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 leagueís 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.
Hereís a look at whatís 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 isnít 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 isnít just playing like an All-Star, heís 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 didnít 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 heís getting it with the Spurs having improved to fifth. Defensive rebounding is down and fouls committed are up, but theyíre allowing fewer points per 100 possessions on a lower percentage.
2011-12 ó 103.2 points per 100 possessions; 48.9 effective field goal percentage.
2012-13 ó 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 havenít 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 ó 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 Sternís Wrath to Tim and Tonyís Halloween photo to Stephen Jacksonís recent Twitter threat against Serge Ibaka, the Spurs have had more controversy over the past few weeks than theyíll typically see in half a decade.
Defensive rebounding: One of the strengths of last yearís team has been among the Spursí 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. Thatís still a huge drop from last season, when they were the best defensive rebounding team in the entire league.
Injuries: Itís an area that canít 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 weíre splitting hairs, injuries to Jackson and Leonard havenít been ideal.
Particularly the latter, whose lingering case of quadriceps tendinitis has stunted his second season.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." --- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
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