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March 2, 2009
Defying Expectation
The Spurs Keep Winning

by Kevin Pelton

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Like any writer who shares opinions about sports, I am occasionally labeled a hater, or accused of being biased for or against certain teams or players. Of course, this is silly. Like any sports fan, I have teams whose styles I like and players who I want to see succeed. For the most part, however, we sports writers root for nothing more and nothing less than a good story.

In my case, these columns being dominated by analysis, that usually means hoping my predictions come true. As a result, I have admittedly spent the better part of the last 12 months rooting against the San Antonio Spurs, not because I dislike their style but simply because the numbers have suggested that the team's window is closing. During the playoffs, I picked against the Spurs three straight rounds, underestimating them throughout a run to the Western Conference Finals.

Before the season, my SCHOENE projection system pegged San Antonio for a 42-40 record and a spot in the lottery, and while I did not entirely agree with that assessment, nor did I anticipate the Spurs would lead the Southwest Division this deep into the season. When Tony Parker joined Manu Ginobili on the inactive list five games into the season on the heels of a 1-4 start, I titled my Unfiltered post "Oh No in San Antonio."

Given all that, it somehow seems fitting that just when I was ready to come around on the Spurs and accept eating some crow, they would defy me again. I headed to the Rose Garden yesterday afternoon anticipating writing about how San Antonio was able to stay competitive last week with both Ginobili and Tim Duncan sidelined, using the matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers as a backdrop.

Instead, with Duncan returning to the lineup after missing three games due to tendonosis in his right knee, the Spurs were quickly run out of the Rose Garden. Portland put up 33 points in the first quarter and 64 in the first half, holding San Antonio scoreless for nearly five minutes to start the second period. The Blazers led by as many as 28 before halftime and LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy combined to outscore the Spurs all by themselves in the first half. I have never seen San Antonio look so inept. So much for that topic.

Of course, a core tenet of statistical analysis is that the larger sample almost always gives a more accurate perspective than a game or two, and in this case it holds. Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich even made that argument before the game, noting that an undermanned team sometimes is just going to have a bad shooting night or run into the wrong opponent and fall short. He wasn't quite so big-picture after the game, but surely Popovich would admit this result was not representative of the San Antonio team he's seen all season long. In that spirit, I'm going to run with my original intent for this column despite the contradictory result.

In some sense, yesterday's results and Friday's loss to Cleveland only served to amplify what the Spurs accomplished in their previous two games, beating a pair of likely playoff teams (the same Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks). With Parker surrounded by a cast of role players accustomed to supporting San Antonio's trio of stars, blowout losses should have been the norm. Instead, Parker carried the team offensively, combining for 76 points and 21 assists in the two wins. On top of that, the Spurs relied on the defense that has been their trademark in the Gregg Popovich era. The Mavericks mustered just 76 points in 85 possessions, while a potent Blazers attack that ranks second in the league in Offensive Rating over the course of the season scored at a rate of 102.4 points per 100 possessions, more than 12 points below its season average.

Could almost any other team in the league, playing without two of its top three teams, be so competitive? That the Spurs did just that is testament to the foundation and system Popovich has established in San Antonio, starting with a commitment to defense.

"It's a major reason," agreed Popovich, asked about the system's role in helping the team overcome injuries. "The system's got to get you through it all. It gives you a base which you can use. It at least gives you the opportunity to compete."

The Spurs did the same thing earlier this season when both Parker and Ginobili were injured. A defense that had struggled in the season's first five games, allowing 118.0 points per 100 possessions as Popovich sought to work newcomers Roger Mason and George Hill into the lineup while transitioning Matt Bonner into a larger role, quickly coalesced. Mason and Bonner proved dangerous as shooters, and San Antonio was nearly back to .500 by the time Ginobili returned to the lineup.

Since getting healthy, the Spurs have emerged in second place in the Western Conference behind the Los Angeles Lakers. While San Antonio's record has exceeded its point differential throughout the season (more on that topic later this week), the Spurs' differential was still essentially the equal of any team in the West besides the Lakers entering Sunday's play. (Portland's 18-point win now gives the Blazers, who had boasted a +3.9 differential to San Antonio's +3.8, a comfortable advantage.)

Last spring, my contention was that the Spurs had allowed their supporting cast to get too old to be competitive. Indeed, last year's San Antonio squad was the third-oldest team in terms of effective age, weighted by minutes played, in the last three decades (another topic we'll explore in more depth this week). Credit the Spurs front office for moving to add youth, particularly on the perimeter. Mason has capably stepped into Bruce Bowen's starting spot to give San Antonio additional offensive punch, while Hill has solidified a backup point guard spot that was a major issue for the Spurs throughout last season. Used sparingly a year ago, Bonner has emerged as a starter and filled Robert Horry's old role of stretching the floor and keeping opponents from doubling Duncan with a big man. Bonner leads the NBA by shooting nearly 50 percent from downtown, while Mason (43.6 percent) ranks just outside the top 10.

San Antonio's moves seemed to mean sacrificing defense for offense. With Bowen showing his age and playing limited minutes, the Spurs no longer have an elite stopper in their starting lineup. Meanwhile, Bonner does not provide nearly the same presence in the paint as the truer centers who played alongside Duncan (Nazr Mohmamed, Rasho Nesterovic, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas) and can't match Horry's athleticism. In fact, this year's San Antonio squad is a notch below the league's best defensive teams (Boston, Cleveland and Orlando) as well as the Spurs teams that led the league in Defensive Rating seven times in a nine-year span. However, it has more than held its own defensively in ranking fourth in the NBA, which is a credit to both the system and to the newcomers.

By the numbers, Bonner in particular might deserve more credit than he has gotten. Besides the talk about a deal for Vince Carter, rumors involving the Spurs leading up to the trade deadline generally focused on the addition of a legitimate big man who could spread the floor, along the lines of Oklahoma City's Nick Collison. An upgrade may have been unnecessary. San Antonio has defended just as well with Bonner on the floor as off it this season, and the Spurs have been far better offensively with Bonner keeping defenses honest. 82games.com's data also shows Bonner and Duncan as San Antonio's most effective big man duo, outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 48 minutes.

The Spurs have claimed an unusual position in the NBA--they're the masters of being "next best." Beyond the top three defensive teams, San Antonio is next best. After those three East teams and the Lakers, the Spurs are arguably the next-best contender (they have the best record outside of this group), and that would make them the next-best team in the West behind L.A. The problem with that is in each case there's a considerable gap between San Antonio and the league's elite teams. Because of that difference, I still can't see the Spurs legitimately contending for a championship.

Given the habit they've made of proving me wrong, they might just welcome that conclusion.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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