How the San Antonio Spurs are Moneyballing the NBA

You know the Moneyball story (who am I kidding, you’re at this blog, of course you know it! That said, I love repeating parts of it). A small market team with no hope of attracting or retaining top talent finds a way to compete by exploiting market inefficiencies and using advanced stats. Now there’s often a question of if that could happen in the NBA. The answer is that it already has! And the team that is doing it is the San Antonio Spurs.

Now, most people won’t dispute the Spurs are a small market team. Saying this still feels wrong. After all, the Spurs have had the good fortune of getting one of the top centers of all time and one of the top power forwards of all time. They won their first title on the back of two #1 draft picks playing great. And yet, the truth is the Spurs have stayed great. They stayed great in the face of David Robinson retiring. They’ve stayed great in the face of Tim Duncan aging like milk. Wrap your head around this, since the 1997-1998 season the Spurs have won fourteen consecutive 50 game seasons (if you adjust the 1999 lockout season to 82 games). With just one more win this season they’ll stretch that to fifteen consecutive seasons. It’s all been Duncan right?

Of course not! Don’t get me wrong, you need a superstar to compete. But you can’t put them out there with nothing. They need a good surrounding cast to be competitive and the Spurs have put out great casts over and over. They’ve been good for too long! They haven’t had the luxury of great picks like Chicago and Oklahoma City or being a premier destination like Miami. Yet, they are one of just four teams to have crossed the forty win mark this season. Let’s take a look at where the Spurs’ production is coming from currently.

2011-2012 San Antonio Spurs with more than 500 minutes
Player Pos G MP WP48 Wins Acquired
Kawhi Leonard 2.6 55 1344.0 0.290 8.1 Draft 15
Tony Parker 1.0 53 1725.8 0.137 4.9 Draft 28: Re-signed
Danny Green 2.4 56 1339.1 0.174 4.9 FA
Tim Duncan 4.5 52 1476.6 0.124 3.8 Draft 1: Re-signed
Manu Ginobili 2.3 26 619.3 0.288 3.7 Draft 57: Re-signed
Tiago Splitter 5.0 50 954.1 0.177 3.5 Draft 28
Matt Bonner 4.0 55 1144.3 0.132 3.1 Trade: Re-signed
DeJuan Blair 4.7 56 1172.4 0.081 2.0 Draft 37
Gary Neal 1.6 48 1060.0 0.035 0.8 Undrafted FA

Is Tim Duncan’s support staff a plethora of great free agents that wanted to play next to him? Not at all. The Spurs wanted another great player and moved up in the draft. They bypassed the conventional tanking wisdom needed to move up and just traded there  (where there is still value as others have told you) and got a great young player. Barring Duncan and Leonard though, none of the Spurs talent was found in the top half of the first round.

In fact, for players that have over 500 minutes this season the only real below average player is Gary Neal. Of course Neal is young and costs the Spurs nothing. Excluding Steph Jackson, it’s hard to find much fault with this team. We can also take a look at a few ways the Spurs find their excellent talent:

  • Gaming the draft: Do you need a top pick to find good talent? The Spurs haven’t. This season they’ve even found a rare star in Leonard. There is talent all over the place in the draft. You just have to look past the conventional wisdom.
  • The international daft: Oh man, do the Spurs love to grab undervalued international players. But unlike teams like the Bucks and Raptors, the Spurs take their talent late in the draft. Does it matter than those players might take a few seasons to come over? Not at all!
  • Players other teams give up on too quickly: Matt Bonner and Danny Green were young cheap players on bad teams. If you’re a bad team frankly young and cheap players are a good way to go. Yet, the Spurs traded an almost 30 Rasho Nesterovic with a $7 million dollar contract for a young Bonner. They picked up Danny Green out of the Cavs discard pile. This is just one of many distinctions between San Antonio and bad teams.
  • They get their good players back: We can focus on the draft for the Spurs. After all, Leonard, Splitter and Blair are all still on rookie contracts. That said, much of the Spurs talent comes from great players that willingly re-signed or even took a pay cut. Not only are the Spurs great at finding underrated talent, they’re great at keeping it once the league is onto the secret.
  • Gary Neal: I still want to give some credit here. He’s not that great. But as a backup he’s incredibly cheap. Unlike teams like the Bulls and Thunder that think over $3 million for old backups are worth it, the Spurs have found their roster fillers cheaply.

Richard Jefferson and Steph Jackson

Ok, I’d feel bad not including these two. I have no idea what the Spurs were thinking signing Jefferson. Trading him for Jackson was clearly a cost saving move. That said, after all the praise I’ve placed on San Antonio I’d feel bad if I didn’t at least point out their mistakes.

Summing up:

Beckley Mason is one of my favorite writers at True Hoop. In the crazy world of tanking he had the sense to say that the Oklahoma City Thunder are not the norm. He’s also noticed the greatness of Kawhi Leonard, who would be Rookie of the Year in a fair world. Taking this one step further though we can see the Spurs aren’t the pinnacle team to explain why tanking works. Sure, they did that fifteen years ago. Since then though, they’ve gone a completely different route. They’ve found talent where other teams didn’t. I will not dispute that “lucking” into a great player is key for a team to win a title. Beyond waiting for that opportunity, a team has to do the right moves to be good. As Arturo often says “Hope is not a plan.” The Spurs have shown how to have a plan and a good one. And that’s why without the big market, the top draft picks, or the Miami weather they’ve stayed a force for so long.


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