It has been a weird NBA season. The imbalance between the East and the West may be at an all-time high — which is saying a lot — and this may be the most injury riddled the NBA’s top tier of talent has ever been. But despite that, it is hard to say that this year has been lacking competitiveness or real entertainment value — in fact, you can definitely find a group that believe this is one of the best NBA seasons since the turn of the millennium. The teams we predicted to be the bottom feeders — at least, in part — have remained competitive, relative to their conference. And a few of the teams that were meant to compete or even contend are struggling to keep their draft picks out of the lottery (and yes, I am talking about the New York City Meltdown). Even with all of the wackiness, though, there are still a few interesting subplots that have went by the wayside. A couple specific things are worth looking at more in depth:
This one is a multi-layered plot, mostly because most people missed the first part of it due to being blinded by the Indiana Pacers defensive dominance. While the Pacers were playing historical, mind-boggling defense to start the season, many people were missing the fact that the Spurs were doing the exact same thing — mostly because they were not doing it as well as the Pacers. For the month of November the Spurs logged a 93.6 defensive rating, which ranked second to only the Pacers. And while the Pacers were miles ahead of the Spurs in terms of defensive rating for the month (sub 90!) the defense the Spurs were playing was also better than anything the NBA had seen since … well … since the Spurs were playing that defense at that level about 10 years ago.
But while Indiana has not fallen too far off of their top level defense since their hot start, San Antonio’s defense plummeted in the month of December. San Antonio allowed 104.7 points per 100 possessions in December, which ranked 18th in the NBA for the month and was a full 11 points worse than their November rating. San Antonio’s defense fell off a cliff in December and quick look at their opponents shot distribution and zone percentages will reveal why. Here as how opponents shot against the Spurs in both November and December (all number per 100 possessions):
|Paint (Non-Restrected Area)||5.6||14.6||38.7%||4.6||13.4||34.4%|
There are a few things to take from this. First, San Antonio is simply allowing more shots per 100 possessions. The Spurs are typically one of the best defensive rebounding teams in basketball, but in December they only rebounded it 74.9 percent of time defensively (tied for 11th), significantly worse than their November defensive rebounding rate of 77.3 — which ranked second for the month of November. Also the Spurs — who are typically great at taking away the most efficient shots from a team — sacrificed more high efficiency looks and makes than they are used to. The Spurs are typically one of the best teams in the league when it comes to running teams off of the line and forcing them into mid-range looks or tough paint, non-restricted area shots. But in December, Spurs’ opponents took two less shots from mid-range and non-restricted paint area per 100 possessions, and took an extra 2.6 3s above the break per 100 possessions as a result. This, along with three point defense that was not as tight against the corners lead to the Spurs giving up an extra 2.2 3s per 100 possession in December.
Along with this, the Spurs interior defense did not hold up in December. Teams only shot 56.4 percent on 25.6 shots per 100 possessions in the restricted area against the Spurs in November, but bumped that number up to 62.2 percent in December while getting up 26.1 attempts at the rim. This has led to the Spurs sacrificing an extra 1.7 makes in the restricted area per 100 possessions in December. That combination of poor defense at the rim (3.4 points per 100 possessions), only average defense against the three (7.8 points per 100 possessions) led to the Spurs dropping over ten points in defensive rating for December. They have course corrected, somewhat, so far in January, but even then they have yet to defend at the level they did to start the season. Their success as far as wins and losses has not faltered much because they have become nearly unstoppable offensively over the last month and a half. But when the playoffs come around you do not want to be the team that can light it up offensively but are not elite on the other end as well. The Spurs are usually a great picture of success on both ends of the court, but they will need to recapture that dominance on the defensive end if they want to repeat their success from last season and beyond.
For whatever reason, the narrative that surrounded the Warriors during the Don Nelson era — a high powered offense with no defensive resolve whatsoever — has stuck with Golden State in the eyes of most observers a full three years after Nelson’s departure. The fact of the matter is, the Warriors have not been sieves on defense for a very long time. All of last season the Warriors’ defense was above average — with a 101.1 defensive rating, good for 13th — and it actually improved as the season went on, so by the second half of the campaign, they were actually one of the better defenses in basketball (101.1 defensive rating, seventh). They have continued to evolve into this season as they have actually become, quite clearly, one of the best defenses in basketball. The Warriors currently have a 98.8 defensive rating, which ranked 4th in the NBA heading into Monday’s games. More impressive, since Andre Iguodala has returned from injury the Warriors have posted suffocating 94.9 defensive rating — which ranks second over the stretch behind only the historic Indiana Pacers.
Iguodala and Andrew Bogut have been the centerpieces to this dominance defensively — though they have been receiving some support from Klay Thompson and delightful surprise of the season, Draymond Green. The Warriors post a 94.3 defensive rating when Iguodala is on the floor and they post a 98.2 defensive rating when Bogut is on the court — surprisingly, they do not get much worse when Bogut is off the court, though. And the two man lineup of Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut is posting a 95.5 defensive rating, which is an excellent defensive figure considering how much court time they share together.
Andre Iguodala is the most praiseworthy here, though. There are only two players in the NBA, currently, who have the ability effect their team’s defense in a truly drastic way while playing primarily at non “big man” positions. LeBron James is the obvious forward but Andre Iguodala has proven to have that type of effect on his team’s defense as well, and you could argue he may be a more effective team defender than LeBron. Both the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets were much better defensively with Iguodala than they were without him, and the Warriors have been much better defensively with him in the mix. His effect is further highlighted by his on/off numbers with the Warriors this season. As mentioned earlier the team’s defensive rating is at 94.3 with Iguodala on the court. But without Iguodala on the flooor, the Warriors are allowing team’s to score 102.4 points per 100 possessions, a full eight points worse than when Iggy is on the court.
Iguodala was brought in to be the perfect fitting piece for the Warriors on both ends of the court. He has actually surpassed that role, at least somewhat, and become the centerpiece to their defense and part of an awesome Bogut-Iguodala tandem on the defensive end.