Of all the teams in all of professional sports, no team confounds analysis like the San Antonio Spurs.
This is a team that won 48 games in the Western Conference and nearly upset the 2 seed Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs despite a coach whose offensive philosophy is so mired in the Dark Ages that if he weren’t a legend walking, he’d have been fired as the team said “we need to modernize and look toward the future.”
The Spurs were dead last in 3-point attempt rate. Their two best players, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, on paper shouldn’t be as good as they are, not since the era of the midrange jump shot crashed and burned.
Hell, DeRozan’s reputation took possibly the biggest negative hit in the entire league short of Carmelo Anthony last year when the Raptors, who ditched him in favor of Kawhi Leonard, went on to win the NBA title.
Vegas has San Antonio down for 43.5 wins, a nearly five-win regression from their actual record and two wins worse than the 45 they should’ve gotten according to their pace-adjusted point differential.
At some point this whole thing has to come crashing to the ground, right? I mean, how do you win 48 games with a dinosaur coach and two stars whose skill sets should’ve been left in 2002?
2018-19 record: 48-34
2019-20 over/under: 43.5
The Popovich Advantage
OK, so the Spurs run a Dark Ages offense that treats the 3 ball as a sniper rifle rather than the Rockets’ machine gun.
But letting only the best 3-point shooters have the green light to actually shoot 3s means the Spurs hit a mind-blowing 39.2 percent of them, by a mile the best mark in the league last year.
And their efficient use of the 3 combined with impressive finishing at the rim (Aldridge shot 71.6 percent from three feet and in; DeRozan hit 71.5 percent of such shots) meant they were sixth in eFG% despite that minuscule 3PAR.
This is what critics of Popovich—this publication included—often miss when counting 3-pointers in the box score. Popovich himself once said angrily that if basketball was just a 3-point contest, the team that hits more 3s should win every game.
In point of fact, the most powerful predictor of winning is Effective FG%, that deceptively simple stat that counts a 3-point make as 1.5 FGM then applies it to the old-school FG% formula of makes divided by attempts.
Yes, three is more than two. And yes, the Spurs are a mediocre 2-point shooting team (51.3 percent, good for just 18th in the league, thanks mostly to DeRozan hitting around 40 percent of his midrangers and Aldridge hitting just 44 percent of his—wildly inefficient.)
But that 39.2 percent mark from long range wouldn’t be sustainable if everyone were allowed to jack up long balls. Houston was by far the most triple-happy team, shooting 51.7 percent of their attempts from out there, but they made just 35.9 percent of them and outranked the Spurs by only two places—the Rockets were fourth—in eFG% and by only five wins in the standings.
You’ll notice I’m dancing around a point here with this preview.
The Last Old-School Power Team
If you try to analyze the Spurs with stats, you’ll tie yourself in intellectual knots, grossly underrate them, then get shocked out of your skin when they win 48 games and make the playoffs despite by all accounts being a team that on paper in 2019 shouldn’t win 35.
This team plays exceptional fundamentally sound basketball—not only do they have Popovich, the master of in-game discipline, but they have Becky Hammon, who came off the courts of the WNBA, a naturally fundamentally sound league if for no other reason that women’s basketball is primarily played below the rim.
So you combine the basics exemplified by the women with the natural athletic ability of the men and good luck trying to quantify that.
But There Are Stats
Sure there are. Like the Spurs’ 7th-in-the-league offensive rating. Their tops-in-the-league 81.9 percent free throw shooting (Hammon is one of the best free throw shooters in WNBA history, having three times hit at least 95 percent of her free throws in a season on at least three FTA per game.)
Hell, in her final season, Hammon took 35 free throws…and made all of them.
The Spurs committed fewer turnovers per game (and second-lowest by pace-adjusted percentage) than any other team. They defend without fouling, having allowed the second-fewest FT per FGA in the league.
Put simply, you have to beat them because they’re not going to lose the game for you the way higher-risk, higher-reward teams like Houston so often do (most famously in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals.)
And the Players Don’t Matter
As long as the players buy in, this is a system team. They are the New England Patriots of the NBA, and when Tim Duncan was still playing, comparisons to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were inevitable.
But it’s not like their players are terrible. Bryn Forbes hit 42.6 percent of his triples. Rudy Gay hit 40.2 and set a career high in his 13th season. Davis Bertans is on the Wizards now, but he hit 42.9 percent from long range and who knows if he’ll do it again without Popovich’s sniper’s nest of a perimeter philosophy?
This was a team with just three guys over 2.0 VORP last year. Aldridge (2.5), DeRozan (2.0), and Jakob Poeltl (2.0) hit that mark.
Only Marco Belinelli was anything resembling a dud (.065 WS/48 and 0.0 VORP), but he’s an extreme specialist and anchors the bench well enough with the same 3-point sniping the Spurs had at the top of the roster.
It really seems like you could plug almost anyone into the Spurs system and if they had the right skill for the role being played, they’d thrive. Which brings to mind guys like Steve Kerr and Jud Buechler on a certain 72-10 NBA team back in the day…
The Spurs are a team that defies hard analysis. Because in theory, a team that doesn’t have a single player on their roster with a higher VORP than Mitchell Robinson put up on the Knicks last year as a rookie shouldn’t be good.
But they won 48 games, and there is no way in hell I’m betting against San Antonio and no way I’m betting against Gregg Popovich as long as he continues to patrol an NBA sideline and run NBA practices.
They suck on paper. But they win games. And as Kenny Mayne famously said, “games are not played on paper, they’re played inside television sets.”
So I’m going to make my one eye-test take of this entire series, take the over, and figure the Spurs for another 45-50 wins and a playoff appearance.
Will I say Confirmed? No. Plausible it is.
NEXT: Houston Rockets.