For the past few decades, the Spurs have been synonymous with ball movement – players selflessly moving, cutting, and passing to turn good shots into great shots. Opposing teams knew that no matter who was on the floor for the Spurs, your defense was going to be tested. If there was a single flaw, a late rotation, a missed assignment, the Spurs were going to find it and make you pay. This led to the Spurs’ game eventually earning the nickname “The Beautiful Game”, an offensive philosophy that reached its peak in 2014.
With Tim Duncan on his way out and Kawhi Leonard not yet the offensive force he is known as today, the Spurs lacked a definitive superstar, but it didn’t matter. The Spurs went on to win a championship after absolutely dismantling Lebron James’ Miami Heat in 5 games in the NBA Finals in dominant fashion.
But since then, we haven’t really seen the ball fly around quite like it used to. Sure, we get glimpses every now and then when the ball moves around just perfectly leading to a wide-open shot, but these moments started to feel rarer through the years. The beautiful game was put on a hold of sorts as the offense became more centered around the then-burgeoning superstar Kawhi Leonard and less around moving the ball.
This, of course, wasn’t a bad thing as Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs to many successful years including a franchise record 67 win season. But the ball movement was no longer what it used to be. We just never noticed this before because Leonard would score anyways and that was that. It wasn’t until Spurs were without Leonard that it became obvious.
Last season the Spurs lacked a player that could go out and create their own shot and it bottlenecked their offense to mainly just running through LaMarcus Aldridge. This turned out okay as Aldridge almost single-handedly carried the Spurs into the playoffs, but it also led to a lot of offensive possessions where the Spurs looked flat-out lost and unrecognizable.
This season, however, with the arrival of DeMar DeRozan, things look very familiar. It’s only 3 games but so far DeMar DeRozan is averaging nine assists a game and leading the league with 26% of his passes leading to points.
Despite the Spurs’ injury woes at point guard, the ball is flying around again. DeRozan’s ability to penetrate and collapse the defense combined with his passing ability has completely opened up the Spurs offense and perhaps most importantly, he has chemistry with LaMarcus Aldridge.
In previous seasons, Aldridge and Leonard mostly just took turns on who’s turn it was to score but never really worked together to create for the other. For the Spurs, the goal was for both of them to be at the top of their game together, but Leonard’s game directly impeded Aldridge’s game, keeping him underutilized and out of rhythm whenever he did get opportunities.
In DeMar DeRozan, however, Aldridge has found a much more willing passer who’s game can complement his own.
“Whenever we run screen-and-roll, you’ve got to make a decision. Big guys don’t want to switch to me, small guys don’t want to switch on [Aldridge]. He’s able to knock down a shot. Once we get it rolling, it’s going to make us even more dangerous to be guarded”.
In their short time together, DeRozan and Aldridge are already working together in pick and roll sets to find each other better shots.
Much like what we see with Lebron James and his teams when he is on the floor, the ball doesn’t necessarily fly around, for the most part, everything runs through him. This certainly isn’t a bad thing, when you have someone like that, why wouldn’t you want everything to run through them?
A very similar thing happened in San Antonio when the offense became more centered around Kawhi Leonard and, to a lesser degree, LaMarcus Aldridge. The offense became funneled through these two players and although it was obviously successful, it didn’t really feel all that Spurs-like to see the ball stick so much. With the acquisition of DeMar DeRozan, however, the ball is moving again, just not in the way it used to. The offense is still very much being funneled through the tandem of DeRozan and Aldridge, but now this duo is creating for everyone else on the floor as well.
DeMar DeRozan has arrived in San Antonio, and with him, a new beautiful game.