Spurs Slowing Down After Racehorse Start

by Jeff Fogle 13. December 2010 15:19

The San Antonio Spurs caught the NBA by surprise this year by hitting the ground running. I’m not talking about having a strong start. They were supposed to be a top competitor. I’m talking about actually running!

POSSESSIONS PER GAME

2008-09 season: 90.4 (27th in the league)
2009-10 season: 94.0 (20th in the league)
First 9 games of 2010-11: 99.8 (Beep-Beep…roadrunners!)

Here are the per-game possession numbers out of the gate:

103-97-96-101-110-93-93-101-104

League average is about 95. You can see the Spurs topped that in six of their first nine outings. The median performance was 101.

To say this was out of character for a Gregg Popovich coached team is an understatement. Many reasons were given for the increase:

*Manu Ginobili was healthy, and the team always pushes more with him on the floor than when he’s hurt.

*The team had some new younger guys whose strength was running the floor, but whose weakness was on defense.

*You’re not going to beat the Lakers or the Heat in the halfcourt game because of their scoring options. So, to win a championship, you have to get creative!

It was something to behold. But, it was also something that didn’t hold up for very long. Here are the Spurs possession totals the last nine games:

91-90-101-89-97-90-94-93-85

The 101 came against Golden State, one of the fastest teams in the league (and a rematch landed only on 94). Just one other game was higher than league average. The median was 91, which is well below league average.

This return to normalcy has reduced San Antonio’s pace factor to 95.7 for the season, which ranks 12th in the league. And, fittingly for a team with a coyote for a mascot, that’s 12th win an anvil. The Spurs are falling quickly down the pace rankings because they’re slowing back to past norms.

I heard a TV pundit attributing San Antonio’s great start (they’re 20-3 as we speak) to their increase in tempo. Well, they’ve slowed down and they’re still winning. They’ll play to their opponent’s tempo (fast vs. the runners and slow vs. the walkers), and they’ll outplay them either way. The racehorse stuff was a temporary phenomenon. Coach Popovich knows you have to pace yourself for a full season. And, he knows Ginobili tends to run himself into injuries.

It was fun to watch while it lasted. The racehorse stuff isn’t happening any more though, as anyone who’s watched the last two weeks can attest.

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Has Richard Jefferson Re-found His Game?

by Eno Sarris 1. November 2010 17:09

Last year was a tough year for Richard Jefferson. In his first year with the Spurs, he put up career lows in points, assists, steals, field goal and free throw attempts. He turned thirty over the off-season and could easily have begun the long, slow slog out of basketball – except that Gregg Popovich was his coach.

Baseball and basketball both have their proven pre-season stories. In baseball, the pitcher has learned a new pitch and the position player is in the best shape of his life - or so those stories go. In basketball, they’ve worked on their jump shot or upped their defense. It’s hard to take much from them.

Except perhaps in this case. Gregg Popovich gave his small forward a choice: enjoy your summer, continue to put money in the bank, and I’ll probably trade you as soon as I can. Or: work with our trainers, our coaching staff, and me personally to fulfill your potential and be the best you can be. Jefferson took the hard way, worked all summer, and spawned plenty of pre-season stories about his cut physique.

It’s a terrible sample, this early-season “n” of two, but maybe we can see something in the numbers that bode well for Jefferson to continue this resurgence. We know we can ignore some numbers based on the small sample, though. For example, his field goal percentage (64.7%) and PER (24.18) won’t continue. And we can retain our skepticism about the rest of the numbers, too. But there are good signs.

For example, his assist rate is at a five-year high at this point (16.34, 13.75 previous five-year high), which could come from learning the Spurs offense better. His percentage of long twos (the least efficient shot in basketball) is down to a career low (11.7%), which hopefully came straight from the coach’s mouth. Though his rebound rate is down slightly (7.0 after ranging from 6.2 to 8.3 the last four years), it’s about in line with his career numbers and it’s nothing a few more minutes a game (27 this year, 31 last year) couldn’t fix.

So far so good, but really the best news comes in one place and one place alone. Jefferson’s free-throw rate has jumped precipitously this year – it’s up to .88 from a five-year low last year (.37). He’s averaging 7.5 free throws a game so far, compared to 5.5 field goals. Last year, that was 3.5 free throws against 9.6 field goals. He’s getting to the line more often right now – that free throw rate has him at 16th in the league (9th in the league among players with 20+ MPG).

The sample size is small, and right now his free throw percentage is low (66.7%). But once he gets it back to his career level (77.7%), all those free throws will be an asset to his team. And once he’s shown he can be an asset to his team, he’ll get more minutes and more time with the ball – all things that will help his fantasy value. Jefferson’s not elite in any category, but as a final player on the bench, he does have fantasy value. And we know Popovich cares about his game, which looks like it's a good thing.

 

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