NBA's Most Consistant Team Does it Again: Spurs Clinch the West

| by David Berri

The Spurs have clinched the best record in the Western Conference.  And they may finish with the best record in the NBA.  But despite their lofty status in the NBA standings, the Spurs have not been a frequent topic in this forum.  In fact, the last post dedicated to the Spurs was offered on the 3rd of December

That post looked at the Spurs after just 18 games.  Now that 80 games have been played, what stories can be told?

The Spurs have won 61 games, but that record is a bit of an illusion.  The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) is 6.3, a mark consistent with a team that would win about 55 or 56 wins in 80 games.  When we turn to Wins Produced, we see that these 55 or 56 wins come from a familiar source. 

  • Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have combined to produce 31.6 wins.
  • Everyone Else on the roster has combined to produce 24.0 wins.

As I did back December, let’s take a similar look at the Spurs across the past four seasons.

  • 2006-07: Duncan-Ginobili-Parker (43.9 Wins Produced), Everyone Else (19.2 Wins Produced)
  • 2007-08: Duncan-Ginobili-Parker (41.2 Wins Produced), Everyone Else (12.4 Wins Produced)
  • 2008-09: Duncan-Ginobili-Parker (30.7 Wins Produced), Everyone Else (20.4 Wins Produced)
  • 2009-10: Duncan-Ginobili-Parker (31.7 Wins Produced), Everyone Else (22.8 Wins Produced)

The big three in San Antonio are on pace to produce about as many wins as we have seen in each of the last two seasons.  And if that was all the Spurs had, this team would struggle.  But Everyone Else on the Spurs is clearly helping.  Consequently, although the Spurs are not the “best” team in the NBA (in terms of efficiency differential or Wins Produced), this team does rank among the best.

The construction of the Spurs reminds me of a post offered this past week by Andres Alvarez.  As Dre noted in A Rose does not Equal Love, a team can’t just focus on the best players on the team.  A team also needs to focus on the worst players.  Specifically, a team can also improve outcomes by not hiring players who are very unproductive.

The team that illustrates this point in Dre’s post was the Chicago Bulls.  The San Antonio Spurs, though, also illustrate this observation.  An average player posts a WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] of 0.100.  This season, the Spurs employ seven players – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, DeJuan Blair, Tony Parker, Antonio McDyess, Tiago Splitter, and George Hill – who have posted above average marks and played more than 500 minutes.  And the Spurs have employed six players in the negative range.  But although these players have collected money from San Antonio, combined the negative players have only played 463 minutes.  In other words, negative players have mostly stayed on the bench for the Spurs this season.

Okay, the Spurs have done a good job building a title contender.  The team has a nice blend of productive stars and productive role players.  And although I didn’t have Dre’s observation in December, this is essentially what I said after 18 games (see why I never talk about the Spurs?).  So what can I say that hasn’t been said before (in this forum)?

Well, after 18 games, three more stories were offered:

  • Richard Jefferson is above average again.
  • DeJuan Blair is struggling.
  • Tim Duncan looks older.

After 80 games, only one of these stories can still be told. 

  • Jefferson is once again below average. 
  • Blair is once again well above average.
  • And Duncan – while still being the most productive player on the team – doesn’t look quite as good as he did in the past.

The play of Jefferson and Blair reminds us that small samples are a problem.  Again, after 18 games the story for Jefferson and Blair was not the same story we see after 80 games.  Although this is not surprising, it does seem like every season we start trying to draw conclusions before the season reaches the quarter pole.

As for the Duncan story, that story reminds us of the power of age.  Next year (assuming there is a next year), Duncan and Ginobili – the two players leading the Spurs in Wins Produced – will be 35 and 34 years of age respectively.  Although we can’t predict when age will ultimately end a player’s career, we do know that a player will eventually get too old to contribute at some point.

So although we don’t know if “some point” for Duncan and Ginobili is 2011-12, we do know that the Spurs need to find someone to replace these players someday.  Yes, you can help your team win games by not hiring and playing negative players.  But to contend for a title, you do need players who can produce wins in large quantities.  And that means, if the Spurs wish to contend again in the future, the team will have to find some players to produce wins in the same quantities it is currently getting from Duncan and Ginobili (and yes, I think I have told that story before as well).

- DJ