Since I was a little kid, every NBA season had a moment where I thought to myself, “the San Antonio Spurs are the best team in the NBA.” This was the first season where I didn’t feel that way. Pop’s team was slow, inconsistent, and lacked that “next gear” to unleash in the postseason.
That was until awhile ago when I started watching nearly every Spurs game.
San Antonio has flashes where they are arguably the best defensive team I have ever seen. They do not play at this level consistently, but, when they do it is scary.
Since February 1st, the Spurs are the only team in the NBA giving up less than 100 points per 100 possessions. Even more startling, the Spurs have played twenty-four games since February 1, 2017. Out of those games, in twenty of them, the Spurs have had a quarter where their opponents have scored twenty points or less. In that stretch, San Antonio has played Houston, Memphis, Golden State (albeit without their core players), Portland, and Oklahoma City. And in 83% of games, the Spurs have had quarters where their opponents scored less than twenty points.
Just think about that number for a second. The current era of basketball has, arguably, the best offensive play in NBA history and it does not matter. The Spurs’ defense is at another level. Outside of Gregg Popovich and his system – which always seems to create great defensive teams – San Antonio has relied on five key players to anchor their defense.
We all know Aldridge is a gifted offensive player. As a brief aside, per Synergy Sports Technology (all statistics provided by Synergy unless otherwise noted), when Aldridge is posting-up on the left block and turns his left shoulder, he averages 1.06 points per possession in total, and 1.29 points per possession when he shoots his hook shot. Those are some of the best post-up numbers in the NBA.
When somebody explains to me how you are supposed to guard that, I will absolutely listen, because not one team or analyst has figured it out.
Anyways, as I was noting, Aldridge has played outstanding defense this season. The pick-and-roll seems to be reaching its peak in NBA fashion, but being able to guard it is crucial, as some of the best offensive teams – Cleveland, Golden State, Houston, and Toronto – can use it to decimate opponents.
Aldridge has become a very good “switch” defender. A switch occurs when an opponent sets a screen and the two defensive players switch assignments. On these plays, overall, LaMarcus is allowing only .84 points per possession, which ranks in the top 44% of NBA players.
Yet, the numbers bring even more into light. On 18% of pick-and-rolls Aldridge defends, the opposing team will set a screen and the ball handler will go away from pick. This forces the Spurs to either switch defenders on contact or to go over the screen and prevent the ball handler from having an easy lane to the basket. The Spurs “go over” on 34% of these plays, and Aldridge is the best at this in the association, giving up a measly .35 points per possession.
The first example in that video shows just how much Aldridge has transformed as a defensive player since his Portland days. He was able to go over and follow Harden preventing an easy drive to the hoop and then LaMarcus has a great close-out preventing an open three-pointer.
Moreover, when there is a switch on a pick-and-roll resulting in an isolation play, Aldridge allows .88 points per possession, which is in the top 44% of all NBA players.
This gets to the fact that Aldridge is an elite isolation defender when it occurs on the left (30.3% frequency) or right side (34.9% frequency) of the court. He allows .67 and .66 points per possession respectively.
Perhaps Aldridge’s worst defensive possessions come as an isolation defender on the top of the key (34.9% frequency), allowing 1.184 points per possession. Nonetheless, given how bad of a defender he was in Portland, his emergence as a positive defensive player this year has drastically improved San Antonio’s defense.
Aldridge’s ability to contain most isolation plays and switch on pick-and-rolls results in him being playable against teams like Golden State, Cleveland, and Houston who will try and get opposing bigs in unfavorable positions.
Dedmon has had career stops in Golden State, Philadelphia, and Orlando. If you watch him play for the Spurs this season – especially since becoming a starter – though, you’d be surprised nobody signed him to a long-term contract.
LeBron James once noted that, while Kawhi Leonard was a great defender, what made the Spurs so tough to play against was that once you got passed Kawhi, you had to score against one of the game’s best rim protectors – Tim Duncan. Dewayne Dedmon, while not nearly as good of a defender as prime Duncan, has been one of the better rim protectors in the NBA this season.
Per SportVU, Dedmon’s opponents are shooting 11.6% worse within ten feet of the basket when he is the primary defender. To see an example why, let’s watch a defensive play where he alters a shot by Chris Paul.
Ignore DeAndre Jordan’s rebound and putback, as they aren’t pertinent to Dedmon’s defense. Chris Paul gets passed his primary defender only to meet Dedmon at the rim. Here, Dedmon does a brilliant job contorting his body to alter Paul’s shot.
When Dedmon plays with Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs allow a minuscule 97.9 points per 100 possessions. Part of this is indeed due to Dedmon’s rim protection. Additionally, though, it also relates to his holistically great defense. Below are some of Dedmon’s defensive statistics:
-Allows .791 points per possession when defending the ball handler in a pick-and-roll (top eight percent in the NBA); .811 points per possession when going over pick-and-roll (top 15% in NBA); .729 points per possession when switching on pick-and-rolls (top seven percent in the NBA); and .84 points per possession as a roll man defender on pick-and-roll (top 39% in NBA).
-Allows .75 points per possession on post-ups (top 14% in NBA).
-Allows .55 points per possession on isolation plays that occur because of a switch (top 10%) and .68 points per possession on man-to-man isolation plays (top 10%).
One could make the argument that, after Gobert and DeAndre Jordan, Dedmon has been the best rim protecting center in the NBA this season. Perhaps the eye test disagrees, or it doesn’t, but statistics suggest that San Antonio’s big man is one of the best defenders in the NBA.
The final lesser-known player who has been an amazing defender this season is Jonathan Simmons. Simmons, a D-League call-up during San Antonio’s 2015-16 season, was initially noticed because of his athleticism. He has put that athleticism to good use this year.
One important point to note, however. Simmons is a bad isolation defensive player and allows 1.05 points per possession on those plays (bottom 19% in the NBA). He probably does not have the technical ability to take the best NBA players one-on-one.
This does not mean, though, that Simmons does not contribute defensively. He is one of the better defensive players in the NBA on plays where the shot comes off of ball and/or player movement. For example, Simmons allows only .771 points per possession when the ball handler dribbles into a screen and the Spurs switch (top 12% in the NBA).
Furthermore, when defending off-ball screens that result in shots, Simmons gives up .72 points per possession, which ranks in the top 16% of NBA players.
Finally, and most importantly, Simmons excels as a spot-up defender. Spot-up shots, those that the Warriors have made famous, are some of the most efficient looks in the NBA. This is where Simmons shines. Overall, he gives up .75 points per possession on spot-ups, which is top 5% in the NBA.
Below I’ve made a video of five separate clips showing Simmons’s spot-up defense. It demonstrates how he can use his length and speed to avoid defensive errors as well as his ability to decelerate quickly and avoid fouling the shooter.
Nonetheless, while a good defender, Simmons is also prone to making some head-scratching errors. Additionally, he has not proven to be a good offensive player. In the playoffs, Popovich will more than likely give him fifteen minutes when the situation calls for it, but he will not be the most regular of Spurs players.
The three aforementioned players have undoubtedly been playing superb defense. They each are playing a big role in San Antonio’s suffocating system. But, with that said, the Spurs’ defense revolves around two key perimeter defenders: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
For an example of how the Spurs will use these two in the playoffs, watch this video by the YouTube account “Defense Wins Championships.”
As one can see, Popovich will use the two players’ elite perimeter defense to bother the opposing team’s best offensive players. Leonard and Green both provide mixtures of length, strength, speed, and intelligence to bother even the best NBA stars. Yet, it is important to examine why each, specifically, is great defensively.
Kawhi Leonard is obviously an outstanding defender. Yet, the advanced analytics this season do not support that conclusion. ESPN’s vaunted defensive real plus-minus stat suggests that Leonard is only the 120th best defender in the NBA. This is an area where the “eye test” supersedes analytics.
The reason why is that analytic, catch-all stats like RPM does not account for noise in three-point shooting and three-point percentage. The folks at Nylon Calculus explain:
To describe it simply, when Kawhi Leonard is on the court, all opponents shoot a higher three-point percentage than they would otherwise. But, to make this more startling, that percentage is the highest of any player in the last four years.
Been kicking this around. If you look at 3PT% & FT%, Kawhi is unluckiest player in last 4 years – he’s 7.5 points worse on plus/minus. 1/ https://t.co/3enzOsKREz
— Kostya Medvedovsky (@kmedved) March 16, 2017
Thus, with that noted, it is important to look at possession stats. Leonard ranks in the top thirteen percent of all players at defending the pick-and-roll and spot-up shots, the two most used plays in the modern NBA. Thus, this shows that advanced stats do not support Leonard’s defensive brilliance. Watch the video below for three recent examples of such effectiveness:
Surprisingly, though, the Spurs best defender this season has been Danny Green. Green ranks in the top-twenty percent of defenders guarding spot-up and isolation plays, and in the top-forty percent of all defenders guarding any individual play.
Specifically, Green is the best defender in the NBA when a pick-and-roll results in a spot-up shot, allowing a minuscule .5 points per possession. Watch this video of Green closing out on Anthony Davis to understand why.
Danny Green is an incredibly long defender who, most importantly, is excellent at following the basketball. On the above play, Green begins his recover from the double-team before Jrue Holiday passes the ball, allowing him to close-out and contest Anthony Davis’s three-point shot.
Additionally, Green is in the top seventeen percent of NBA defenders at guarding isolation possession when a defensive switch occurs, allowing only .761 points per possession. For example, the clips below shows him doing just that against James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Overall, while not as strong of a defender as Kawhi Leonard, Green can occasionally guard the best offensive player on the opposing team. More importantly, in the playoffs, he will generally defend the best offensive guard. In the video above, against Harden, Green steals the ball by watching Harden’s dribble and timing his reach perfect. Against Westbrook, Green gets crossed over, but is able to use his length to quickly recover and contest the shot.
Last year, San Antonio was poised to make a run to the NBA Finals until they were matched with Oklahoma City’s athleticism. This year, in part due to these five players, no such mismatch exists. Jonathan Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon will let the Spurs defend more athletic teams, Kawhi Leonard has developed into a true primary option, and they are getting hot at just the right time.
The most poignant critique people are making about San Antonio – including Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons – is that the Spurs do not have that “extra gear” for the playoffs. Offensively, this may be valid. But defensively it is not. As shown above, Popovich’s team has all the talent, intelligence, length, and athleticism necessary to continue matching up against the best offensive teams.
It is because of this reason, assuming no key injuries to San Antonio’s roster, that I believe the Spurs will win the 2017 NBA Championship.