San Antonio winning with offense

Spurs could struggle in playoffs without trademark stifling D

Originally Published: April 14, 2012
By Neil Paine | Basketball Reference
San Antonio SpursSpruce Derden/US PresswireThe new-look Spurs are strong on offense but vulnerable on defense.

With the San Antonio Spurs vaulting up the Western Conference standings over the past few months, you might be tempted to take a stroll down memory lane, reminiscing about those great championship Spurs teams of old. You know, the ones featuring the likes of David Robinson, Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry, with a suffocating defense led by Tim Duncan, owner of the sixth-most defensive win shares in NBA history.

It's true, the Spurs' title years are matched only by the 1950s-60s Celtics in the pantheon of great defensive dynasties. In fact, they're the only two teams in the history of the NBA to sustain a defensive efficiency five points better than the league average over a 14-season span. For this reason alone, Duncan deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bill Russell when it comes to anchoring the greatest multiyear defenses ever built.

From 1998-2008, the Spurs never finished outside the league's top three in defensive efficiency. On offense, San Antonio was regularly above-average, and finished worse than 12th in offensive efficiency only once between 1999 and 2007. But just the same, they were never an elite offensive team; 2007 was the only season during San Antonio's dynasty years that it ranked among the league's top five teams in points per possession. It's hard to find fault with this game plan of serviceable offense and elite defense -- after all, it resulted in four titles over a nine-season span.

However, the red-hot Spurs of 2012 bear little resemblance to those dynasty-era San Antonio teams. As Duncan has gotten longer in the tooth and defense-first role players like Bowen and Horry have retired, the Spurs have gradually shifted their focus away from a dominant D. This season, San Antonio ranks just 13th in defensive efficiency, its worst showing since 1996-97 (the season before Duncan's rookie campaign).

Instead, these Spurs are winning with offense -- which could lead to postseason disappointment in San Antonio for the second season in a row.


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Neil Paine writes for FiveThirtyEight, the data-supported sports, politics and culture site coming soon from ESPN.