From the moment Gregg Popovich first took the helm as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, they have consistently ranked as one of the best defensive teams throughout the NBA. However, after finishing in the lottery the past few years, that defensive reputation has slowly withered away. Since the 2019-20 season, when the current Spurs playoff drought began, the Spurs have finished 25th, 17th, and 16th in the league in defensive rating.
However, this season’s Spurs defense has sunk to unfathomable depths. They hold the worst defensive rating (119.8) in the NBA this season, which is also the worst mark in league history. While this may seem terrible on paper, it’s critical to note that the three worst teams after them on that all-time list come from this year (Houston, Detroit, and Portland).
The 122.1 points per game San Antonio allows is an even more alarming stat, a number no team has achieved since the 1966-67 Baltimore Bullets. Those numbers make a compelling argument for the 2022-23 Spurs to be the worst defensive team of all time, but are there some other things that the stats fail to account for?
Historically, the Spurs have used drop coverage to defend the pick-and-roll. All that means is the Spurs send their guard over the ball screen to cover the ballhandler while the big man stays back to either protect the paint on a drive or contest a shot.
There have been times this year where drop coverage worked because of the play of Jakob Poeltl, a great interior defender who can also step outside the paint if he has to contest a jumper or stop a drive. However, this defense has been less effective now that the Spurs lack dynamic guards like Dejounte Murray or Derrick White, who can navigate around screens to meet the ballhandler. Many of the guards on this rendition of the roster have trouble fighting through screens and get caught going under them, leaving the pick-and-roll ballhandler open for a three.
Transition defense has also been a struggle for the Spurs this year. They rank 25th in opponent fastbreak points (15.1) and 28th in opponent points off turnovers (19.1). One of the principal reasons for these numbers comes from (unsurprisingly) turnovers. The Spurs rank 25th in the league in turnovers per game (15.6), allowing opponents to capitalize on easy buckets.
Another contributor to their poor transition defense is their commitment to cleaning the offensive glass, one of the few statistical categories they rank among the league leaders. The Spurs are third in putback points per possession (1.23). While these second-chance opportunities may benefit the Spurs on the offensive end, if they fail to convert them, it makes it easier for opponents to leak out before anyone can catch up.
While the Spurs have capable defenders on their team, such as Jeremy Sochan and Tre Jones, there have been times when their decision-making has been lackluster. There’s no stat to show it, but whether it’s through failing to provide backside help on ball screens, having their backs turned away from the ball, or not pressuring ball handlers in tight situations, these defensive errors pile up to the 122.1 points per game being given up by the Spurs.
So do the 2022-23 San Antonio Spurs have the worst defense in league history? The stats and game film provide a compelling argument. However, we must remember that NBA offenses are scoring at an unprecedented rate right now, and many other teams in the doldrums this season are not far off from being as bad as San Antonio.
Despite their defensive struggles, there are still numerous reasons for Spurs fans to have hope for the team's future on that end of the court. The Spurs have young, capable defenders like Sochan and Jones, who can guard the opposing team's best player on any given night.
If the Spurs, by some miracle, luck into landing Victor Wembanyama, his shot-blocking can provide the team with another additional level of paint protection. As the Silver and Black look towards the final stretch of the NBA season, it’s clear that there are still many strides for them to make if they want to return to their former defensive glory.