You’d expect a match-up between two NBA super-powers to be a marquee event, but alas, they’re missing their two best players: Stephen Curry’s rehab has been going well but no updates have been given yet so it’s still assumed we’ll see him after the first round, and Kawhi Leonard will return, um, some time this decade and maybe in the state of Texas.
The Spurs notably missed a 50-win pace for the first time since 1997, when David Robinson missed all but six games (sound familiar?) Before that, you’d have to go back to 1993 to find a season under a 50-win pace (their 1999 season should be adjusted because there were only 50 games anyway and they won the title.) Since Robinson graced the team with his presence in 1990, they’ve had a remarkable run of success where they’ve had one losing season, 20 wins in an epic tanking year for Tim Duncan, with the rest totaling 47 or more.
Golden State, however, is trying to put together one of the best four-year runs ever. While they were unable to hit the magic 60-win plateau, or even the implausibly high standard of 67 wins they hit for three seasons in a row, they did win 58 wins. How many teams have done that four years in a row?
The vaunted 1965 Boston Celtics with Bill Russell, the Milwaukee Bucks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson’s last season, the legendary 1983 Celtics with their first season of Moses Malone, the 1987 Larry Bird-led Celtics, the Magic Johnson-led Lakers, and the peak of the late-era Tim Duncan Spurs. Continued dominance is a tough act; so many things have to go right because players can leave for other teams or get injured.
Yes, the Warriors just barely meet this admittedly arbitrary criteria I devised, but we shouldn’t dismiss them entirely either — few teams in history have had four-year runs like this, and they’ve had arguably the best ever. (By the way, Boston had seven seasons in a row that qualify because some of those late 50’s and early 60’s season had less than 82 games total.)
Table: dominant teams with four seasons in a row with at least 58 wins
|First season||Fourth season||Average SRS||Average wins|
*2018 has yet to be determined
**Everything prorated to an 82 game season
— Justin Willard (@AcrossTheCourt)
In Kawhi Leonard’s absence this season, LaMarcus Aldridge has emerged as the Spurs’ most critical offensive weapon, ramping up his usage from 25 to 29 percent while simultaneously increasing his true shooting percentage from 53 to 57 year-over-year. Aldridge’s overall impact improved from +1 to +3.4 points per 100 possessions, as estimated by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus.
Such high productivity was on full display in the Spurs’ regular-season series against the Warriors. In four games against the defending champions, Aldridge averaged 27 points in 34 minutes, compiling a 59 true shooting percentage on 30 percent usage. San Antonio had a low offensive rating (101) when he was on the court, but it was worse (89) when he was off, even if we grant that small samples and garbage time influenced these numbers.
In their first-round series, the Warriors are likely to adjust their defensive assignments accordingly.
The following chart shows how Golden State has matched up defensively against San Antonio to date. Each line indicates the defender who spent the most time guarding a specific offensive player on a given possession. The thicker the line, the more frequent the matchup.
Zaza Pachulia was the primary defender on the largest share of Aldridge’s offensive possessions. In these 81 possessions, the Spurs scored 103 points (1.27 PPP). When any other Warrior served as the primary defender, they scored just 190 points on 193 possessions (0.98). Golden State seems apt to address this issue — whether by reallocating minutes or having a shorter leash.
— Positive Residual (@presidual)
These charts are not meant to evaluate whether an offense is good or bad. They are designed to help illustrate how teams go about the goal of trying to put the ball in the basket. Each team’s offense is evaluated on four stylistic spectrums.
Ball movement is measured with the average touch time for each team, from the NBA’s player tracking statistics. A lower average touch time means the ball is moving from player to player more quickly.
Player movement is measured with a combination different NBA.com tracking statistics, and works out to average distance traveled per 24 seconds of offensive possession.
Pace is measured with the average length of an offensive possession from Inpredictable, a more accurate representation for how quickly a team is working than traditional pace.
Shot selection is measured with MoreyBall percentage — in this case the percentage of a team’s true shooting opportunities that came at the rim, from the free throw line, or on a 3-pointer. It’s a generalized measure but captures something about how much each team hews to the shots that are, on average, the most efficient.
On the graph below you’ll see a line for each team’s offense. As the line moves away from the center of the graph on each axis you’re seeing more of that stylistic trait. For example, shot selection shows a (hypothetically) more efficient shot selection the further you are from center. Here’s how the Warriors and Spurs match up.
The Warriors had the most efficient offense in the league this season, led by their distinctive movement-heavy system. Interestingly, they’ve become much less dependent on the 3-pointer since Kevin Durant joined the team. The Spurs use movement as well, but all in the halfcourt. They play a grinding offensive style that leads to a lot of 2-pointers outside the paint, particularly from LaMarcus Aldridge. The Warriors would seem to have a clear edge but it will be interesting to see if either team can force adaptation once the series starts.
— Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh)
To project the series, I am using my in-season game projection model. The model is trained off historical game data, and accounts for rest, travel, team strength, and matchup. Since I began using the model to predict outcomes, I have been able to correctly identify the winner in about 70 percent of games.
The Warriors come into the series as pretty heavy favorites, winning in 83 percent of the 10,000 simulations. The average length of the series was 5.5 games, with the Warriors given a near 18 percent chance to sweep the series even with the absence of Stephen Curry being accounted for. Despite struggling down the stretch, the Warriors are a much deeper team than the Spurs and unless Kawhi Leonard is magically able to come back and perform at the MVP level he played at last year, the Warriors should be considered fairly likely to move on. Each of the four most likely scenarios involve the Warriors winning, while the Spurs have a slim shot if they can push the series to six or seven games.
— Jacob Goldstein (@JacobEGoldstein)