Their crash-and-burn in the Western Conference Finals notwithstanding, the Spurs have picked up right where they left off last season, winning 17 of their first 21 games to match archrival Oklahoma City for the league’s best record through the first quarter of the season.
Despite a glut of injuries at small forward and more road outings than any other team in the NBA, the Spurs are on pace to win a franchise-record 66 games. They rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, and their average margin of victory of 8.67 points is second only to the Thunder.
Here’s a look at what’s gone right and, for the sake of nitpicking, wrong so far.
Duncan: Even after appearing to hit the downside of his career several years ago, it isn’t hugely surprising to see Tim Duncan, the epitome of substance over style, thriving in his 16th season. But this? A Player Efficiency Rating (26.4) in line with his prime of almost a decade ago and the best individual defensive rating (94) in the entire league? Duncan isn’t just playing like an All-Star, he’s an MVP candidate at this extremely early juncture.
Defense: History shows that a top 10 defense is a virtual must for championship success. As such, the Spurs didn’t treat it as a coincidence that they came up short last season while finishing at the very edge of that threshold in a tie for 10th. Gregg Popovich wanted better and he’s getting it with the Spurs having improved to fifth. Defensive rebounding is down and fouls committed are up, but they’re allowing fewer points per 100 possessions on a lower percentage.
2011-12 — 103.2 points per 100 possessions; 48.9 effective field goal percentage.
2012-13 — 100.6 points per 100 possessions; 46.5 effective field goal percentage.
Depth: Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw are the only Spurs to play all 21 games this season. But they haven’t missed a beat despite significant injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson, M.I.A. in Miami and various other nicks and bumps. With so many bodies at their disposal, the Spurs have a lineup for virtually any occasion. They rank second in the league with 42 bench points per game and a 15.7 bench efficiency differential as rated by Hoops Stats.com.
Distractions: The Popovich/Duncan era has been notable for two qualities — winning, and flying so far under the radar while doing so as to be virtually unnoticeable. Which is why the start of the season comes as such a surprise. From Stern’s Wrath to Tim and Tony’s Halloween photo to Stephen Jackson’s recent Twitter threat against Serge Ibaka, the Spurs have had more controversy over the past few weeks than they’ll typically see in half a decade.
Defensive rebounding: One of the strengths of last year’s team has been among the Spurs’ few on-court weaknesses this season, directly contributing to three of their four losses. Much like an early stretch of turnovers, they appear to have addressed the issue in recent games, climbing to 14th with a defensive rebounding percentage of 73.3 percent. That’s still a huge drop from last season, when they were the best defensive rebounding team in the entire league.
Injuries: It’s an area that can’t be controlled, and the Spurs are about as well-equipped to deal with absences as any team in the league. Witness their recent victory over Milwaukee, in which they pulled away in the fourth quarter without their top three choices at small forward.
But while we’re splitting hairs, injuries to Jackson and Leonard haven’t been ideal.
Particularly the latter, whose lingering case of quadriceps tendinitis has stunted his second season.
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