Ten Thoughts on Spurs-Cavs, January 14, 2016

Image via USA Today Sports

Hopefully everyone watched the Cavs visit the Spurs tonight. It truly was an excellent game. Here are my thoughts:

1. The Spurs are, hands down, the best team in the NBA. They have the highest point differential in NBA history. And Greg Popovich continues to prove how much of a genius he is at fitting a system to his talent. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating, the Spurs shoot a very low percentage of three point shots, yet they are still incredibly efficient. This is because their motion offense is so effective. For evidence, the Spurs are the only NBA team to pass the ball more than 330 times and still average 25 assists. They use smart passes to setup efficient shots.

2. Additionally, the Spurs defensive game planning is glorious. Let’s examine tonight’s strategy. Every time Kyrie Irving attempted to drive, the Spurs double-teamed him forcing Kyrie to attempt a pass. This is smart because Kyrie Irving’s Assist-to-Turnover ratio is 39th best amongst guards. By no means is that bad, however, it is far less threatening than his scoring ability. This strategy made Kyrie ineffective. Additionally, Kawhi Leonard is Lebron James’ kryptonite. These two pieces combined made for a difficult night for the Cavaliers.

3. On that note, the Cavs need to figure out how to get Kevin Love involved. Kevin Love has more points per possession than any other big with significant possessions. But, out of the top ten (seen below), he is only the sixth most frequent, and tenth most overall. Getting Love involved more in the post will let the Cavs get easy baskets in the face of runs like the Spurs went on, tonight.

NBA Post-up leaders

Figure 1 Stats via Synergy

4. Cavs fans should not be upset about their team’s play tonight. They nearly beat the best team in the NBA. Moreover, they gave the Spurs their biggest deficit of the season in the first quarter. The dilemma is they let the Spurs back in, and thus, that early effort was not enough.

5. This is why I disagree with the optimal basketball theory argued by Nylon Calculus. Here, Brian Skinner runs regression models and argues that the most effective way to win basketball games is by leading early. The issue is this model is too generalized. A team like the Spurs prefer to adjust to the early strategy utilized by their opponents. Frankly, the Cavs have excelled with this strategy, too. So while in a vacuum the strategy posited by our brilliant colleagues at Nylon Calculus is valid, it is not necessarily applicable to an NBA game chosen at random, and definitely not with the Spurs.

6. The Cavaliers’ big three have actually been playing well lately. They have the highest plus/minus (graph below) out of any three man lineup in the NBA. The dilemma is the rest of Cleveland’s players’ scoring. Tonight their bench only scored 12 points. The Spurs’ bench, on the other hand, had 35 points. Teams like the Spurs and Warriors will exploit the Cavs’ (lack of) depth to their advantage.


Figure 2 Data via ESPN

7. This begs the question: do the Cavaliers need to make a trade? I frankly do not know. Right now, Kyrie Irving has had only four legitimately good games since he has returned. He is not where he needs to be. Unfortunately, his return may not be enough. As I detailed in a previous post, the Cavs need better interior defense. More specifically, Timofey Mozgov needs to return back to his form last season. Tonight, San Antonio scored 48.5% of all of their points in the paint. If that continues, the Cavaliers will not become a championship team.

8. Ultimately, the Cavs have two main holes right now. They lack interior defense (as stated above), however, they also crave a utility defender that can guards 3s and 4s. Brian Windhorst recently reported that Markieff Morris might be that solution. Regardless of who the player is, David Griffen and the Cavs’ management would be doing their team a disservice not to examine every possible trade.

9. Back to the Spurs, this team is simply dominant. In the fourth quarter, the Spurs Net Rating was +23.7. This came off a nearly 50% assist rate for the quarter. Scarily enough, that number is low. On the season, 62.1% of all Spurs field goals are assisted. That number is fourth best in the NBA, behind Atlanta, Golden State, and Washington. Many expected their pass heavy offense to regress this season due to their new talent and significantly different rotation. Obviously it hasn’t, and this demonstrates that Greg Popovich’s offensive system continues to be effective, regardless of the players. That furthers the truth that San Antonio will have a contending basketball team until Pop retires.

10. The Spurs have some tough opponents coming up. Throughout the next month, they play Dallas twice, Miami once, Cleveland once more, and Golden State once. Similar to the Cavaliers, this next month will tell us a lot about the Spurs. If they win all of the aforementioned games, San Antonio should absolutely be favorites to revisit the NBA finals.


  1. I’m sorry, but could you just repeat what you said.. about the Spurs being the best team in the NBA, hands down?

    (You’re an idiot).

    What the Warriors just did to the Spurs was cold, brutal, relentless and beautiful. Put your pen down and try doing something for a living that you’re good at.


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