Lost in the hoopla surrounding the Golden State Warriors’ historic start is the fact that the San Antonio Spurs are currently 11-3 and sport a gaudy point differential of plus-9.2, second-best in the league.
Both of those numbers are really, really good.
Aside from last season’s Warriors, no NBA team has finished a team with a differential better than San Antonio’s 2015-16 mark since the Boston Celtics in 2007-08. That Celtics squad went 66-16 during the regular season and won a title.
Granted, the Spurs’ schedule hasn’t been difficult at all, with an average opponent winning percentage of 46.3. But what they’re doing is still undoubtedly impressive, especially with their efforts to get the most out of new toy LaMarcus Aldridge being mostly unsuccessful so far.
Kawhi Leonard is improving by the game and is a bonafide top-five MVP candidate, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are up to their old tricks, and San Antonio always finds a way to get excellent production out of a deep crop of supporting players.
But the wild card right now is the play of 33-year-old Tony Parker. After a dreadful 2014-15 season, the French point guard is healthy now and making the type of plays that made him one of the game’s truly elite floor generals three or four seasons ago.
Turning on warp speed to zip past a big man and finish off the wrong foot? Check.
Attacking closeouts decisively and unleashing a feathery floater? You betcha.
Drawing in the help defender and delivering a perfect pass to an open Danny Green? Not a problem for this multi-talented point man.
These three plays have two key things in common: first, they were all in the same game, a 98-84 win against the Phoenix Suns. Tony had himself a pretty nice outing, scoring 20 points and eight assists but getting nearly all of his numbers after the intermission.
@JMcDonald_SAEN Parker's second half in numbers:
— Damien (@BassistDamien) November 24, 2015
Second, they all involve Parker probing his way into the paint, something he struggled to do last season. In 2014-15, just 47.9 percent of Tony’s field-goal attempts came inside 10 feet, his lowest number in 11 years. But in 2015-16, that’s back up to 60.6 percent, the second-highest mark of his career.
The result of this is 55.5 percent shooting from the field for the veteran guard, even though his usage is down about three percent to make room for Leonard’s offensive growth.
The penetration Parker has achieved, especially in the Spurs’ last few games, is a very encouraging sign for a Spurs starting unit that has struggled with a lack of ball and player movement in the early going. If Parker can continue living in the paint, however, mid-range looks open up for Aldridge and Leonard, three-point shots are plentiful for Green (as we saw the above clip) and Leonard and Duncan can be a prime target for dump-offs underneath the basket.
Forgive me for getting way ahead of myself here, but this is also huge for a potential playoff series against the Warriors, presumably the Spurs’ biggest roadblock in a potential title run.
If Parker is his 2014-15 self at the time of this hypothetical playoff matchup, there’s no reason to play him significant minutes. The only member of Golden State’s rotation he would guard somewhat capably is Leandro Barbosa, and TP’s inability to get to the rim combined with his lack of three-point shooting would hold back the Spurs’ offense.
That would then push Patty Mills into a much bigger role, but we all know he’d be no more successful against the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes than Tony would. You could try Manu Ginobili in Parker’s place to create a “big-ball” lineup, countering Golden State’s tendency to go the other way, but Manu is 38 and can’t consistently play more than 25 minutes per game anymore.
In other words, San Antonio would be toast against Golden State with last year’s version of TP.
But with Parker slicing and dicing his way to the rim consistently, he forces Curry to expend a little bit more defensive energy than last year’s MVP would prefer (possibly forcing Thompson to guard him?) and obviously opens up looks for his teammates. His relentless penetration and finishes at the rim could expose the mediocre rim protection in the Warriors’ “death-ball” lineup.
Even with Tony playing well, though, the Warriors are still a good amount better than the Spurs right now. However, if San Antonio finds Aldridge’s niche in the next six months and Gregg Popovich continues uploading new skills to the microchip powering Kawhi, on top of Parker playing well, the Spurs have much more than just a puncher’s chance at pulling out a series win.
Lest we just pencil Parker in for a great season, he is 33 and has a history of hamstring and ankle injuries. But we have no choice to consider his performance in the early going an encouraging sign.