The Contending Spurs Fail to Miss Blair

The San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title in 2003, 2005, and 2007.  Given this pattern, many expected the Spurs to contend in 2009.  Instead, the team suffered its worst season since 1996-97, or the year before Tim Duncan came to San Antonio.

Reviewing the Spurs

Last season the Spurs scored 1.06 points per possession, a mark that ranks second best in the Duncan era. Unfortunately, their defense allowed 1.02 points per possession.  This was the first time the Spurs – in the Duncan era – managed to surrender more than one point per possession. So the Spurs struggled, at least by San Antonio standards. The team’s efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) of 4.1 was actually better than anything ever done by the LA-San Diego Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats, Charlotte Hornets, New Jersey Nets (without Jason Kidd), Washington Wizards (post 1970s), Golden State Warriors (post 1970s), and Denver Nuggets (post 1970s).  Once again, though, the Spurs – in the Duncan era – expect to do better.

Table One: San Antonio Spurs in 2008-09

When we look at the players employed by San Antonio last season – reported in Table One – it quickly becomes clear where the Spurs faltered. The key number is 44, or the number of games played by Manu Ginobili.  Last season Ginobili led the Spurs in WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes] with a 0.335 mark.  But that production was unavailable for 38 games, and consequently, the Spurs struggled – by San Antonio standards – in the regular season, and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

Contending Again?

In the off-season the Spurs added a number of new faces.  The acquisition of Richard Jefferson is considered the most important, primarily because RJ scores.  As noted last June, though, Jefferson is no longer a very productive NBA player.  And the skill he brings – taking shots – is not something the Spurs really needed.  Again, their offense last year was quite good.

After Jefferson arrived, though, the Spurs did add Antonio McDyess, a player who is quite productive. McDyess produced 11.0 wins last year with a 0.283 WP48.  Average WP48 is 0.100, so McDyess was very good in 2008-09.  In fact, he led the Pistons in Wins Produced.  Unfortunately, he is now 35 years old.  So it’s possible age will start impact his production. 

The addition of Jefferson and McDyess gives the Spurs – according to ESPN.com – the following depth chart (Wins Produced and WP48 from the 2008-09 season):

Potential First String

PG: Tony Parker [8.5 Wins Produced, 0.166 WP48]

SG: Roger Mason [4.1 Wins Produced, 0.079 WP48]

SF: Richard Jefferson [3.9 Wins Produced, 0.064 WP48]

PF: Antonio McDyess [11.0 Wins Produced, 0.283 WP48]

C: Tim Duncan [13.9 Wins Produced, 0.265 WP48]

Potential Second String

PG: George Hill [1.0 Wins Produced, 0.039 WP48]

SG: Manu Ginobili [8.2 Wins Produced, 0.335 WP48]

SF: Michael Finley [3.2 Wins Produced, 0.066 WP48]

PF: Matt Bonner [6.3 Wins Produced, 0.158 WP48]

C: Theo Ratliff [0.6 Wins Produced, 0.052 WP48]

Missing on Blair

In addition to these ten players, the Spurs have also added Keith Bogans [3.8 Wins Produced, 0.145 WP48] and DeJuan Blair.  Bogans gives the Spurs another productive backcourt performer.  And Blair gives the Spurs… well, it’s not entirely clear what Blair will give.

Blair was the most productive player selected out of college in the 2009 draft; at least according to Position Adjusted Win Score.  Blair, though, lasted until the second round because people were not sure he was entirely healthy.  In Blair’s first preseason game, though, he grabbed 19 rebounds in 22 minutes.  Yes, it is only one preseason game.  But when a player nearly averages one rebound per-minute, we start to suspect

a. maybe Blair is healthy enough to play in the NBA, and

b. maybe Blair’s college numbers will translate into the NBA.

If both of these points are true, then the Spurs have an extremely productive player on their bench.  It’s possible that will not matter much in 2009-10.  After all, Blair is currently – according to ESPN.com – San Antonio’s third string power forward.  But when we look to the future…

Yes, I know.  It’s only one pre-season game.  In the past, though, it was noted that 80% of Wins Produced in the NBA are produced by only 20% of the league’s players (i.e. the Pareto Principle applies to the NBA).  The reason why so many teams fail to match the worst season in the Duncan era is because these teams fail to acquire many players who populate that 20%.  It appears that Blair is going to be one of these players.  And because doctors argued Blair is not entirely healthy, the Spurs were given such a player in the second round.
It’s possible the doctors are right.  But it must be remembered, most of the players taken before Blair are going to be among the 80% of NBA players who only produce 20% of the wins.  So what should a team look at in the draft…

a player who is healthy but will never produce much?, or

a player who can be extremely productive but may not last very long? 

The answer seems fairly obvious.  For many teams in the NBA, though, unproductive and healthy seems like the way to go.  And this may be one reason why so many teams in the NBA look at the Spurs worst season in the Duncan era with envy.

Let me close by noting that if Ginobili is healthy (and the same is said about the other productive players San Antonio employs), the Spurs can contend for the Western Confernce title.  Again, I think — assuming Andrew Bynum doesn’t return to what we briefly saw in 2007-08 — the Lakers have come back to the pack in the West.  So the Spurs and Blazers will contend with the Lakers for the conference title (and this may not be the entire population of Western contenders).  Once one of these teams reaches the finals, though, I expect the playoff run to end with a loss.  Yes, I still think the NBA champion will come from the East.

- DJ

The WoW Journal Comments Policy

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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