NBA, San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs’ offense defies convention, but it works

If the NBA’s statistical revolution has illuminated anything, it’s the merits of intentional, refined shot selection. Teams have shifted away from the mid-range in favor of more efficient spots on the floor. Those that eschew that logic tend to struggle on offense with basic math working against them.

The San Antonio Spurs, however, despite a strikingly antiquated shot profile, operate at one of the most efficient rates of any offense in the league. The team that once helped usher in the pace-and-space era is now pushing back against that trend and finding success in the least likely of places. These Spurs cut against not only the grain of the rest of the league, but of their own identity. San Antonio has managed a top-five defense in each of the last six seasons (and finished outside the top 10 just once during the Duncan era), but has dropped into the bottom six this year. That coupled with an offense that attempts the most difficult shots in the league should, in theory, result in one of the worst records in the NBA.

Yet the Spurs currently sit just two games out of sixth place in the West, with the sixth-best offense in the league to boot. While they don’t often seek out the most efficient zones of the floor, the Spurs are extremely efficient when they do. They attempt the fewest triples in the NBA, yet lead the league in both corner and above-the-break 3-point percentage. They’re dead last in shots at the rim but convert on nearly 65 percent of those looks. San Antonio takes the highest share of shots from the mid-range, but hits them at the third-highest clip in the league. They get to the free-throw line at a middling rate, but leads the NBA in free-throw percentage. No team is more efficient in transition, but all 29 run more often. You get the idea.

By slowing the pace, methodically executing its sets and taking care of the ball, San Antonio guarantees itself some shot on nearly every possession; an inefficient look, after all, is better than nothing at all. The primary option is nearly always to get the ball into the hands of DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge, whose aversions to the 3-point line are unparalleled among high-usage scorers. In any other offense, that balance might be untenable, as opponents would simply sag off of shooters and invite inefficient shots. But the Spurs surround their two best players with capable marksmen who, despite taking relatively few triples, afford Aldridge and DeRozan the space they need to operate and keep the offense from becoming as predictable as it otherwise might.

While Aldridge and DeRozan form the foundation of San Antonio’s offense, the supporting cast allows it to flourish. Five Spurs take at least 40 percent of their shots from 3 and five shoot at least 40 percent from deep, which helps offset and accommodate Aldridge and DeRozan’s mid-range proclivities. Those two, conversely, ease the pressure from the rest of San Antonio’s roster, commanding attention that allows for others to find openings. By virtue him handling the ball so often, defenses can’t sag off of DeRozan in the same way they can against lower-usage non-shooting guards. Aldridge seldom turns the ball over out of the post, and the Spurs shoot nearly 43 percent from deep when he anchors the offense without DeRozan.

While the Spurs don’t seek out 3s like most teams do, opponents can also prevent them from doing so with well-designed schemes that prioritize taking away looks at the rim and sticking to shooters along the perimeter. Aldridge leads the league in post-ups in part because opponents can live with him firing fadeaways over single coverage. DeRozan is shooting a career-high at the rim, but takes only a quarter of his shots there. Without the threat of a pull-up 3, defenders can go under screens against DeRozan so long as he can’t get to the rim. A semi-contested 18-footer is a livable outcome against the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league:

The offense also takes a drastically different form when the two stars sit. San Antonio’s second units compensate for a lack of individual creation by launching more 3s and moving the ball more fervently with Aldridge and DeRozan on the bench, scoring at roughly the same rate as when they’re on the floor. Merging the two styles has proven challenging. Nothing about Aldridge and DeRozan’s methodical games is particularly suitable for the sort of pass-happy, up-tempo style prior iterations of the Spurs employed, but they are the best available options. Still, grounding its offense in two players with such archaic games costs the team both space and points.

San Antonio’s offense still succeeds in spite of its structural flaws, but through fairly simple modifications, could become even more efficient. Snipers like Patty Mills, Davis Bertans and Rudy Gay are threats waiting to be weaponized. Involving them more intentionally could provide the offense a significant lift. DeRozan and Aldridge are creatures of habit who have made careers out of their mid-range prowess, but both would be well-served to incorporate more triples into their diets. An already devastating two-man game could become more devastating if DeRozan could take advantage of defenders ducking under screens or Aldridge simply popped to 24 feet rather than 18:

Few Spurs can create open triples off the dribble, though Gregg Popovich is a master at springing shooters open away from the ball. Marco Belinelli gives the offense movement and space through constant movement and his knack for hitting difficult shots. Hoisting more 3-pointers simply for its own sake could reach a point of diminishing returns, but the NBA’s best long-range shooting team ought not to rank last in attempts. The sturdiness of its best players ensures San Antonio a baseline level of success, but their obstinacy may impose a hard ceiling on what the team can be in the playoffs.

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted.

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