Is the once innovative Spurs offense now outdated?

By Steve Shea (@SteveShea33)

July 7, 2017

He’s a genius, the NBA’s best coach in recent history hands down. Since Gregg Popovich’s first full season as San Antonio’s head coach, 1997-98, the Spurs have had 20 consecutive playoff appearances, a regular-season record of 1133-459 (a .712 win %), and won 5 titles.

One of the joys of the analytics movement has been uncovering quantitative explanations for the past success of teams, players and coaches.

Modern statistical analyses have demonstrated the value of the corner 3. It’s both an efficient shot when taken and an excellent means to space the floor and stretch the defense.

But long before nerd blogs flooded the internet with arguments for its usage, Popovich was dismantling NBA defenses with Jaren Jackson and Sean Elliot lurking in the corners. As the following chart demonstrates, San Antonio enjoyed over a decade of intelligent corner 3 usage before the league caught on.

Between 2002 and 2012, The Spurs were in the top 3 in corner 3 usage 10 times. They were in the top 2 nine times.

In their awareness of the value in the corner 3 and in other ways, the Spurs were an innovative offense under Popovich. But the tail ends of the above charts suggest that the current Spurs, which must operate in a modern NBA informed by analytics, are no longer ahead of the curve.

Spurs’ Shot Selection

It’s hard to mention analytics without someone associating the movement with the suggestion that teams should shoot less mid-range jumpers and more 3s. Of course, this was a valid suggestion, and teams did improve by simply rerouting a percentage of 18-footers to behind the arc. But, not all 3s are equal. Above-the-break 3s aren’t as efficient as corner 3s, and a truly savvy team will find ways to shift inefficient mid-range attempts to those corners.

A team’s ratio of mid-range jumpers to corner 3s functions as a quick assessment of their shot selection. In 1997, teams averaged over 13 mid-range attempts for every corner 3. This past season, teams averaged less than 3 mid-range attempts for every corner shot.

The following chart shows that by 2005, San Antonio was operating at 2017 league average rates. They were more than a decade ahead of their peers.

Popovich’s progressive approach is also reflected in their league ranks in the stat (where less mid-range per corner 3 means a higher rank).

In 2012, San Antonio placed 3rd in the league, the 9th time they did so in an 11-year span. But in 2013, they slid to 5th. After that, they were 10th and 9th. Two seasons ago, they were an abysmal 27th, and last season, they weren’t much better.

On defense, San Antonio continues to be elite, and Popovich continues to innovate. But, the once progressive San Antonio offense now appears to be a step behind their competition. It’s not so much that San Antonio has regressed in their shot selection. It’s that they stayed stagnant as the rest of the league passed them by. In 2003, The Spurs were second in the league with only 3.4 mid-range attempts for every Corner 3 attempt. In 2017, they ranked 24th with a ratio of 3.8.

The Spurs’ offense hasn’t fallen off a cliff. Last season, they were ranked 9th in ORtg. But, for an immensely talented roster with an elite coach, should that be satisfying? They were only a hair more efficient than the very young Timberwolves and behind the Nuggets, Celtics and Wizards.

LaMarcus Aldridge

When the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge before the 2015-16 season, many saw it as brilliant, a means for the Spurs to transition from the Duncan-led era to a new dynasty without suffering years of a poor product in order to rebuild through the draft. Together, Kawhi and Aldridge were arguably as good as any other pair in the NBA.

Aldridge is certainly very talented, but he also plays a game that was more the flavor in the previous decade than the current one. In 2015, his last season in Portland, Aldridge led the NBA with 6 FGA per game between 15 and 19 feet.  He averaged 11.1 FGA in total from mid-range, also the most in the NBA.

And it’s not like Aldridge was unusually efficient at them. Aldridge made 41.5% of his mid-range attempts his last year in Portland. His mid-range jumper was as efficient as a 27.6% 3-point attempt.

But in 2015, the NBA was evolving rapidly, and with it, many of its players.  The coming years would see traditional bigs like Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez step back and start launching from behind the arc.

Also, what many teams saw as power forwards in the early 2000s were getting relabeled as small-ball centers. In 2015-16, Aldridge’s first year in San Antonio, Golden State’s death lineup with 6’7’’ Draymond Green at center (and Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Iguodala on the perimeter) torched teams, outscoring opponents by 166 points in 172 minutes.

The game was trending smaller and to the perimeter, and Aldridge appeared to have the ideal combination of size, athleticism and skills to excel in that environment.

It hasn’t happened.

In his last season in Portland, Aldridge went 37 for 105 (35.2%) from 3. Those numbers suggested the 3 could be a regular part of his game, and that he could be the rare big that could space the floor and pull opposing forwards and centers away from the hoop, clearing the path for his teammates to drive.

But in his first season with San Antonio, Aldridge made zero threes. ZERO THREES!  He only had 16 attempts.

To understand the impact of shot selection on Aldridge’s production consider how his selection compares to that of Houston’s Ryan Anderson.

If Aldridge matched Anderson’s 1.12 points per shot on his 626 attempts, he would have scored an additional 162 points for San Antonio.

Along with the shot selection issue, San Antonio hasn’t found ways to use Aldridge as the big in smaller lineups.

There are reasons Golden State’s death lineup only sees limited minutes. For one, they don’t want to give opponents too much practice defending it. In addition, it can be incredibly taxing for a small center like Draymond Green to bang with bigs like Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan or Andre Drummond.

Similar to the situation in Golden State, San Antonio wouldn’t want to overuse smaller lineups and wear down Aldridge, but they should turn to it on occasion.

In 2016-17, Golden State’s upgraded death lineup with Durant in place of Barnes saw 224 minutes (and was +123).

I went in search of San Antonio lineups with Aldridge and 4 wings/guards (which excludes bigs like Dedmon, P. Gasol, Lee, and Bertans). It turns out that the most commonly used lineup to meet that criteria played only 23 minutes. In total, there were 4 such lineups that played more than 6 minutes together.

The small lineups worked to the tune of +39 in 50 minutes.

Golden State is able to play small so effectively because they have the most appropriate personnel. The purpose of playing small is to be able to switch screens on the perimeter on defense and to bring more perimeter skills (shooting, ball handling, passing, and driving) to the offense. But it’s hard to find players with those small-ball characteristics that teams can’t bully with size near the hoop.

But San Antonio also has the appropriate personnel. Aldridge and Leonard are dream players for small-ball lineups. And according to NBAwowy.com, when San Antonio went small with Aldridge and Leonard, the team had an ORtg of 116 and a DRtg of 98. Both rating would have been league bests for teams on the season. Yet, San Antonio only went to such lineups for a total of 112 minutes or about 82 seconds per game.

Final Thoughts

It’s out with the post-ups and mid-range jumpers and in with drives, bigs that shoot 3s, small-ball lineups, and off-the-ball cuts. The NBA game is evolving rapidly, and to be successful, teams need to keep pace. It appears as though the great Gregg Popovich is struggling to stay ahead of an analytics-infused NBA, and the once inventive Spurs offense is trending towards obsolete.

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3 Comments

  1. Pepsi Coke

     /  July 10, 2017

    I would argue that the Spurs’s midrange jumper surge exists for two reasons. One is that midrange jumpshot makers have become devalued. Two is that the midrange jumper based offense is made to punish defenses structured around stopping 3’s and layups. We saw how well this worked at full speed against GSW in the playoffs, before David Lee, a sleeper agent, took out Kawhi.

    I think it’s an attempt to unsettle and discombobulate the Warriors by presenting them with looks that they will never see otherwise.

    The Spurs could play small, but they would certainly lose to Golden State. The Spurs are in it for Championships, and the midrange is their gambit.

    Hate it or love it, that seems to be what they’re doing.

    Reply
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