A Small Sample in San Antonio Tells A Familiar Story

Posted on December 3, 2010 by


Which team is the best team in the Western Conference?  If you guessed the team is in LA, you would be right. On Wednesday night, the LA Clippers defeated the San Antonio Spurs.  And since the Spurs currently lead the Western Conference in efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency), and the Clippers just beat the Spurs, the best team must be the Clippers.

Okay, that’s not right.  What is right is that the Spurs – after 18 games in 2010-11 – appear to be approaching the same level of team quality we saw in 2007 (or the last time the Spurs won the title).

That the Spurs are a good team is not surprising.  After four consecutive losing seasons from 1985-85 to 1988-89, the Spurs have had only one losing season since (in 1996-97).  Much of this streak can be tied to the drafting of David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan ten years later.  But unlike other teams that have added amazing talents (see New Orleans with Chris Paul and Minnesota with Kevin Garnett), the Spurs have also been able to find productive players to surround their main star.

To see this point, let’s go back to the last Spurs team to win the NBA title.  The San Antonio Spurs in 2006-07 posted a 9.1 efficiency differential, the best mark in franchise history.  Of the team’s 63.1 Wins Produced (the team only won 58 games), 43.9 could be traced to the play of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker.  That means everyone else on this title team produced 19.2 wins.

Across the next three seasons, the Spurs appeared to decline.  This can be seen when we consider the team’s efficiency differential from 2007-08 to 2009-10:

  • 2007-08: 5.2 differential
  • 2008-09: 4.1 differential
  • 2009-10: 5.4 differential

It can also be seen when we look at the Wins Produced of Duncan-Ginobili-Parker; as well as the Wins Produced of “everyone else”.

  • 2007-08: Duncan-Ginobili-Parker (41.2 Wins Produced), Everyone Else (12.4 Wins Produced)
  • 2008-09: Duncan-Ginobili-Parker (30.7 Wins Produced), Everyone Else (20.4 Wins Produced)
  • 2009-10: Duncan-Ginobili-Parker (31.7 Wins Produced), Everyone Else (22.8 Wins Produced)

The story in 2007-08 is about “everyone else”.  The team’s trio maintained their production.  But with Brent Barry hurt (the leader of “everyone else”) the production from the supporting cast declined.

The next season the Spurs once again found a quality supporting cast  (led by the play of Matt Bonner and Kurt Thomas).  But with Ginobili hurt, the production from the top three fell.

Last year the team’s supporting cast – led by DeJuan Blair – was even better. And Ginobili was generally healthy.  But with Tony Parker hurt, the team was again unable to return to what we saw in 2006-07.

Entering this season, people looked at the age and injury history of this team and generally concluded that the Spurs had been passed by the Lakers and Heat (not saying everyone thought this, but certainly some people thought this).  But after about 20% of the season has been played, we now see the following:

The team’s Big Three are currently on pace to produce 40.3 wins, or a total similar to what we have seen in the past when this trio is healthy.  The team’s supporting cast – led by Richard Jefferson, George Hill, and Antonio McDyess – are currently on pace to produce 22.8 wins. So “everyone else” appears to be back.  As a consequence, it appears the championship contending Spurs have once again appeared.

When we look at the individual players we do see some additional stories to note.  First, Tony Parker is offering a career high in per-minute production.  Back in 2006-07, Parker posted a 0.185 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]. This year – after 18 games – he is posting a 0.191 mark.  So he is better (although not much better than his previous career high).

Richard Jefferson is also offering more. The last time Jefferson was above average was 2005-06.  An injury the next season appeared to permanently reduce the level of production Jefferson offered.  Although he is not back to what we saw in 2005-06 (Jefferson posted a 0.241 WP48 that season), his above average production after 18 games is a good sign for the Spurs.

For those looking for dark clouds, Tim Duncan’s WP48 mark of 0.221 is a career low. Duncan is now 34 years old and at some point he has to offer less.  Is this the season “less” makes an appearance?  Again, only 18 games have been played.  But those games are not a good sign.

And then there is the play of DeJuan Blair, the rookie who posted the highest WP48 mark last season.  This year – again, after 18 games – Blair has been only slightly above average. 

When we look at the individual stats, we see that Blair has had trouble hitting shots this season.   In the last two games, though, Blair has taken 20 shots and hit 11 (for a 55% field goal percentage).  Unfortunately, Blair only hit 4 of the first 20 shots he took this season (across his first three games).  In other words, Blair started the season playing very badly (lately, though, he got better).

What does all that mean?  Well, the Spurs have only played 18 games.  At this point, I think we should focus on who is producing and who is not.  When we start talking about why a player is posting the numbers we see we then run into the problem of small sample sizes.  In other words,  the issues we generally focus upon to explain changes in performance — such as injury (the factor I tend to think matters the most), coaching (sometimes matters), diminishing returns (small impact on per-minute performance), age (matters, but mostly for older players), or less empirical factors (team chemistry or other such stories) — can be seen (or not seen) in larger samples of data.  In small samples of data… well, it is too easy to confuse random fluctuations in the data for something real.

So let me close by simply noting that there is some evidence that the Spurs we have seen in the past (a past where we had an abundance of data) have returned.  The Big Three on this team are offering the level of production we saw in the past.  And it appears the Spurs have once again found a productive supporting cast.  Now if DeJuan Blair starts hitting shots… well 2011 is an odd-number year and we “know” the Spurs like winning titles in odd-number years (okay, we don’t “know” that because, once again, it is a small sample).

– DJ