Now that we’ve gone through stage one, denial that the San Antonio Spurs‘ defense actually has a problem or reason concern, we can get into the exciting part. Now we can analyze it a bit more in-depth and come up with solutions to improve it.
NBA defense breaks down to three things: defensive strategy, personnel, and effort. Luckily, we can graze over the last of these because the Spurs are most definitely trying their hardest on defense. All season long, we’ve seen plays that demonstrate a willingness to compete, forcing errant shots by committing to close-out after close-out late in the shot clock, blocks, and steals late in the game.
Effort is there for the San Antonio Spurs
In the recent game against Portland, you can see Dejounte Murray show awareness of Damian Lillard’s ability to hit from anywhere by picking him up at halfcourt. By the time he gets to the hoop, four different Spurs will have made a play toward him, making his layup attempt more difficult.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2021/01/18/0022000207/527/b09fb78c-ff68-24a7-1bba-d76037847f6e_1280x720.mp4
Looking at defensive strategy and personnel reveals more of a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, where it becomes evident that both pieces seem to be negatively impacting each other. The Spurs’ schemes are designed to cover up for their shortcomings at the hoop when it comes to both rim-protection and defensive rebounding, particularly in the frontcourt.
This, in turn though creates more space on the perimeter for opponents to catch the ball with time, leading to either more open threes or rushed defensive close-outs that provide opposing players easy driving opportunities to the rim. This is why the Spurs allow so many baskets from point-blank range. Christian Wood has been one of the biggest examples of this issue.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2021/01/14/0022000176/14/711681bc-4c03-4b8a-24f1-90e06228f360_1280x720.mp4
Next: Who has been shining defensively?
How the San Antonio Spurs are defending individually
Looking at player-specific field goals allowed highlights the fact that despite the team’s best efforts to mask certain weaknesses, some players are excelling defensively while others have pronounced struggles on that end.
Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, and Rudy Gay have played tremendous defense this season both overall and especially from deep. The quartet has limited teams to below 37 percent from three. Devin Vassell is still clearly poised to contribute on that end with both his and Keldon Johnson number’s flirting with that mark.
Keldon and Dejounte are pulling double duty, challenging threes while still contesting 4.6 and 5.2 shots at the rim despite being 6-5 and 6-4, respectively.
Lonnie Walker IV struggles guarding opponents at the rim, where they score 65.9 percent of the time against him.
DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge’s numbers also demonstrate major cause for concern. DeRozan lets opponents shoot over 49.4 percent against him on 3.9 makes a game, including over 61 percent from five feet and in and 41 percent from three.
Aldridge’s defensive percentages are slightly better than DeMar’s, but the difference is he allows a Spurs team-high 7.5 field goals per game scored against him. This, coupled with opponents shooting high percentages at both problem areas against Aldridge, spells major problems for the Spurs.
These problematic numbers are after they drastically benefited from two matchups against the Harden-less, Wall-less (and pre-Oladipo) Rockets, and a third matchup against the McCollum-less, Nurkic-less Blazers, all back to back. So the question is, what can the Spurs do to improve their weak points defensively?
Next: How to fix the Spurs' defense
The San Antonio Spurs can catapult their defensive rating
The famous Reinhold Niebuhr quote about needing to accept the things you cannot change, having the courage to change the things you can, and having the wisdom to know the difference, applies perfectly to the Spurs defense. Part of it is fixable or at least improvable, and other parts are not. The Spurs should focus on controlling the aspects of their defense they can. This includes:
1. Running opponents off the line at all costs
Schematically, the Spurs should lean into the fact that they have strong perimeter defenders and make it a point of emphasis to run people off of the 3-point line. This also includes the Spurs’ bigs playing more honest defense against the sharpshooting big men in today’s NBA, even if it increases the number of field goal attempts taken on the Spurs in the paint.
In an ideal world, the Spurs can turn more of these opposing shot contests into mid-range and paint shots from beyond five feet, two areas where they excel at defending. But even they can turn into layups. The reality of the modern NBA is that it’s better to allow two points than three.
2. Using player-specific switching as opposed to 1-5 switch-all defense
The Spurs run a switch-heavy defensive scheme, but especially when Aldridge is the big man in question, switching should be avoided at nearly all costs. The Spurs are at their best with their strong defensive guards (and Rudy Gay) fighting over screens and Aldridge, or especially Jakob Poeltl, there to contest inside.
The exceptions to the rule should be when DeMar Derozan or Lonnie Walker are involved in pick plays, as while they both compete, DeMar sometimes falls under or behind on the pick while Lonnie does not appear strong or savvy enough to effectively fight through the screens (yet, I bet this changes in a big way over time.)
3. Stagger defensive-minded personnel
Speaking of playing to team strengths, it might be best to do as much as possible to stagger Aldridge, DeMar, and Lonnie as possible, and run more rotations with one or two of them at a time.
Playing them with plus defenders like Patty, Dejounte, Jakob, Rudy, Keldon, and others will go a long way to protect both the paint and the 3-point line. All the while the Spurs will still possess potent enough ball movement, player movement, scoring, and spacing, with just one or two of those three players in the game.
4. Consider adjusting their pace
As of now, the Spurs rank 15th in the league 111.1 points per game and 117th in offensive rating, scoring 108.9 points every 100 possessions. The Spurs may want to consider slowing the pace down even further because, while their offense may stagnate a little in the process, the Spurs will continue to play Spurs basketball. That means making the right play, being unselfish, and having a deep enough team offensively to still remain competitive.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean the Spurs can’t continue their high scoring in transition points game this season on possessions started by a great defensive play. However, since their 19.5 points in fast break scenarios rank squarely in the middle of the pack, to begin with, slowing the pace down could decimate teams that like to run and are dependent on pushing the pace. This would give the Spurs a major advantage against some of the more high-octane offenses in the NBA.
5. Continue to play with effort
Controlling what you can control begins and ends with effort. The Spurs are doing this right now, and continuing to do this will remain essential moving forward.