Is it possible that the Spurs have gotten better without Tim Duncan? The stats suggest yes.
For 19 seasons, the San Antonio Spurs have been at the head of the NBA class as the league's perennial championship contenders. For the first 18 of those seasons, they had Tim Duncan. This season, the first in the post-Duncan era, has begun exactly like all of the others. In fact, the Spurs have been better. Their .780 win percentage is on pace for 65 wins, which would be the second-best mark in their 19-year run.
The way in which the Spurs continue to reinvent themselves year after year, adding new pieces and new wrinkles to their style of play, is unmatched in modern basketball history. Teams have owned decades, but never has a team consistently built off of their foundation like the Spurs. The latest version features many of the same qualities the team had last year, but with a fiercer and more efficient go-to scorer in Kawhi Leonard and a handful of new faces.
Let's take a look at what makes the 2017 Spurs special in this week's NBA Wraparound.
It's been said that the Spurs are not playing an analytics-friendly style of basketball; with regards to three-point shooting, they try to zig while the rest of the NBA zags. In a superficial way, this is true. The Spurs have the seventh-lowest three-point attempt rate and take the second-fewest three-pointers overall. But those stats can be a bit misleading about what the team values on offense.
It's very clear from watching the Spurs that they value the three-point shot immensely. Danny Green spends most of his time on the court behind the three-point line, and players like Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard hunt for three-point opportunities within the flow of their offense. Even the team's marquee big men, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, are taking and making threes at career rates, and spend a fair amount of time spacing the floor behind the arc. In the clips below, you can see how the Spurs will play five-out with Aldridge spacing the floor the way a shooting guard would, keeping the painted area wide open for rolls, drives, or cuts.
What's interesting is that the Spurs aren't hunting for three-point opportunities the way teams like the Warriors and the Rockets do. Instead, they use the threat and option of the three-pointer the same way that they use the threat of post-ups, elbow jumpers, and drives and cuts to the basket. The Spurs are a threat to score from every spot on the floor and through every type of basketball action. They are leading the league in both three-point percentage and field-goal percentage on long twos farther than 16 feet. They're also sixth in the NBA in field-goal percentage at the rim.
Only half of the value of three-point shooting is the extra point you get for making a shot behind the arc. The rest of the value comes from the extra spacing that those shots provide for teams to get into the paint and score at the rim. At 6'11'' and with an unusually high release, Aldridge's mid-range jump shots have the same gravity that most wing players do from behind the arc. Defenders can't afford any cushion off of Aldridge, even when he is standing in his favorite spots at the elbow or along the baseline. The same is true of the seven-foot Gasol. A 50 percent shooter from mid-range is as dangerous and as efficient as a 33 percent shooter from behind the arc, and no team would be comfortable allowing open shots for a 33 percent three-point shooter.
The mid-range area also has one advantage on the areas behind the arc, especially for power forwards and centers who can pass the ball. The ball at the elbow creates a very unique pull of gravity that tugs off ball defenders both toward the paint and toward the three-point line. If the ball is at the elbow, and Tony Parker is standing on the wing, Parker's defender is pulled out toward the arc because he can't allow Parker to catch and shoot an open three. But as Parker cuts off of the elbow, the gravitational pull reverses and suddenly the defender is forced to get between Parker and the basket.
The Spurs as a team use that elbow gravity better than anyone in the NBA. All Spurs players have their spots on the floor. Gasol and Aldridge's spots include the block, the elbow, and the short corner opposite the ball. The two players will move around the court on offense, but those spots act as a sort of home base and they are incredibly effective operating from them. Both are smart players with great feel for the game, and they pick their spots for when to duck in for a post-up and when to stay clear of the paint or set weak-side screens. In the clip below, Aldridge appears to be heading to set a screen for Parker before ducking in and getting deep post position. Gasol makes the pass from the elbow and Aldridge gets the easy lay-in.
While Gasol and Aldridge occupy the elbow and the short corner, Danny Green and Patty Mills occupy the corners. Green is shooting 62 percent from the left corner while Mills is shooting 61 percent from the right corner. Kawhi Leonard is shooting better than 40 percent from both corners. Think about that for a second. The Spurs have three players who can occupy the corner spot and must be guarded. They've got two seven-footers who are shooting 50 percent from the elbows. Who do you help off of? Factor in that all five of those guys can pass, dribble, and cut, and you have a team that puts the defense in a bind every single time down court.
And then there's Tony Parker, one of the craftiest and quickest point guards to ever play in the NBA. At 34 years old, rumors of him losing a step have been dramatically overstated. In the clip below, watch how he blows by Kyle Lowry with his first step. On closer look you can see that it isn't just speed that Parker uses to blow past Lowry, who is usually a very quick and strong on-ball defender. Slowing down the video, you can see that Parker explodes toward the middle of the floor at the exact second Lowry shifts his body weight to preemptively fight over the oncoming screen. Parker's quickness is impressive, but his reflexes to read exactly when to turn on the jets are even more unbelievable.
The Spurs' unselfishness, ball movement, and fundamental play have been their calling card since reinventing themselves back in 2010, but the extent to which they pass and cut is perhaps still under-appreciated. For reference, the Spurs play at the fourth-slowest pace in the NBA, meaning they run up and down the court the fourth-fewest times per game. Yet as a team they somehow manage to run the second-farthest distance on offense in the NBA. They also throw the sixth-most passes per game.
This is because for the third straight year (at least), the Spurs lead the league in "half-court pace." Half-court pace is an estimate of the distance a team moves in the half-court based on SportVu player tracking data. As a team, the Spurs cover an average of 526 feet on every offensive possession, roughly 39 feet more than average. That might not seem like much, but that is roughly two and a half more cuts per possession, or 250 more cuts per game. Those cuts add up and they wear teams out in the half-court.
While the team doesn't play at a fast pace, they push the ball up the court in transition as well as anyone in the league. Both Parker and Mills make a point to cross the half-court line within the first four seconds of the shot clock, despite the fact that the Spurs take the third-fewest field goal attempts in the first nine seconds of the shot clock. In short, the Spurs make teams work their butts off in the half-court for the entire shot clock and wear them down with constant cuts and ball movement.
As balanced as ever and fit over everything
Another characteristic of the Spurs is that they play a deep bench and develop their entire roster during the regular season. Only Leonard and Aldridge play more than 30 minutes per game. Gasol plays the third-highest minutes per game on the team at a little over 26. What's more impressive is that the 13 players on the roster with the most minutes played this season all have a positive net rating. The only two players with a negative net rating on the roster have played fewer than 250 minutes total in their careers.
It's not that the Spurs have depth. Kyle Anderson and Davis Bertans have talent but they aren't plus NBA players because they are better than average. Rather, the Spurs fit their players into their system and demand that they execute and stay within the parameters of the offense. In that regard, the deepest players on the bench can enter the game and play nearly identical to the starters, producing similar shots, even if they are converting them at a slightly lower rate. Just look at the clip below of five deep bench players playing very Spursian basketball.
The Spurs have a sort of dialectical relationship with the NBA. They've influenced the evolution of the game as much as any team in the last 20 years, and yet they've also been forced to adapt as the game itself has changed. They were among the first teams to recognize and exploit the value of the corner three, the value of resting players, and developing a steady pipeline of budding stars and role players. The latest iteration of Spurs basketball appears a stark contrast to teams like the Rockets and the Warriors who push the boundaries of three-point shooting. The Spurs are pushing the boundaries, too, just in a different way.
Since December 1, the Spurs have the league's best ORTG and second-best DRTG. In that span, their NetRTG is a full point better than the Warriors' despite playing their starters nearly 20 fewer minutes per game. They're never talked about during the regular season the way the Cavaliers and the Warriors are, and fans are free to write them off at their own peril. For the 19th straight season, the Spurs are scary good and quietly building a juggernaut on both ends of the floor. Collectively, they have every skill a team needs to exploit their opponent's weaknesses.
Yes, including the Warriors and the Cavs.
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