Are the Spurs Too Old to Defend Their Title?

Tim Duncan still carries the Spurs, but can he do it for the entire season? Or will Cory Joseph and the younger players have to fill the void?

They say age is just a number, but when it applies to the NBA, it's a little more than that.

The average age of San Antonio Spurs coming into the start of the season was 29.3, the second-oldest team in the league. For those outside of the sports world, that is the age where many start truly figuring out their career path or have started raising a family. But inside the sports world, you're considered a veteran and, depending on the sport, nearing the end of your prime playing years.

Tim Duncan is easily the elder statesman on the team (though Manu Ginobili isn't far behind) and has played 17 seasons as a pro. To put that in perspective, Cory Joseph and Kawhi Leonard hadn't even had their sixth birthday when Duncan was drafted by the Spurs. And to make you feel even older, Kyle Anderson was born in the same year that Duncan started his collegiate career at Wake Forest.

Duncan, Tony Parker, and Ginobili are all on the wrong side of 30, and if you add up the number of seasons they've played as well as Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner's, you get 63 years of experience. Aside from those five players, Marco Belinelli is the only player on the roster who has been in the league more than five years, and it's only been seven for him. The Spurs, then, are either really old or really young.

But are they too old to defend their NBA title? Has the ship finally sailed on Duncan? Is it time for Parker to step aside to let the other point guards take over? Can they get past the younger teams in the tough as nails Western Conference? There's only one way to answer these questions -- math!

Youth Waiting in the Wings

Parker has been hurt a lot over the past few seasons, and this season is no exception with both hamstrings making him essentially miss the entire month of December. But Gregg Popovich is like a boy scout and is always prepared for when things go awry.

Last year, the go-to point guard would have been Patty Mills, but since he was out recovering from shoulder surgery, Cory Joseph was thrust into the spotlight for spot starts when Parker was injured. How have they fared this year Let's check out their per-36 numbers.

T. Parker49.2%55.9%
C. Joseph52.8%32.4%
P. Mills41.7%35.9%

Joseph has started 14 games this season so far and has made most of his opportunities when he was able to play. In 10 of his 14 starts, Joseph put up double-digit points and dished out at least three assists.

On the season, Joseph actually tops the Spurs' depth chart at point guard in offensive rating (117) and defensive rating (105), and win shares per 48 minutes (.155) is significantly higher than Mills' (.101) and Parker's (0.77). Joseph may not score points in bunches like Parker and Mills can, but he stuffs the rest of his stat line better than both in all categories except for assists (second to Parker) and three-point field goal percentage.

It's probably safe to say that the captain of the Spurs' ship will be in safe hands whenever Parker decides to hang it all up with Joseph and Mills both bringing a different, but effective, style of play. However, they aren't the only two who have shown veteran experience despite limited time in the league.

The Spurs finished last season with the best percentage from beyond the arc thanks to Mills, Belinelli, and Danny Green but have dipped to just the sixth best in the league this year. However, while Mills is still getting back on his feet, Green has picked up the slack, hitting nearly 40% of his three pointers this season. It may not be a banner year for Green in terms of hitting three-pointers, but his percentage is nearly as good as Stephen Curry (.005% difference). Green attempts 6.1 three-pointers per game to Curry's 7.7.

And the stats behind Green's season so far gets better. He has been a consistent cog in the wheel, posting the most minutes on the team, notching the fourth best offensive rating (110) of the Spurs that have logged significant minutes, and owning the second-best win shares total on the team at 3.4. He fits a perfect role for the Spurs now -- and is by far a suitable replacement for Ginobili when that time is here.

Don't Sleep on the Big Man

The biggest reason the Spurs are still alive in the Western Conference (even if they are only the seventh seed) is none other than the never-aging Tim Duncan. The youth on the team is poised for great things and helps keep the old guys fresh but Duncan can still get the job done for the Spurs.

In per-36 numbers, Duncan is third on the team in points (17.5) and the leader in rebounds (12.0) and blocks (2.4). He also leads the team in win shares (3.9). While Duncan's offensive numbers aren't earth shattering, he's performing well at both ends in typical Duncan fashion.

Duncan’s win share total is just 0.3 off of Klay Thompson's mark, the 20th best in the league. Duncan is no James Harden (8.2 win shares) or Anthony Davis (7.9) but he is still playing at a high level in the 17th season of his career.

Our in-house metric, nERD, is fairly favorable for Duncan as well at 6.9 ranking just behind Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge. This means we could expect a team of average players led by Duncan to finish 6.3 games above .500 -- pretty impressive in spite of a “down” year for him.

Hurry Back, Kawhi!

Duncan's performance on defense has helped the Spurs hold onto the sixth-best defensive efficiency in the league according to our power rankings. The team has depth at some positions if the injury bug stays around and can rely on sharpshooters like Danny Green to make the playoffs. But in the end that may not be enough to defend their NBA title as is.

Enter (a healthy) Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard last played on December 15th, 2014 and has a good chance to finally make his first appearance of 2015 tonight against the Blazers. On December 18th, the Spurs were just five and a half games out of first place in the West, 8-3 at home, 9-6 on the road and had a 67.4 nERD.

Nearly a month later, the Spurs are four games behind fourth place (and eight back from first) and have just a 59.9 nERD. They lost three of eight home games and four of their six road games while Leonard was out, and the advanced metrics don't look much better with Kawhi on and off the court.

On-Off CourteFG%Reb %Ast %Stl %Blk %Tov %PaceORtg
Kawhi On5.1%5.0%64.2%8.6%9.5%14.0%-0.511.2
Kawhi Off1.7%-1.3%61.9%7.1%7.8%15.8%0.5-0.6

The first row shows how much of a boost the team receives when Leonard is out there playing with the team. The second row -- which has decent numbers in some categories -- shows how team performs when Leonard isn't playing, and by looking at the third row, there's a consistent difference across the board.

One number that stands out at first is offensive rating. Leonard is certainly a difference-maker for the Spurs and a near 12-point swing in offensive rating for the Spurs could have turned some close losses into wins over the past month. The Spurs are also three times as effective shooting the ball when we notice the eFG%, which accounts for all shots taken and weights three-pointers more than two-pointers.

On the defensive side of the ball, the steal and block rate goes up as Leonard can expect to contribute in those areas as well when in the game for the Spurs. The team takes care of the ball better with Leonard as well as noted by the higher assist rate and lower turnover rate. In other words, the Spurs really, really miss Kawhi Leonard.

So what have we learned about the Spurs? They have talent that can contribute alongside the veterans on a daily basis and should leave the Spurs in great shape whenever Duncan and company decide enough is enough. We also know that the Spurs may not have survived the month of December without the likes of Danny Green or the return of Patty Mills. And obviously having the star of last season, Kawhi Leonard, is needed to keep pushing forward.

However, the Western conference is as tough as ever. The Warriors have a stranglehold on the West right now and a huge nERD mark (82.8) that is nearly 20% higher than the next team, the Mavericks (70.5) The Spurs have been mired in seventh place of the conference with and without Leonard, and they have the Suns, Pelicans, and Thunder all nipping at their heels.

We have yet to see the Spurs at full strength, as Leonard has yet to play with Mills, so the Spurs have lacked the solid starting five and deep bench to which they've grown accustomed. The Spurs, per our numbers, are currently have an 86.2% chance to make the playoffs while the Suns, Pelicans and Thunder all have less than a 53.0% shot to make it.

Will the Spurs be able to defend their title? We currently list the Spurs with just a 2.8% chance to win it all and pull off their first back-to-back championship. However, if all stay healthy the rest of the way, they won't go down without a fight.