The Spurs Have the Best Defensive Backcourt in the League
In the summer of 2018, Kawhi Leonard requested a trade from the San Antonio Spurs. Shock waves went across the league, and a gash opened in the San Antonio defense. Leonard, perhaps the league’s best defender, was traded to the Toronto Raptors along with elite defensive wing Danny Green. The Spurs looked to be a dumpster fire on defense after replacing their two best perimeter defenders with the defensively deficient DeMar DeRozan. Adding injury to insult, 2018 All-Defensive 2nd Team honoree Dejounte Murray was lost to injury before the season began.
The anticipated tumble down the defensive rankings came to pass, with the Spurs dropping from 3rd-best in defensive efficiency in 2018 to number 19 in the league last year. Coming on the heels of such a precipitous drop, most observers would expect a low appraisal of the team’s defensive outlook for the coming season. In point of fact, nothing could be further from the truth; the San Antonio Spurs will have the best defensive backcourt in the league next year.
In the wake of such heavy losses, the San Antonio Spurs turned to their development system for reinforcements, just as they always do. Into the void stepped Derrick White, a second-year guard who split his rookie season between the G-League and the Spurs’ bench. After averaging 20.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game with a 56.4% True Shooting Percentage in the G-League and making a splash in 2018 Summer League play, White entered the season as an important prospect for the Spurs’ future. With San Antonio’s timeline accelerated by the trade of Leonard and Green, Derrick White ended up front and center.
Did he answer the call? Decide for yourself:
To put it simply and succinctly, Derrick White was an elite defensive guard last season. He was 17% above league average in defending isolations on 69 opportunities, and was highly effective in pick-and-roll defense. White was 4% above league in preventing the ballhandler from shooting when he was the nearest defender on 367 such plays, and was 48% above average in 20 plays switching onto the roll man. He amassed 161.8 non-shooting stops, third on the team, despite playing only the seventh-most minutes. White also generated 52.1 Uncategorized Opponent Turnovers (turnovers by the opposition that are not credited to a player in the box score).
White is only one player, though; how can the Spurs defense be good in 2019-20 after being substandard last year simply because of one player? Fortunately for the Spurs, White is not alone. San Antonio will also get Dejounte Murray back next season. After spending his rookie year split between the G-League and the Spurs bench, Murray broke out in his second season … stop me if this story sounds familiar. In Murray’s second season, he was also an elite defender.
While not as effective as Derrick White at forcing missed shots, Murray accumulated an incredible 190.4 non-shooting stops and a team-leading 76.0 Uncategorized Opponent Turnovers. In addition, Murray was a phenomenal defensive rebounder. He generated a net value of 141.0 defensive rebounds, over twice as many as expected given his position and minutes played.
If you’re still wondering how the Spurs could have the best defensive backcourt in the league next year, it’s because their two primary guards were both in the 86th percentile or higher in each measurement of defensive production. With Murray and White taking the court together this season, the load should be lighter on each of them. As a result, we can expect to see them become even more efficient with neither player having to carry the entire burden of stopping the opposition’s best scorer.
Still not sold on the Spurs’ defense prowess this coming season? That’s okay, I guess you’re probably not interested in the tall, long-armed guard entering his second year who spent last season on the Spurs’ bench and made a big splash in summer play. If you would have been interested in hearing about that, I would have told you that Lonnie Walker IV ranked in the 91st percentile in per-minute defensive production last year in a tiny sample of just over 100 minutes, and had good defensive data from his lone collegiate season at Miami. If you want to jump on board the bandwagon early, you can easily predict the next second-year Spurs guard to become a breakthrough performer on the defensive end. If you don’t want to buy stock in San Antonio, you can leave the hot takes to us; but remember – you heard it here first.
The Spurs will have the best defensive backcourt in the league next season.
Greg is the author of The Basketball Bible, a 1,000 page ebook full of explanations, analysis, and visualization of NBA statistics. His analysis of the NBA appears at his blog, https://greekgodofstats.com/, along with a statistical database of the most accurate and comprehensive statistical model in the NBA analytics community. Follow Greg on Twitter @greekgodofstats and on Facebook at