Tonight, the Spurs and Warriors will meet for the first time this season, in Oracle Arena. Not only are these teams the two best in the NBA this season, they’re also two of the best in NBA history. In fact, here’s a list of every single team that has ever posted a point differential above plus-12 like the Spurs and Warriors have so far this season:
So yeah, that’s ridiculous. Even better, the three other teams on that list all went on to win the championship. The problem is that the Spurs and Warriors can’t both win the championship. In fact, as both teams play in the Western Conference, only one team can even make it to the Finals. Accordingly, the Western Conference Finals (assuming both the Spurs and Warriors make it) will be the de facto NBA Finals, as the winner of that series will go on to the real NBA Finals to demolish whichever flawed team emerges from the East.
Tonight’s game is truly a clash of titans, one that is quite possibly the greatest regular season matchup in the history of the NBA.
In honor of tonight’s game, it’s time to figure out which team is better and should be considered the favorite to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June.
The Warriors lead the NBA significantly in points per game. They score 114.7 points per game, 6.2 more than the second place Thunder. The gap between the Warriors and the Thunder is the same as the gap between the Thunder and the ninth place Pelicans. To illustrate this point, here’s a graph of the points per game totals among NBA teams:
That star in the upper right hand corner is the Warriors. Look at how far they are away from everyone else. In fact, they’re 3.27 standard deviations above the mean, meaning that, assuming a normal distribution, one would expect an offense to score as many points per game as them .05% of the time. That’s about once every sixty-seven seasons. Wow.
However, that point total is skewed somewhat by Golden State’s pace. They play at the second fastest pace in the league, averaging 101.75 possessions per game, behind only Sacramento. Meanwhile, the Spurs play far slower, at the sixth slowest pace in the league, averaging 95.91 possessions per game. That’s a difference of nearly six possessions per game, allowing the Warriors to average more points than the Spurs.
If, instead of points per game, we use points per hundred possessions, the gap between the Warriors and the rest of the league shrinks significantly:
Here, the Warriors still lead the pack at 112.7 points per hundred possessions, but the Thunder (second at 109.2) and the Spurs (third at 108.8) follow close behind them.
Although Golden State’s offense is clearly the best in the game, the San Antonio’s isn’t all that far behind.
The Spurs, similarly to the Warriors on offense, lead the NBA in points allowed per game by a significant margin, allowing a stingy 89.8 points per game. In fact, San Antonio’s defense (the star in the lower left corner) is nearly as far away from the rest of the league as Golden State’s offense:
Golden State, on the other hand, ranks a mere eighteenth in points allowed per game, giving up 102.6 points per contest.
However, in addition to offensive numbers being skewed by pace, defensive numbers are skewed too. After all, it’s a lot easier to give up fewer points when you don’t have to face as many shot attempts.
To combat this, like we did with offense, let’s use points per hundred possessions:
This change actually doesn’t affect the Spurs at all; in fact, it might even increase the gap between them and the rest of the league. However, the Warriors vault from eighteenth all the way up to third, a sizable jump.
Similarly to offense, while San Antonio’s defense is clearly the best in the NBA, Golden State’s isn’t too far behind.
Golden State leads the NBA in assist percentage, as 68.5% of its field goals are assisted. San Antonio isn’t far behind, sitting in sixth place with an assist percentage of 61.7%. In addition, the Warriors are the proud owners of six of the eleven games this season in which a team accumulated thirty-five or more assists.
There are plenty of stats that I can use to show how great the Warriors’ chemistry is, but they can’t compete with the Spurs. No one can. A couple of years ago, San Antonio had this video made about them:
Sure, plenty of other teams pass, but have any of them had videos like this one made about them? I actually looked; there are none.
If you want something more recent, here are the Spurs earlier this season, destroying the Timberwolves:
I mean, just look at how disconsolate the Timberwolves are after the Spurs finally decided to score:
That’s what the Spurs’ passing can do to a team.
Last of all, and best of all, who can forget the famous Spursgasm from a couple of years ago?
Big Edge: Spurs
This might be the tightest category yet. Steve Kerr took over a Warriors team and, with largely the same roster, turned a 51-31 sixth seed into a 67-15 juggernaut. This season, with Kerr sidelined, Luke Walton has led the Warriors to a 39-4 start.
The Spurs have Gregg Popovich, the best coach in the league hands-down, and one of the best coaches of all-time.
No matter how good Kerr and Walton have been while helming Golden State, no one can equal Pop, but at least they’ve been able to come close.
Slight Edge: Spurs
You’d think that this category would be an easy Warriors victory, but it’s a lot closer than you’d think. Each team has a superduperstar, Stephen Curry for the Warriors and Kawhi Leonard for the Spurs. Each team has a superstar, Draymond Green for the Warriors and LaMarcus Aldridge for the Spurs. The intrigue comes in the various supporting players.
San Antonio has so many good, solid players, from Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Tim Duncan to Boris Diaw to Danny Green. Even players buried a little deeper on the bench are still capable, like David West and Patty Mills.
On the other hand, Golden State has a far top-heavier rotation. Andrew Bogut is a solid center, Shaun Livingston is a good back-up point guard, and Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are very good small forwards. Deeper on the bench are players such as Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa, and Marreese Speights, three players who are all decent, if unspectacular.
In the end, the Spurs’ superior depth doesn’t matter as the Warriors have a third star in Klay Thompson, giving Golden State the advantage in the final category.
No matter which team is better, the Warriors should be expected to win tonight due to their immense home court advantage, but, in the end, by the tiniest of margins, the Spurs are the superior team.
Final Edge: Spurs