While the world has been fixating first on the success of the Golden State Warriors and then the status of Kevin Durant’s knee, most have overlooked one of the biggest title favorites in the NBA.
Had the Warriors not added one of the best scorers in the history of the game to an already-historic ecosystem, the Spurs undoubtedly would be playing more nationally televised games, soaking in well-deserved attention.
Consider Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System, a metric that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. The Spurs rank second in the league with an SRS of 7.82 — meaning the team is 7.82 points per game better than an average roster. If maintained, it would be the 26th highest mark of the three-point era.
After a season in which Popovich led his team to a franchise-record 67 wins, this iteration is on track to reach 63.
So, how are they doing it this time?
To begin: Defense.
The Spurs — a team that hasn’t ranked lower than fifth in defensive rating since the 2011-12 season — lead the league in adjusted defensive rating (104.35), the points per 100 possessions a team allows, adjusted for opponent faced. For fans of the unadjusted variety, the Spurs lead the league in traditional net rating, surrendering 101 points per 100 possessions.
Opponents score 0.91 points per possession against San Antonio, the least efficient mark in the league, according to data provided by Synergy Sports. In the half court, that number is 0.892 points per possession, also the least efficient mark in the league.
Specifically, San Antonio is deft at defending the perimeter, controlling spot-up shooters (1.093 PPP allowed, best in the league), jump shooters (0.936 PPP allowed, seventh best) and catch-and-shoot opportunities (1.017 PPP allowed, seventh best). In a season in which the three-point shot is once again exploding in volume, opponents are netting a league-low 8.2 three-pointers per contest and 1.002 points per possession on such attempts against San Antonio.
Contextualize that with the fact that Tim Duncan — who served as the defensive linchpin for well over a decade and is generally considered one of the best defenders in league history — has been removed from the equation. It’s difficult to comprehend.
But then again, San Antonio is a team that often maximizes the ability of its players.
When Pau Gasol broke his left hand in late January, Popovich simply moved Dewayne Dedmon into the starting lineup. Dedmon, mind you, entered this season having played for three teams in three years, and had 41 career starts to his name. San Antonio barely skipped a beat, going 11-4 without Gasol.
The Spurs control the perimeter on the offensive side of the ball, too, shooting a league-high 39.8 percent from beyond the arc. With the caveat that a player must attempt at least one per contest, San Antonio holds eight players on its roster shooting at least 36 percent from deep. The Chicago Bulls, for context, have zero.
Additionally, Kawhi Leonard is playing like a man who merits discussion in the MVP race. He ranks seventh in Real Plus-Minus, ahead of players like Stephen Curry, Durant and James Harden.
He’s setting career highs in scoring (39.3 points per 100 possessions), assists (five per 100 possessions), shooting (61.7 true-shooting percentage) and usage (31.2 percent of possessions). Name a spot on the court — he’s likely shooting above league average from it.
Leonard ranks between the 90th and 100th percentiles in overall points per possession (1.108), half-court points per possession (1.088), points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler (1.044), points per possession as a spot-up shooter (1.273), points per possession on post-ups (1.121) and in points per possession on medium-distance jump shots (1.03), among other categories.
He has the Spurs’ offense humming to the tune of 0.99 points per possession overall, the sixth best mark in the league. Slow the pace, and San Antonio is a top-four offensive unit in the half court (0.982 PPP).
With Durant out for the foreseeable future, San Antonio has a realistic shot of overtaking the Golden State Warriors for the top record both in the Western Conference and in the league. Of course, Popovich would never say that’s a team objective, telling The Associated Press, “We don’t try to catch anybody. We just play. We always have. Where we end up, we end up.”
If history is any measure, however, one can expect San Antonio to end up where they always are: Near the summit, if not the peak itself.