Why the San Antonio Spurs Are Better Than the Golden State Warriors

Some of the advanced stats suggest the Spurs are better than the Warriors. Here's why that's not crazy.

The debate between watching game film and studying statistics will never end.

Which is really the better way to measure and predict success in sports?

Well, you're on numberFire, and if you think I'm going to say that stats are the way to go, you'd be partially right, but I'd never be blind enough to disregard the eye test entirely.

Why does any of that matter?

For starters, our algorithms think that the San Antonio Spurs are better than the Golden State Warriors.

There's a lot that goes into it, but that's not crazy to think.

Here's why.


Okay, the Warriors have a shot at hitting the storied 72-win mark. That might settle it for some people, but isn't that pretty short-sighted?

The Warriors are 52-5, and the Spurs are 49-9, placing them 3.5 games back from Golden State. Check one for the Warriors.

Further in Golden State's favor, the Spurs, based on a few measures, haven't had a tough schedule. Per Basketball-Reference's Strength of Schedule metric, the Spurs have had the easiest slate in the league, and it hasn't been particularly close. The Spurs' score of -1.37 -- zero is league average -- is one of just two marks less than -1: Oklahoma City's is -1.01. In 28th place is Golden State, but they're a far cry from the Spurs' mark at -0.77.

According to ESPN's Strength of Schedule metric, the Spurs also have had the easiest run, and the Warriors are tied for 24th.

Still, even with factoring in opponents, our nERD metric suggests the Spurs are playing like a team that should win 86.9% of their 82 games this season. Golden State's mark of 83.8% places them second.

ESPN's Expected Winning Percentage sees things similarly, suggesting San Antonio should hold a winning percentage of 89.2% and be 52-6, and Golden State should be 84.9% and 48-9. Over at Basketball-Reference, the Spurs own an Expected Win-Loss mark of 50-8, and the Warriors are at 46-11, the second-best mark in the league.

There's a lot of agreement that the Spurs should be looking like the better team in terms of record.

Why? Because a team's record isn't the only real measure of skill.

Four Factors

In terms of the Four Factors (of Basketball Success), which were derived by Dean Oliver, San Antonio and Golden State are pretty similar. Here are the teams' marks in each category (Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Rate, Offensive Rebound Rate, and Free Throws per Field Goal Attempt).

San Antonio Spurs 0.535 12.7 23.1 0.191
Golden State Warriors 0.563 13.7 24.2 0.198

Golden State has the highest Effective Field Goal Percentage -- which adjusts for the fact that three-pointers are worth more than two-pointers -- in the NBA, but San Antonio is ranked second. The Spurs are 13th in Turnover Rate, and the Warriors are 21st.

Those ranks are basically flipped in terms of Offensive Rebounding Rate, as Golden State is 14th in the NBA and the Spurs are 21st. Both teams are below average in terms of getting to the free throw line, as measured by free throw attempts per field goal attempt (the Warriors rank 20th, and the Spurs are 23rd).

This boils down to the Warriors' scoring 114.5 points per 100 possessions (their Offensive Rating), which is tops in the NBA. The Spurs are at 111.2, third best.

I love watching Stephen Curry as much as the next guy, but there certainly hasn't been a cavernous difference between the two offenses, even though Golden State clearly holds an advantage.

What about defense?

Team Opp eFG% Opp TOV% DRB% Opp FT/FGA
San Antonio Spurs 0.472 14.0 79.5 0.183
Golden State Warriors 0.475 12.7 76.0 0.206

Defensively, the Spurs own the best mark in terms of opponent Effective Field Goal Percentage in the league at 47.2%. The Warriors are third at 47.5%. San Antonio's Turnover Rate (14.0%) ranks 8th on defense, and the Warriors' rate (12.7%) ranks 22nd.

Further, the Spurs haul in the second-highest percentage (79.5%) of defensive rebounds in the NBA: only Charlotte (79.7%) collects more. Golden State's 76.0% ranks 17th.

And to complete the defensive sweep, the Spurs foul at the third-lowest rate in the league at just 0.183 free throws per field goal attempt faced. The Warriors (.206) are 15th.

This all culminates in a Defensive Rating of 97.9 for the Spurs, the only mark below 102 on the season. Golden State is fifth at 103.1 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Again, you can see -- hopefully -- why there's a case to be made for the Spurs.


We've got a pretty solid foundation for the case that suggests the Spurs are the better team, unless you discredit things like efficiency and per-possession numbers.

None of this, necessarily, suggests that the Spurs should or will beat the Warriors in one game or a seven-game series.

This is where things like matchups come into play.

And yeah, the Warriors beat the Spurs by 30 points earlier this season, but if we point to that as a reason for why the Warriors are better, we need to question whether the Bucks are better than the Warriors.

Further, in that particular drubbing game, LaMarcus Aldridge shot 2 for 9 and gathered just 3 rebounds in 25 minutes of action. In the same time on the court, Kawhi Leonard shot the ball just six times (but did have seven free-throw attempts).

These may sound like excuses, but we can all agree that -- over a seven-game series -- the Warriors are going to see better games from some of the Spurs' best players.

That could certainly matter because the Warriors are 29th in points allowed per game in the paint, and San Antonio ranks 8th on offense in paint points per game


If you ask me -- even after all this -- who I'd take in a seven-game series, my answer would be the Warriors.

They're likely to hold home-court advantage, where they're undefeated this season, and their small-ball lineup will probably mean that Aldridge -- and how he fares against Draymond Green -- will be the biggest X-factor in the series. We're also unable to know for sure how Danny Green, who was 1 for 4 in their first meeting, will be shooting come playoff time.

What this really comes down to is -- considering matchups and how players will be performing come playoff time (you know, the minutiae that aren't easily quantified months in advance) -- that the aging Spurs have more to prove and more strategy to implement in order to best the Warriors, whose small lineup forces other teams to adapt.

But if we're talking about the better team through most of February, it's been the Spurs. Blame the "teams trying harder against the champions" card or the strength of schedule, but San Antonio has been the more efficient regular season team.

And if Aldridge and Green can play better than they did in their first matchup (a combined 3 of 13), there are plenty of reasons to believe San Antonio can push the Warriors to the limit, especially on the defensive glass.

The eyes tell me the Warriors have the advantage, and the numbers tell me the Spurs have been better. If we're being rational, I think both are correct.