Nylon Calculus, San Antonio Spurs

Nylon Calculus: The shooting efficiency of the San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs are a good basketball team and for some reason, I am a little surprised by this. This organization has been one the most successful franchises of the past two decades. They have been blessed with at least two (Tim Duncan and David Robinson) and possibly as many as four Hall of Fame players if you include Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.  For the last twenty years, they also have employed one of the best coaches of all time in Gregg Popovich. But after losing another Hall of Fame caliber player in Kawhi Leonard this offseason, things weren’t looking too good for the Spurs. At nearly the halfway point of the season, it seems I was foolish to think the Spurs would struggle this year.

Through the first 32 games of the year, the Spurs are proving to be one of the best offensive teams in the league. They rank fifth in offensive rating at 112.1 points per 100 possessions. It’s their defense that had been the problem as they rank 20th in the league. Giving them a net rating of 1.9, which is currently ninth in the league.

Over the last ten games, the Spurs have been the most efficient team in the league. According to nba.com, the Spurs rank first in offensive rating at 118.9, fifth in defensive rating at 102.5, and first in net rating at 16.5 over that span. All of this leading to a 7-3 record and into the No. 9 position in the Western Conference. With the amount of competitiveness in the Western Conference, a three-game losing streak could move them down to No. 14. It is still highly likely that the Spurs could miss the playoffs even with their impressive run of late.

If the Spurs don’t make the playoffs they won’t be able to blame their offense.  In this day in age with analytics suggesting teams take as many of their shots from either the restricted area or behind the 3-point line, the Spurs have been thriving on the mid-range jump shot. To look into the Spurs mid-range mastery I started by looking into shot chart data provided by nba.com.  I used four different ranges similar to ranges used on pbpstats.com. Rim shots are 4 ft or less, short mid-range (SMR) are 5-14ft, long mid-range (LMR) 15ft-3PT line, and then 3 point attempts. The chart below shows the percentage of shots at each range for all teams in the NBA. If you would like to see more detailed and interactive visuals that accompany this post check out the web app here.

shot range ratio NBA

Notice the Spurs, gray bar fourth from the right in each group, take the smallest percentages of rim and 3-point attempts and the highest in the mid ranges. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as the Spurs enjoy two of the most skilled mid-range scorers in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.

So how are the Spurs one of the most efficient offenses in the league if they seemingly have such poor shot selection? The short answer is they are the most efficient shooting teams in the league. I looked at points per shot (PPS) for each team from each range and plotted it below.

pps nba range

Notice the Spurs lead the league in efficiency from 3-point range and the short mid-range. They also are slightly above league average at the rim and long mid-range. Mathematically it seems the Spurs should be taking more 3s but realistically they seem to prefer open looks. Whether it’s an open 15-footer or a corner 3, they just want a good shot taken by one of their better shooters. It is interesting that the Spurs are going against what many of the analytics are saying but they are succeeding anyway. The Spurs have decided to zig when everyone else is zagging and so far it is working.

Next: The case for (and against) Lonzo Ball

The idea of taking what the defense gives them and playing to their strengths have been a staple of Popovich’s time with the Spurs. Tim Duncan could have dominated almost any game he played but he used the attention of opposing defenses to open up space for his teammates. This year the Spurs roster consists of two of the best mid-range scorers so they are employing a strategy of shooting more mid-range shots. In turn, these mid-range shots do seem to be opening up better 3-point looks for the team as they lead the league in PPS from three-point range.

If you want to compare multiple teams on their shot range percentages and PPS as well as player shot charts don’t forget to check out the web app.  The web app includes a Bohr shot diagram which is based on the Bohr atomic model and the ability to add some emojis to the diagrams if you wish.

All stats in this piece are current through Dec. 26. If you would like to see the data I used and how I did the analysis, check out this Github repository.

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