with both on the floor, 101.7 in 455 minutes with one of the two on the floor, and 93.0 in 266 minutes with neither on the floor.
Because Leonard has played a lot more minutes with Aldridge (625) and Gasol (519) than with any of his other teammates, his on-court DefRtg is much higher than its ever been. CBS Sports' Matt Moore explained Tuesday how opponents can take Leonard out of a defensive possession and play four-on-four against lesser defenders.
Opponent shooting isn't the only issue. In fact, the Spurs are one of two teams (Portland is the other) that has regressed in each of the defensive four factors from last season. They rebounded a little worse, forced fewer turnovers, and put their opponents on the free throw line a little more than they did last season.
The Spurs are still winning, but their defense against potential playoff opponents will be something to keep an eye on. And it will be noteworthy if Gregg Popovich allows Leonard to play more alongside a more defensive big man like Dewayne Dedmon.
According to SportVU, the Spurs have scored 1.17 points per possession when Kawhi Leonard has come off a ball screen, a mark ranks third in the league behind those of Kyle Lowry (1.27) and LeBron James (1.20) among 79 players who have used at least 200 ball screens this season.
Like it is with their shot selection, this is a very different Spurs team than we remember from their 2014 championship. These Spurs don't use Leonard pick-and-rolls to generate ball movement. Among those 79 players who have used at least 200 ball screens, he has the second highest usage rate (behind Andrew Wiggins) at 51.1 percent. That means that 51.1 percent of the time that he's run a pick-and-roll, the result has been a shot, turnover or drawn foul by Leonard or his screener.
Among those 79 guys, he's been the fourth least likely to pass, the fifth most likely to shoot, and the second most likely to draw a foul. Among the top 25 guys in usage rate, Leonard has the seventh lowest assist rate (11.7 assists per 100 possessions used), higher than only Carmelo Anthony and five bigs.
Parker (whose pick-and-roll usage rate is only 23 percent) still uses more ball screens than Leonard, but Leonard's have more than doubled in the last two seasons, from 4.8 per game in '14-15 to 5.9 last season to 10.9 this season. And while he's already one of the league's most efficient pick-and-roll players, his playmaking can still get better.
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