Why San Antonio's Defense Is Historically Great

Are we under-appreciating one of the best team defenses in NBA history?

I recently wrote an article on Kawhi Leonard and his dominance as the premier two-way player in the NBA.

As I conducted research on his stifling defensive game I began to notice something...

He wasn't the only Spur atop the defensive leaderboards.

In fact, quite a bit of them were -- and still are. 

Leonard, Tim Duncan and Danny Green all rank in the top 20 in terms of Defensive Box Plus-Minus. As a matter of fact, Duncan and Leonard both rank in the top seven in that category.

In terms of Defensive Win Shares, four players -- Leonard, Duncan, Green and LaMarcus Aldridge -- rate within the top 10 in the NBA. Each of them have at least 1.5 Defensive Win Shares with Leonard leading the league with 2.4.

Where you really, really see the dominance of this shutdown defense is the Defensive Rating leaderboard. 

PlayerDefensive RtgRank

Seven-plus solid to elite defenders are why this team is first in both points per game (88.2) and team Defensive Rating (93.9) by sizable margins.

But how do they do it?

The Approach

It starts with Duncan holding it down in the paint. The 39 year-old future hall-of-famer is blocking 4.1% of shots while he's on the floor, placing him 20th in the league. But his shot blocking in itself isn't his biggest contribution to the team. 

Duncan's solid defensive principles and his ability to protect the rim is. He's third in the league in Defensive Rating and fourth in Defensive Win Shares in large part due to his elite rim protection. According to Nylon Calculus, Duncan ranks sixth among big men in Raw Points Saved per 36 and Total Position Adjusted Points Saved. And the fact that he's doing so in a mere 26.5 minutes per game makes it that much more impressive.

So, it's not a mind-blowing stretch for the Spurs to be ranked third in two-point field goal percentage against (45.3%). To take it a step further, they're very good at defending close to the basket -- and I'm not just talking about Duncan.

Per, Duncan has held opposing players to four percentage points below their usual average from within six feet. However, Aldridge, Leonard, Boris Diaw and even Green, at his shooting guard position, have an even better differential in field goal percentage allowed versus a player's usual percentage. In fact, Green has held shooters with an average percentage of 57.1% from within six feet to a mere 47.5%.

So, next time you see or hear someone say that Danny Green is useless without his shot dropping, they're more wrong than you even knew. He's a solid defender all-around -- and especially down low.

The dominance doesn't start and end with great defense in the paint.

They're also among the elite in terms of defending the other crucial part of the floor -- the three-point line.

San Antonio gives up the least amount of three point makes (5.8) per game while holding their opponents to just 19.2 attempts a night. If you're doing the division that means they allow a league best 30.3% from deep. 

Their smothering perimeter defense, headed by Leonard and Green and complemented by the likes of Patty Mills and Tony Parker , doesn't just make it hard to convert from beyond the arc, but also they make it hard to get shots up.

To seal the deal, not only do the Spurs defend two of the most efficient spots on the floor at an elite level, but also they're the best defensive rebounding team in the Association.

They're number one with 36.9 defensive rebounds per contest and do so at a 80.8% clip, which leads the league. They've allowed just 8.8 offensive rebounds per game, cutting down on second chance opportunities and opportunities for kickout threes.

The Result

For all three of these reasons, the Spurs are the first team since 1975 to post a Defensive Rating of 93.9 or better. The four teams who accomplished just that in the 1973-74 and 1974-75 seasons allowed Offensive Rebound Percentages equal to or north of 30%.

Only the Spurs have done what they're doing the way they are doing it.

With solid defense, inside and out, and great rebounding, the Spurs sport one of the best defenses we've seen in some time. I'm well aware that the NBA has become an offensive show, in large part due to Stephen Curry and the Warriors' small-ball success, but it's about time we see that the Spurs have a defense great enough to rival the great offenses of this era.