The Spurs have won five championships since Gregg Popovich took over as coach during the 1996-1997 season, but have never started the regular season with more wins than they have right now. And San Antonio isn’t just beating teams, it’s steamrolling opponents at a level not seen anywhere else in the league.
The Spurs have 14 wins of at least 20 points this season, twice as many as the next highest total in the league. (Oklahoma City has seven.) For what it’s worth, last season’s 67-win Golden State Warriors had 10 such wins through 39 games. Its 10 wins of at least 25 points is the most in a season since the 72-win Chicago Bulls, per our Pete Newmann.
“It’s better than the opposite,” Popovich said about his team’s start. “I didn’t think we’d have that kind of record at this point, but I don’t think our schedule’s been that tough. I think we’ve been fortunate schedule-wise.”
Pop is being modest about his team’s incredible start, which is jockeying with the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers for the best victory margin in NBA history. What distinguishes this team from his other stellar squads has been the defense.
San Antonio leads the NBA in scoring defense and defensive ratings at numbers the Spurs haven’t matched in a decade, as shown in this chart.
|Spurs||Wins/39G||Scoring O||Scoring D||Margin||O Rtg||D Rtg||Net Rtg||Pace|
The bold years signify their championship seasons, and one can argue that the Spurs are better defensively now at this point in the season than they had been in any of those years. Their plus-14.2 scoring margin at this point of the season is their best mark in the last 20 years by a whopping six points and the best differential in NBA history. The team’s net rating – the difference between offensive and defensive rating – is 11.3 points better than last season. What San Antonio is doing is simply remarkable for such a large sample size.
“We are trying to do what we always try to do,” Ginobili told SheridanHoops. “The thing is, personnel-wise we’re doing a better job individually.”
Ginobili went on to compliment several of his teammates, starting with Tony Parker, who he said is playing much better, more aggressive defense this season. The numbers so far prove him correct; Parker’s defensive rating is his best since the 2003-2004 season, and he already has matched his defensive win share total from all of last season.
The maturation of reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard also is another huge factor, Ginobili said. Leonard leads the league in defensive win shares this season and is tied with teammate Tim Duncan for the league lead in defensive rating.
“He’s becoming so reliable defensively,” Ginobili said of Leonard.
“I think everybody’s just buying in, really,” Leonard told SheridanHoops as to why San Antonio has made this leap defensively. “Everybody’s getting better at knowing our defensive principles more.”
Ginobili said that Danny Green has improved as well, coming off signing a four-year extension with the Spurs worth $40 million.
“The same guys that were here are still here and know each other well,” Green told SheridanHoops. “We know the rotations and we communicate defensively and know where we need to be.”
Green and Ginobili also said the offseason addition of All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is giving San Antonio a new edge in the interior.
“Getting those long, active bigs makes the team better defensively,” Green said.
Popovich said that Aldridge’s transition to the team has been easy. LMA has been playing the best statistical defense of his career while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, his highest percentage in five years.
“He’s played nine years in the league already, so it’s not rocket science. It’s basketball,” Popovich said. “I don’t know if there’s much he hasn’t seen.”
One player who has seen a lot of Spurs basketball is reserve forward Matt Bonner, now in his 10th season on the team. He knows how much Aldridge has helped on D.
“I think LaMarcus has a lot to do with it. With him, Timmy and Kawhi in the game, that’s a lot of length at all three frontcourt positions. I think it helps us a lot defending the paint.”
To Bonner’s point, San Antonio leads the league in field goal defense in the restricted area, allowing foes to shoot just 55.7 percent from up close, per NBA.com.
As is Spurs tradition, the team is hardly resting on its collective laurels.
“I have no idea what our defensive rating is, but despite that we’re still trying to improve each night,” Bonner told SheridanHoops. “There’s still so much season left, so there’s a lot of time to keep trying to improve and get better.”
“I think we’re just focused on getting better in that area because even when we do play great defense, we still have a lot of mistakes,” Green said.
To think that this Spurs team is better defensively at this point than its five championship squads is a scary thought for opponents. With Leonard somehow still improving, Aldridge now in the fold long term and interesting new additions – including David West and 7-3 goliath Boban Marjanovic – it’s going to continue to be extremely tough for teams to score on San Antonio.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.