When they were winning rings, San Antonio did it with defense. Sure there was Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but it was the defense that set them apart.
Right now, the Spurs defense is ranked 25th in the NBA.
They re giving up 103.7 points per 100 possessions, the league average is 99.8 (via Hoopdata.com). It comes down to this simple fact — opponents are shooting the ball very well against the Spurs — 46.6 percent on the season. Only four teams are worse. If you prefer something more sophisticated like True Shooting Percentage (which accounts for free throws and three pointers) the picture isn’t any better, they are still 25th in the league.
So far they have scored enough to keep their record at 7-4, but Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan pulled no punches about the defensive numbers to the Spurs blog of the Express-News.
“That just won’t get anything done,” Popovich said. “That will portend a very mediocre basketball season for the San Antonio Spurs.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Duncan said. “We’ve got a long ways to go to get to where we believe the Spurs’ defense should be.”
When the Spurs were great they defended the paint and the three point line very well, intentionally giving you a little more room to take a long two-point shot.
This season they are allowing an average number of shots per game at the rim (22.9) but teams are shooting 68.7 percent on those — only two teams allow opponents a higher percentage at the rim. As for opponents at the three-point line, they are a little more middle of the league pack. Not elite, but not the biggest problem. With the long two pointer — the shot they want you to take — again the numbers are pretty much near the league averages (middle 10 teams).
Where teams are hurting the Spurs? Rotations, which used to be their strength.
For example, opponents are taking 14.3 percent of their attempts against the Spurs in isolation sets and shooting 45.8 percent — only one team in the NBA is giving up a higher percentage against isolations (stats via My Synergy Sports). Watch the plays and you seen the initial defender get beat and he gets a long way into the paint before the help arrives, leading to quality looks.
Another area is handling the roll man on the pick-and-roll — those guys are shooting 57.9 percent against the Spurs. On the video you see the big men show out hard to slow the ball handler but Matt Boner and Duncan and the rest of the Spurs bigs cannot recover fast enough to their man and the results are open layups or good midrange looks on the pick-and-pop.
The Spurs are still a good team. But with this defense it feels like last season, where they can get to the playoffs but then their flaws will be exposed and things will end quickly. This is a veteran team, there is certainly time to make adjustments and changes. The minds are willing. The question is do they have the bodies to do it?