Warriors, Spurs courting NBA history at opposite ends of basketball floor
Now 38 games into the 2015–16 season, the Golden State Warriors are headed for the best record of all time. They’re 36–2 so far, putting them on pace for 77.7 wins, which would smash the Bulls’ 72–10 record, whether you round up to 78 or down to 77. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and the rest are working beautifully in lockstep to create as well oiled a machine on both ends of the floor as we’ve ever seen.
This year, their offense has reached newer and greater heights. The Warriors scored 110.0 points per game last season, most in the league by 3.3 a night. They’re at a nearly unbelievable 114.4 this season, again the most in the league, this time by 5.5 a night.
That 114.4 mark is not just the highest this season, but also the highest since the turn of the millennium. The next closest team is the 2007–08 Warriors team coached by Don Nelson. Offenses in the 2000’s, though, are not quite as prolific as those in the two decades before. The Warriors’ 114.4 points per game ranks just 45th in the three-point era (since the 1979–80 season), for example.
Of course, being that we live in this new and exciting age, where more advanced statistics have taken hold, we know that not all games are created equal. Adjusting scoring on a per possession basis gives us a better idea of how well teams actually put the ball in the basket. A team that scores 100 points on 90 possessions is doing better than one that needs 100 possessions to do the same.
Golden State’s offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 114.1 also leads the NBA this season, by 1.8 points over the Thunder. It’s not the highest mark since 2000, but it does rank third-best behind only a pair of Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns teams, and it’s within 1.2 points of both. In the three-point era, though, it falls all the way down to 16th, a full 1.5 points behind the 1986–87 Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers.
But just as a team that scores 100 points on 90 possessions is doing better than one that scores 100 on 100, so too is an offense that scores 100 points per 100 possessions when the league average is 90 than one that does so when the league average is 100.
Those ’86–87 Lakers put up 115.6 points per 100 possessions in a climate where the NBA average was 108.3, which means they scored 7.3 points more per 100 possessions than an average team. The average this year is only 104.9, which means Golden State has scored 9.2 points more per 100 possessions better than the average 2015–16 squad. That’d seemingly make the Warriors’ offense the better scoring unit. Well, friends, not only is that true, Golden State’s 9.2 mark is also tied (with the 2003–04 Dallas Mavericks) for the top differential of the three-point era. Here’s the top five:
That’s right. Relative to the league average, this season features two of the top 10 offenses since the three-point line was put on the floor. But just as there is light, there is also dark. And where there is dark, there are the 2015–16 Philadelphia 76ers.
Even during this recent Ish Smith-sparked run of moderate competence, the 76ers have scored at a mark well below the league average. Their spacing-challenged, brick-heavy turnover machine of an offense is still, essentially, garbage. Just how garbage?
Let’s drill this down the same way we did for Golden State. The 2015–16 Fighting Hinkies rank last in the NBA at 92.9 points per game, 2.3 points worse than the Brooklyn Nets. That total is only the 63rd lowest mark since 2000, though, and 101st lowest in the three-point era. Not that historically bad (until you consider that there have been 1,014 total team seasons since the 1979–80 campaign, which puts this Sixers squad in the bottom 10% already).
Adjusting their scoring mark to a per possession basis, the Sixers still rank dead last in the league at 95.3 points per 100. That’s 4.3 points worse than those same Nets, who rank second to last. A 95.3 offensive rating is the third-worst mark since 2000, and fifth worst of the three-point era. So now we’re really cooking with dynamite here.
Again, though, we can compare these Sixers to the league average. Philadelphia’s pathetic per possession scoring average is 9.6 points per 100 possessions worse than the average 2015–16 team. That’s actually well short of the worst squad since 1979–80 (the 2002–03 Denver Nuggets squad that was bad enough to draft Carmelo Anthony the next summer), and it’s even a slight improvement over last year’s embarrassment of an offense! Adjusted to the league average, this year’s Sixers squad stays the eighth-worst offense of the three-point era.
Of course, basketball is not just about offense. And it’s on the other end of the floor where we may in fact be watching the single best unit in recent history.
Armed with the league’s best defensive player—possibly the best defender in years—in Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan still patrolling the paint, Gregg Popovich on the sideline, and a long list of players doing their job (the occasional Manu Ginobili gamble in the passing lane excepted) at the highest level possible for the full 48 minutes, every single night, the San Antonio Spurs once again have the NBA’s best defense.
The Spurs are allowing 89.4 (EIGHTY NINE POINT FOUR!!!!) points per game this season, best in the league by an outrageous 5.7 per game (even more points than the number by which the Warriors have outscored the next best offense). While 89.4 may sound like an absurdly low number, it’s only the 23rd lowest opponent points per game mark since 2000, and it’s the 41st lowest figure of the three-point era. (And we make sure to mention again here that both of those marks place in the top four percent of teams since the 1979–80 season).
So let’s once again adjust this figure per possession. The Spurs have a defensive rating of 95.4, still best in the league (by 5.0 points over the Boston Celtics). That figure leaps all the way up to the third best mark of the 2000’s, and it’s the fourth best since the institution of the three-point line. It trails only two other iterations of the Spurs (the title-winning 1998–99 team and the ’03–04 squad) and the Larry Brown-led 2003–04 Detroit Pistons team that knocked off the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
Again, though, a defense that allows 90 points per 100 possessions in a year where the league average is 100 is better than one that does so when the league average is 90. This year’s average is 104.9 points per 100 possessions, making the Spurs a completely insane 9.5 points better per 100 possessions than league average. The NBA average in 1998–99 was 102.2, while the average in 2003–04 was 102.9.
Compared to the league average, this year’s San Antonio defense leapfrogs all three of those squads, as well as a few more, into the top spot of the three-point era.
As we did above, we can index those differentials compared to the league average. A defense 10 points per 100 possessions better than the league average when the average is 90 is better than one that is 10 points better when the average is 100. Here, as before, the Spurs occupy the top spot.
This year’s San Antonio Spurs defense is the best in modern NBA history. Better than the KG Celtics, the ’90s Knicks (which breaks my Knicks fan heart), and the Jordan Bulls, better than both the early-to-mid-aught and Bad Boys versions of the Pistons. The Best.