Why the Spurs' Frontcourt Makes Them the Title Favorite
The San Antonio Spurs have been among the NBA's elite for nearly two decades. There are a number of moments I could point to as the turning point for the franchise - Greg Popovich naming himself head coach 18 games into the 1996-1997 season, winning the 1997 draft lottery and selecting Tim Duncan with the number one overall pick, or simply winning the 1999 NBA title - but no matter which one I choose, it's undeniable that the Spurs have been the most consistent franchise in the NBA since that moment.
During the 17 years of the Popovich/Duncan era the Spurs have won more regular season games than any other franchise (950), won four NBA titles and won at least 50 games in every season but one - the 1999 strike shortened season in which their record was 37-12 and they won the title in dominant fashion. In fact, the 16 50-plus win seasons that Popovich and Duncan have compiled is more than 26 NBA franchises have in their entire history.
Although San Antonio has played in essentially the same system for the past 17 years - and quite successfully I might add - coach Pop has done an outstanding job of making adjustments to best suite his current personnel and this season is a shining example of that. At 95 possessions per 48 minutes, this year's rendition of the Spurs plays at a faster pace than any San Antonio team has since John Lucas coached the team in the early 1990s.
Any team with slashers like Tony Parker and Patty Mills running the point is bound to play at a torrent pace, but much of the reason they are able to the play at such a high speed is because of the depth, athleticism and versatility of their frontcourt. With that said, when fans and analysts talk about the reasons for the team's success, the Spurs' big men never seem to be at the forefront. Well, other than Duncan.
The Spurs are coming off of a Game 1 victory in which they scored 66 points in the paint. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City is struggling to replace their injured rim defender, Serge Ibaka, Miami is often playing small ball with Chris Bosh at center, and Roy Hibbert is playing extremely inconsistently in Indiana. The Spurs have a massive advantage on the block against all three of the other team's that could stand in their way of a championship.
According to our metrics, the Spurs are currently the favorites to take home the NBA title with a 33.3% chance of winning it all. Here's a closer look at the Spurs' big men and why they are the reason San Antonio is the favorite to bring home the Larry O'Brien trophy:
Duncan is a sure fire Hall of Fame player, and widely considered the greatest power forward to ever play the game. But what is most impressive about his career is that he continues to play at an All-Star level even at 38 years old. While many teams are trending towards smaller lineups, and more of the stretch-four type power forward, the former Wake Forrest Demon Deacon continues to dominate in the post and with his mid-range game as a true power forward. So far this playoffs, Duncan has yet to attempt a three-pointer and has taken 92 shots from eight feet from the basket or closer, more than the rest of his shots in the playoffs combined.
In Game 1 win against the Ibaka-less Thunder, the former MVP posted 27 points, 9 boards, 5 assists and a block. Additionally, so far this postseason, TD is averaging 16.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 blocks and only 0.6 turnovers per game. Those are certainly impressive numbers, but what makes them really stand out is that he has accumulated these numbers with only a 21% usage percentage, which is only the fifth-highest usage percentage on the team. That means that the play runs through Duncan only 21% of the time he is on the floor. That is by far the lowest playoff usage percentage of his career, other than in 2011 when the Spurs were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Although Duncan's numbers aren't as eye popping as they were in his prime - for instance he averaged 21 points, 13 rebounds 4.5 assists and 2.8 blocks when the Spurs won the title in 2003 - but they are equally as impressive when you consider his lower usage percentage and the fact that he is only playing 33.5 minutes per game this postseason, nine minutes less than in 2003 and the third fewest of his career. All things considered, I'd say this postseason has been not too shabby for such an "old man."
Although his numbers aren't as gaudy as some others on face value, Tiago Splitter is one of the most underrated players in the league. During the regular season, Splitter only played 21.5 minutes per game, as Coach Pop was playing a heavy rotation in an attempt to keep players fresh. He averaged only 8.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists while adding an additional 0.5 steals and blocks, but when you dig a little deeper Splitter's value becomes more obvious. When the Brazilian was on the floor, he accounted for 16.1% of the team's rebounds (including 20.5% of the team's defensive rebounds) and 10.1% of the team's assists, a huge number for a center, and posted a 266 plus/minus. He accomplished this with a usage percentage of only 17.7%.
With Popovich tightening up his rotation in the playoffs, Splitter has seen more time on the floor and his numbers have increased dramatically. The Spurs' center has increased his averages to 8.8 points 7.7 boards and 2.2 assists in 26.8 minutes per game, which I know does not seem like a "dramatic" increase, but when you look at the advanced stats, you truly get a sense of how critical Splitter has been to the team's success throughout the playoffs.
Through the Spurs' first 13 games of the playoffs, Splitter ranks second on the team with an 18.9 efficiency rating (only behind Duncan's 21.5), second on the team in offensive rating with a massive 138 (only behind Matt Bonner's 156 in just 48 total minutes), second in win shares with 1.7 (again, only behind Duncan with 1.9) and he leads the Spurs in win shares per 48 minutes with a ridiculous .234. In fact, Splitter ranks third among all players in playoff win shares per 48 minutes, behind only Lebron James and the Birdman, Chris Andersen. What is most impressive is that he posted these stats all with only a 13.1% usage percentage in the playoffs.
Take a look at Splitters' playoff advanced stats compared to some of the superstars still left in the playoffs:
|Usage %||Offensive Rating||Win Shares||Win Shares/48 Minutes|
Other than the disparity in usage percentage and LeBron's huge advantage in win shares, Splitter looks like he belongs on that list. Obviously there are a number of factors to consider, and I'm by no means trying to say that Splitter is among the league's elite. But when you look at these stats compared to the league's true superstars, it's hard to argue Splitter's impact on these playoffs.
Boris Diaw's impact on the game isn't quite as obvious as Duncan's or Splitter's, but he's an integral part of the Spurs' success. Despite dropping only 9 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and a steal in 20 minutes of action, Diaw was huge for San Antonio in their Game 1 victory over the Thunder. The 12-year vet created mismatches with his versatility and absolutely destroyed Oklahoma City's small-ball lineup. Diaw's success against the Thunder's smaller lineups forced Scott Brooks to play Kendrick Perkins much more than he would have liked, which hindered Oklahoma City on the offensive end.
What makes Diaw such a weapon for the Spurs is his size and versatility. If you try to guard him with a smaller player, such as Caron Butler as we often saw in Game 1, Boris has the power to back you down in the post. Contrarily, if you attempt to guard him with a bigger, more powerful player like Perkins, the Spurs' big man has the ability to stretch the floor and knock down outside shots.
Diaw has been an incredibly efficient offensive player throughout these playoffs and has gotten the most out of his limited minutes. The Frenchman is shooting 55.7% from the floor and 41.2% from three-point land, with a 62.6% true shooting percentage. Diaw has also done a tremendous job sharing the basketball (as most Spurs players do), adding 2.6 assists per game and contributing 16.7% of the teams assists while he is on the floor. Additionally, much like Duncan and Splitter, Diaw lets the game come to him rather than forcing the action. The Spurs' forward has a 16% usage percentage so far this postseason and has made the most of it.
What It All Means
These three big men have been nothing short of spectacular for the Spurs this postseason. Their unique skill set and ability to play on the floor with each other has been a huge asset for the Spurs. In Fact, Russell Peddle goes into great detail about this in his article breaking down a Spurs' lineup that could give the Thunder trouble.
The ridiculous depth that the Spurs have up front is something that none of the other three teams left in the playoffs possesses, and I didn't even really talk about Aron Baynes, who was very impressive in Game 1 against the Thunder, or Matt Bonner, who has yet to miss a shot so far this postseason (albeit he has only taken four). If the Spurs' bigs can continue to dominate the paint they will win the NBA title, just as our algorithm predicts.