When I don’t have a game on, I usually keep the NBA channel’s Game Time on as background noise so that I can watch segments of live game action and get the latest scores. However, when the anchors attention turns to the San Antonio Spurs, I tempted to reach for the mute button.
It’s not that they don’t give the Spurs their due, at 29-6 San Antonio sports the best record in the NBA, a feat that few outside of the team’s South Texas fan base might have anticipated. The Spurs deserve all the props they get. They’ve done it without a radical roster reshuffling and they look for real. ESPN’s John Hollinger has said that the road to the Finals in the Western Conference will almost certainly go through San Antonio.
What irks me about the NBA TV anchor crew is their inability to understand tempo. The Spurs are winning because they are playing at a much faster tempo than in previous years. After decades of being one of the slowest paced teams in the Association, they Spurs rank 11th in Pace Factor (which measures possessions per game) at 93.3; last season they ranked 20th. Slow pace teams are the norm in San Antonio; the last time they played this fast Bill Clinton was in his first term of office and steroids were not part of the baseball lexicon.
The anchor crew gets that the Spurs are winning because they are playing faster. But what they don’t get is that the Spurs aren’t just playing faster, they are playing more efficiently. Last season the Spurs ranked 9th in Offensive Efficiency (points per 100 possessions), this season they rank 1st. Last season they ranked 9th in Defensive Efficiency and this season they rank 9th; in other words, they’ve upgraded their offensive attack with little to no impact on their trademark defense.
Yet almost every time the NBA TV anchors talk about the Spurs they talk about points per game. Yes, the Spurs allow more points per game (97.9 this season vs. 96.3 in ’09-’10). They do because there are now more possessions per game. Even if you look at more conventional stats, you’ll notice that the most basic difference between the Spurs defense last season and this season is subtle; they are allowing an opponents field goal percentage of 46.0% this season as opposed to 45.2% last season. What’s the difference, about a basket a game, a pretty meager matter for a team that is winning its games by an average margin of eight points per contest.
Baseball anchors typically know that On Base Percentage is a better marker than Batting Average. Football anchors know that almost every statistic in their sport is context driven. Shouldn’t basketball anchors be able to handle some of the basic aspects of the sports new efficiency metrics. None of this requires advanced calculus; it’s just a matter of knowing—and respecting—a common denominator for engaging in comparisons. The anchor crew at NBA TV is comprised of fairly articulate people; they should get it pretty easily. The rise of the Spurs offers an opportunity to elevate the discourse about basketball, but right now the league’s network is dribbling the ball off their collective feet.