The following was also partially published in the Daily Campus on 1/20/2016.
We’re off the heels of a Golden State Warriors blowout over last year’s Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet, make no mistake: despite their 38-4 record, the Warriors may not be the best team in the league. They might not even be the best team in the Western Conference.
Along with their double-digit winning streak, the San Antonio Spurs have been ridiculously dominant for the first half of the season and have an even better point differential than Golden State, outscoring their opponents by an average of 14.3 points per game, and 15.1 points per 100 possessions. If you don’t know the value of that, consider this: not even the 1996 Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls destroyed their opponents by that much.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that the Spurs are expected to keep up this kind of production, nor does not it mean that they are without-question better than the Warriors or any other team in NBA history. What it does tell us is that San Antonio’s performance is about as well as any team has ever played.
Of course they have an incredible offense, but in classic Spurs style, their success this season starts with their defense. Being anchored by stalwarts like Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan shows some level of expectation when it comes to leading the league in defensive rating, but the numbers are even more staggering than you may think.
Their 95.3 defensive rating is about 9.8 points better than league average – a higher number than any other defense of this millennium. For reference, the gap between the Spurs and the second ranked defense, the Boston Celtics, is larger than the difference between Boston and the New York Knicks.
In addition to being at the top of the league in opponent’s three point attempt rate, the Spurs are also third in opponent’s field goal percent at the rim and tied with the Warriors for lowest opponent’s three point field goal percent. Being able to stop both the three point shot and attempts at the rim is so valuable in today’s league – a theoretical blueprint on slowing down not just the Warriors, but any team. It doesn’t hurt that they are the best defensive rebounding team and give up the lowest effective field goal percent in basketball.
Leonard, in particular has transformed himself into an all-time great defender on the caliber of guys like prime Ron Artest, Scottie Pippen and Bruce Bowen. That sounds like hyperbole, but from watching the tape and looking at the numbers, Leonard’s long arms, quick athleticism and strength while defending the block make him both a force to fear on the pick and roll (0.61 points per possession to roll men), at the rim (44.7 opposing field goal percent) and in isolation (0.55 PPP). He isn’t very good at chasing off-ball shooters, but along with his position and time spent playing both the opposing team’s best on-ball scorer and the paint, consider that the Spurs rarely allow shots from the perimeter anyways.
Moreover, starting big man and free agent acquisition LaMarcus Aldridge has transformed into an excellent defender, allowing only 50.5 field goal percent at the basket on more than five opposing shot attempts per game, as well as allowing only 0.59 points per possession to roll men on pick and rolls. While he doesn’t have the kind of defensive volume that the elite defenders of the NBA have, like Rudy Gobert or Duncan, make no mistake that the Spurs’ ability to shut down the interior is a team effort and not just Duncan.
When the Spurs almost certainly, barring no major injuries, matchup against the Warriors for the Western Conference Finals, the resulting matchup is going to make the Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 80s look silly. Old-timers could scoff at this suggestion, but there is no evidence that we have ever seen two incredibly dominant teams in the same league.
Judging by Simple Rating System, which measures both point differential and strength of schedule, both the Spurs (12.8) and Warriors (10.3) are already in a category that places them with all-time great teams. If they met this year in the playoffs, it would be the highest combined SRS by two teams in NBA history. It might not be definitive proof that it’s the best matchup ever, but you would have to be a complete buffoon to deny the historical implications of them meeting in the playoffs.
Factually speaking, these two are not playing for an NBA title if they meet in the Western Conference Finals. But saying they’re playing for a chance at a championship is a gross understatement. These are two historic trail blazers that, come May, could be playing in the highest caliber matchup of professional basketball in NBA history.