The San Antonio Spurs beat the Golden State Warriors on Monday, extending their winning streak to nine games and launching into the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference with less than 10 games remaining. San Antonio’s playoff streak will reach 22 in a couple weeks when the Spurs officially clinch their spot.
The Spurs are not mentioned often, if at all, as a real candidate to disrupt the Warriors’ hegemony in the NBA. Even as the Warriors falter — the two-time defending champs are now tied for the No. 1 seed with the Denver Nuggets, and sit 4.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 overall record — the teams most often discussed as a real threat to Golden State are the Bucks, Thunder, and Rockets.
Is there a case for the Spurs to be in that club, too? What keeps San Antonio from being considered elite?
Well, there are some easy answers and some harder answers.
The easiest answer is that for much of the season, San Antonio looked like it might miss the playoffs entirely. Only in the last few weeks have the Spurs put together a consistent stretch where they look like potential world-beaters. The Rodeo Trip was a disaster, and though it’s been washed away by this impressive streak with a couple of signature wins, it’s not forgotten. Elite, championship-level San Antonio teams usually ace the Rodeo Trip. This version tripped all over themselves away from the Alamo.
The Rodeo Trip is actually a tremendous example of San Antonio’s biggest problem: the Spurs’ defense on the road is indefensible. Per NBA.com/stats, San Antonio’s defense at home ranks a respectable No. 9 in the league. The Spurs’ road defense is an abysmal No. 28. This split is totally uncharacteristic and surely maddening for those involved. When Gregg Popovich has ranted about his team this season, it’s usually been about defensive effort and execution while on the road.
No such home-road gap exists for the Spurs’ offense (No. 7 at home, No. 6 on the road) and no defensive home-road gap existed last season when San Antonio had the No. 4 defense overall (No. 3 at home, No. 2 on road). When you break it down further, shooting defense appears to be the culprit: San Antonio ranks No. 11 in opponent effective field goal percentage at home and No. 27 on the road. The Spurs allow much higher conversion rates from both behind the arc and in the lane on the road than at home, but the gap is more striking on three-pointers.
Most teams are better at home than on the road, which why I’m using league rankings to put it in context. Still, the Spurs’ splits are extreme.
Here’s another way to look at it.
The average NBA team has a scoring margin of roughly +2.8 points per game at home and a scoring margin of roughly -2.8 points per game on the road. If a perfectly average team was lucky enough to play every game at home, you’d expect them to go 48-34. If a perfectly average team had to play every game on the road, you’d expect them to go 34-48.
The Spurs, meanwhile, are +7.5 per game at home this season and -4.5 per game on the road. Under this theory, if San Antonio played every game at home, they’d go 59-23. If the Spurs played every game on the road, they’d go 28-54. No other good team in the NBA has a split this extreme. It’s like San Antonio is two different teams, depending on where they are playing.
This is the easy answer to the question of why the Spurs aren’t considered a true challenger to the Warriors: because when you get them on the road, they look like they don’t even belong in the vicinity of the conversation.
The harder answer to defend is the Spurs don’t meet our expectations of what a Golden State challenger should look like. San Antonio has gone retro, focusing on a highly effective isolation and mid-range focused offensive attack. The Spurs traded their best player in Kawhi Leonard, who also happened to be one of the few players in the NBA who people thought could give multiple Warriors trouble in a playoff series.
As a result, San Antonio boasts two of the best old-school offensive players of their generation in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. That and some shooting is basically San Antonio’s entire (top-10) offense. It doesn’t look like anything else in the league, and it’s not in any way progressive (unlike the unique but seemingly forward-thinking Houston attack).
In the collective imagination, the Spurs’ offense is retrograde in the worst sense of the word, so it doesn’t get recognition or respect despite being deadly effective. Did people forget that Aldridge once starred in one of the greatest offenses of all-time next to Brandon Roy? Do people still respect shot creation so little as a skill that they can’t recognize DeRozan’s excellent combination of usage rate and efficiency despite his lack of three-point shooting?
The Spurs are a ‘90s style team with ‘90s style stars. We don’t want to believe that could be the answer to stopping the Warriors, not while there’s hope in the ultra-modern vanguard presented by teams like Milwaukee and Houston.
Of course, the Spurs aren’t the answer to stopping the Warriors because there is no stopping the Warriors until and unless the Warriors stop themselves. This is all an academic exercise we do to keep ourselves entertained until the playoffs begin.
That, perhaps, makes the dismissal of the Spurs all the more unbecoming: they can’t even win respect in a purely theoretical debate. It honestly says more about the state of the debate than it does the Spurs.