When the Spurs traded Tiago Splitter in an effort to clear cap space at the onset of last summer’s free-agency period, they were assuming risk at multiple levels.
Forget the fact they did not have the LaMarcus Aldridge signing agreed upon at that point, San Antonio was playing a hand that left key contributors from its 2014 championship-winning team grabbing cash in free agency the team simply couldn’t match, as well as holes to fill on the other end. Not to mention, had the Spurs not nabbed Aldridge, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan may have actually called it quits.
But most of all, the departure of Splitter and the eventual acquisition of Aldridge meant an adjustment to the San Antonio defensive backbone that had been molded for years.
For all his awkward-looking hook shots and unflattering moments, Splitter was a critical element of the Spurs’ defensive evolution following the beating they suffered at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011. He became a secondary big man that helped take pressure off Duncan, as the San Antonio defense once again became a merciless, grind-you-to-a-pulp outfit while the offensive side of the ball transformed into the efficient iteration we’ve seen over the last half-decade.
So when the Spurs beat out the pesky Suns and the Portland team that paid Aldridge’s bills for nearly a decade, there was a natural feeling of change — San Antonio would ride the wave of explosive offense that’s been building strength in the league, and Gregg Popovich would continue to revamp his strategy to adjust to the changing landscape.
Replacing Splitter with LMA meant the old-school coach was going all-in offensively, right? That bringing in bigs like Aldridge and David West meant a shift from his well-formed principles?
Had I come to you at the start of the season with a printout of the Spurs’ roster and said, “I’ll bet you $5 this team will boast the best defense in the league — statistically speaking — by far,” you would have taken the offer, laughed and immediately spent your assumed winnings.
The safe bet to start the season was San Antonio would become an offensive giant once more, adding Aldridge to help bolster that side of the ball after it was exposed — because of age, injuries and a lack of athleticism — by the younger Clippers last April.
And yet, that’s not what happened. San Antonio took a while to get going offensively. Defensively, it hit the ground running.
The Spurs have moved away from their traditional defensive tendencies. While Aldridge isn’t regarded as a defender on the level of Splitter, he offers more range and mobility on that side of the ball. In turn, the shift has more often allowed Duncan to play the comfortable role of rim-protector, where his diminishing foot-speed isn’t as much of a factor.
A quick scan of Synergy data shows that Duncan was involved in fewer pick-and-rolls defensively this season (where he had the roll-man responsibility), while his defensive post-up frequency grew. On the other hand, teams were going after Aldridge in the pick-and-roll. Per data provided to me by Synergy, by midseason, he’d already been involved in more PnR situations in which the ball-handler ended the play than Splitter had seen the entirety of his last season in San Antonio. And he handled this treatment serviceably, holding players he guarded to shooting percentages worse than their season average, per SportVU cameras. On top of that, the difference in the Spurs’ defensive numbers was negligible whether he was on the floor or on the bench.
Splitter and Duncan struggled as an on-court combination at times over the past few seasons. Each player was, for all intents and purposes, a center, forming a front line that represented the antithesis of the modern NBA roster. So, even considering Aldridge’s standing as an average defender (some may even argue this), his willingness to run shooters off the 3-point line, defend in space and make himself vulnerable to the blow-by effectively helped the Spurs transition to the defense they’ve become. Not to mention, he stayed healthy all season, something Splitter struggled mightily to do.
There was suddenly more flexibility, more room for creativity. A team that, for the most part, has gone straight man-to-man with very little switching for years began to move along with the times, mostly because the style that’s developed around the league has necessitated that change.
Popovich has players switching on screens more often than ever, and he’ll even throw zone looks around at times. And most of this is because Golden State is taking what we know about traditional basketball strategy and flipping it on its head.
But all this brings us back to the beginning, where when the Spurs acquired Aldridge, the smartest hoop-heads out there theorized this offense would be incredibly dynamic — a beautiful blend of spacing and open floor that would be lethal to any defense. San Antonio spent years without a sharpshooting frontcourt complement to Duncan (outside of Matt Bonner, of course), and now they had one who could thrive in pick-and-rolls with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, etc… The defense would take some work, but they’d be able to put up points easily and efficiently.
Now look at what’s happening. The explosive Warriors are everyone’s worst nightmare with their ability to shoot you out of the gym in a matter of minutes, but the Spurs defend them quite well, all things considered. Golden State’s offensive-efficiency rating in four games against San Antonio is 104.6 points scored per 100 possessions (they average 112.3), the worst against any Western Conference team, per NBA.com. Only the Hawks, Celtics and Pistons have given them more trouble, but they’ve only had to face them two times apiece.
For the Spurs, while guarding the Warriors looks like hell on Earth, defense isn’t the issue. They’ve been able to stifle Steph and Co. about as well as anyone else; they just can’t seem to score on the defending champs.
Parker has a difficult time with bigger defenders and can’t beat the switches in pick-and-rolls like he once could; Leonard is constantly hounded and crowded, forcing him to play more like a bulldozer in a crowd than he’s accustomed to; Aldridge, while he has size on Draymond Green, appears bothered at times by the physicality; for some reason, Danny Green and the rest of the Spurs’ shooters can’t hit a shot against that team; and there are times when, sadly, it appears Duncan doesn’t belong on the floor against the Dubs. Stupid Father Time.
San Antonio put up 94.8 points per 100 possessions against Golden State in four games, 13.7 points fewer than their season average. The only other team that’s defended Pop’s group nearly as effectively is the Oklahoma City Thunder, and they just barely cracked the century mark (99.2) in terms of efficiency in three matchups. No other team is under that 100-rating mark when defending the Spurs.
Aldridge was supposed to be the icing on the offensive cake. After last season’s first-round ouster, San Antonio knew it could not continue to rely so heavily on the aging Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to score points. And to be fair, the Spurs have been very good. They’ve got the third best offense in the NBA, statistically, and they’ve shown the ability to score on just about anyone.
The team that’s quashed their offense more effectively — the two teams, really — is the one they’ll have to bring down to have a shot at a sixth title, should both arrive in the Western Conference Finals. Thinking back to the post-free-agency celebration San Antonio fans enjoyed last summer, it’s difficult to argue anyone had the team’s inability to score as its biggest concern come May.