Are the Spurs Still Title Contenders?

Posted on January 6, 2010 by

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The Sporting News named the San Antonio Spurs the team of the decade last September.  Such a designation is not surprising when you consider that across the past 10 years the Spurs have won three titles and never failed to win at least 65% of their regular season games. 

On Sunday, though, the Spurs lost to the Toronto Raptors.  This defeat dropped San Antonio’s record in 2009-10 to 20-12, or a 62.5% winning percentage.   Such a mark projects to only 50 wins across the entire regular season.   For some teams – such as the Raptors (who have never won 60% of their regular season games) – a 50 win season would be cause for celebration.  But for the Spurs, the current mark suggests that years of championship contention have come to an end.

About a week ago, Johnny Ludden – at YahooSports! – argued that cracks have already appeared in San Antonio’s title foundations.  Looking at the standings today we see that currently four teams have posted a higher winning percentage in the Western Conference.  So some numbers suggest the party is ending in San Antonio.  But that’s not the story told by all the numbers.

Let’s start with efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency).  For the Spurs, this number is currently 6.6.  This mark currently ranks 2nd in the Western Conference (the Lakers mark is 7.7) and is consistent with a team that will win around 57 or 58 regular season games.  Yes, the Spurs differential suggest this team is second best in the West and one of the top five teams in the NBA.

To put this differential in further perspective, here is what the Spurs have done recently with respect to this measure:

2008-09: 4.1

2007-08: 5.3

2006-07: 9.1  (won NBA title)

2005-06: 7.5

2004-05: 8.5 (won NBA title)

2003-04: 7.0

2002-03: 5.8 (won NBA title)

2001-02: 6.7

2000-01: 8.5

1999-00: 6.3

The Spurs current mark tops what they did the past two seasons, and even bests what San Antonio did on its way to an NBA championship in 2003.   So this current Spurs team is not the best we have seen across the past decade, but it’s pretty good.

When we move from efficiency differential to Wins Produced we can see who is responsible for this outcome.

Table One: The San Antonio Spurs after 32 games in 2009-10

Not surprisingly – as Table One indicates – Tim Duncan once again lead this team in Wins Produced.  Duncan, though, is not a one-man team.  Of the Spurs 57 projected wins, about 28 can be tied to the play of Manu Ginobili, DeJuan Blair, Keith Bogans, and Matt Bonner.  As noted a few days ago, DeJuan Blair was clearly a steal in the NBA draft. It’s possible that Blair will lead all rookies in WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] this season, just as Blair led all players taken out of college in per-minute production last year.

Once we move past this quintet, though, the Spurs are only projected to receive 10 more wins from the rest of the roster.  “The rest” includes both Antonio McDyess and Tony Parker.  As Table One notes, these two players have declined the most from what we saw last season. 

For McDyess the decline might be tied to age.  McDyess was drafted in 1995 by the Clippers and now is 35 years old.  As noted before, age will ultimately reduce the productivity of all basketball players.   And this means that McDyess – who is obviously not getting younger – may not improve as the season progresses. The Parker story, though, may be different.  Ludden notes that Parker has not been healthy this year.  If Parker’s health improves, the Spurs may be even better as the team approaches the playoffs.

And this means the Spurs might be very serious title contenders when this season ends.  Again, the impact of age can’t be avoided forever.  Two of the key contributors this season – Duncan and Ginobili – are well past 30 years of age.  So the Spurs title window is definitely closing sometime in the future.  But it’s possible – despite the team’s current place in the standings – that the window will stay open for the 2009-10 season.

– DJ

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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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