Aldridge, Gasol and Extra Spacing

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If you try to rewind your mind back to the second round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, you might recall that some of the Thunder bigs in Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter would back off of Tim Duncan when the Spurs were in the halfcourt offense, as the furthest out Duncan usually went on offense was near the free throw or mid-range area. In the latter portion of his career, the mid-range jumper wasn’t a shot Duncan usually took very aggressively, so, defenses like the Thunder backed off Duncan to provide more help defense in either stopping penetration to the paint, or they were able to help more often when Kawhi Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge were trying to post-up their defender in the low block.

With the addition of Pau Gasol, not only will Gasol not hesitate to shoot an open mid-range jumper, but, he will also be able to provide the Spurs’ offense with more spacing because of his ability to shoot from 3-point range, if the shot is needed on a possession.

Last season with the Chicago Bulls, Gasol took 69 three point attempts (1.0 per game) in 72 games for the Bulls, and he almost shot near league average by making 34.8% of his attempts. While Gasol wasn’t a high-volume 3-point shooter in Chicago’s offense, he did show that if the shot needs to be taken and he’s standing there from the outside as the recipient of an open pass, he won’t hesitate to shoot from long range.

In his first season as a Spur, Aldridge wasn’t looking to take many, if not any three pointers with San Antonio, as he only attempted 16 threes through his 74 games in the regular season with the Spurs in year one. Aldridge’s reluctance to take threes in year one was more-so because he was just trying to find his comfortable mid-range and low-block shots first in a new system, and with new teammates.

On Monday at media day, Aldridge was asked if he’ll shoot more this season from three like he did in his last season with the Portland Trail Blazers, and for Aldridge, now that he’s comfortable with the Spurs’ system, he’s indeed looking to shoot more three pointers.

“I do,” said Aldridge about taking more threes this coming season. “I mean, last year was a big learning year for me, as far as getting comfortable, as far as trying to find my role on the team, trying to learn where my shots were going to come from, so I feel like this season, I’m going to know more. I’m already going to know all of my spots where I’m going to get shots from, so I’ll see if I take more threes this year.”

When asked if three pointers were an area of focus for him this past summer, Aldridge had this to say: “Yes and no. Yes, because I wanted to get back comfortable with it, like I was my last year in Portland, but then also I wanted to keep getting more comfortable with my shots here, as far being at the elbow and being on different blocks.”

In his last season with the Blazers during the 2015 season, Aldridge did seem comfortable with his outside shot, as he took 105 threes in 71 games with Portland, while shooting near league average at 35.2% from beyond the arc.

Like Gasol, when Aldridge was comfortable taking 3-pointers, he did so off spot-up catch-and-shoot action, so they weren’t necessarily shots that both players forced up as pull-up jumpers.

According to Aldridge Thursday, even Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich encouraged Aldridge to start shooting more 3-pointers next season.

“Pop, after last season, told me to get comfortable with it, so I see myself taking that shot more this year,” said Aldridge of his 3-point shot.

Two play formations in San Antonio’s offense where you can imagine how Aldridge and Gasol will provide more spacing when on the floor is through the use of post-up possessions, or as the Spurs called 4-down, and in the spread pick-and-roll. In 4-down, because Leonard, Aldridge and Gasol are all three very effective post-up players, instead of just standing near the rim on the opposite block or near the elbow, Aldridge and Gasol can now both stretch out to the 3-point line to provide more spacing for whoever is posting up down in the low block.

In looking at the spread pick-and-roll, you can look at the play diagram below, where maybe a ball handler like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Leonard could initiate the offense with the ball (1). Aldridge or Gasol could each be at the spot for number 4 or 5, which means either could be setting the pick and either popping out for a shot, or rolling to the rim, while the other big can establish himself either in the corner or on the wing three.

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The clip below shows Aldridge in his final season with Portland being comfortable taking the corner three in the spread pick-and-roll, as his defender tries to help on a Damian Lillard drive.

In the next clip below, you can also see how comfortable Gasol is in taking the corner three in the spread pick-and-roll, when he’s wide open in the corner as well.

Just having two big men who can shoot the three comfortably can continue to space the floor and open more options on offense, as they can both potentially catch a pass on the 3-point line and either shoot, pass to a cutter, or pass back to a big for high-low action if one of them is near the rim area.

According to NBA.com/stats database, last season, from the left corner, Gasol barely shot below league average (37.4%) from the left corner, as he made 35.7% of his left corner threes. The right corner wasn’t as efficient for Gasol, as he only connected on 27.3% of his right corner threes, while the league average was 38.1% from that area.

As for Aldridge, in 2015 with Portland, he shot above league average (38.0%) from the left corner three at 47.4%. He too though struggled from the right corner three that season, as he only made 15.4% of his right corner threes, when the league average from there was 39.2%.

Now, just because Aldridge and Gasol have the ability to stretch the floor, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be shooting over three 3-pointers per game each, as they’re still playing in a motion offensive system where the players are trying to go from finding a good shot, to a great shot. Meaning, Aldridge and Gasol will likely take threes in situations where they’re open looks, and it’s at a time acceptable in terms of the shot clock.

Here’s an interesting finding from the NBA.com database, last season, when Gasol was left wide open from 3-point range (6+ feet away from a defender), he knocked down an efficient 37.8% of those attempts. This is data from all around the arc, not just the corners. In 2015 with the Blazers, when Aldridge was left wide open from 3-point range, he knocked down a very high percentage of his threes with a 47.8% shooting clip.

Meaning, with all the attention Leonard, Aldridge and Gasol can draw in the low block or when drive-and-kick action is created by Parker or Ginobili as well, if defenders help off Aldridge and Gasol and leave them wide open, one of them is expected at minimum to shoot no worse than 37% on those types of wide open looks.

As this list of top online betting sites suggests, much as the data and past observations project there to be more spacing this season in the Spurs’ system with Gasol and Aldridge now together on the same team, the games still have to be played and there still will be a process of each big man finding their best spots to be in, to be most effective both when they do and don’t have the ball. Though the Spurs will likely lose an edge on defense with Duncan retiring due to his rim protection and high level IQ of knowing where to be at all times, the offense might have just gained more extra spacing for the team with Gasol’s ability to stretch the floor, and with Aldridge expected to start shooting from his range he had in Portland as well.

Video footage via NBA.com/stats

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