The Effect of the Spurs’ (And Their Opponents) Shot Distribution

Photo courtesy: San Antonio Spurs/NBA

NBA basketball is quickly moving to a high-volume 3-point shooting game. The Spurs, thus far, have seemed reluctant to keep pace with the rest of the league. For the past three seasons, the Spurs have been able to manage an elite offense that was driven more from the mid-range, but this season, the offense has faltered.

This season, the Spurs rank 25th in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions (25.0) and 19th in 3-point percentage (35.8%). In contrast, in their last championship-winning season, the Spurs ranked in the middle of the pack in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions (22.0) and first in 3-point percentage at 39.7%. While the Spurs are taking more three pointers than they did four seasons ago, the rest of the league is moving faster.  The Houston Rockets led the league in attempts per 100 possessions in both the 2013-14 and this current season, but their attempts have risen from 26.8 to 42.2. While they are certainly an outlier, shooting 8 attempts per 100 possessions more than the second ranked team, their 2013-14 season would rank 22nd this season, all via the NBA’s stats page.

Some of this is a product of the players on the court. Since LaMarcus Aldridge signed in San Antonio, the Spurs have moved to a mid-range-centric offense. While much of the NBA has moved away from the mid-range shot due to it’s lower expected value than shots from three point range or shots at the rim, the Spurs have embraced it. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Spurs rank 4th in frequency of total shots taken from mid-range.

On the defensive end, the Spurs are strong at defending the three. According to Cleaning The Glass, they rank 7th in frequency of total opponents shots coming from 3-point range  (29.6%) and 6th in 3-point field goal percentage allowed (35.6%). Because of this, the Spurs force their opponents to play their game. The Spurs’ opponents take 36.4% of their shots from mid-range, the 7th highest mark in the league. Spurs’ opponents are converting 40.9% of their mid-range shots, a higher percentage than the Spurs are themselves, though.

This helps demonstrate that it’s not the defense that has slipped, as Spurs opponents are only shooting 0.5% better from mid-range and 0.3% better from 3-point range, all while the Spurs have been stingier at the rim than they were last season, according the Cleaning the Glass. The Spurs’ real issue has been shooting the ball. The Spurs have shot worse from mid-range and 3-point range this season compared to last, and about 1.2% better at the rim. This demonstrates the gravity of a healthy Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge has performed well as the Spurs’ go-to option on offense, and deservedly earned a spot on the All-Star roster, but Leonard’s ability to score efficiently in a large variety of ways benefited the Spurs’ offense nearly as much as his defensive contributions did on the other end.

The result is a Spurs offense that is much more predictable than it was last season. Due in large part to injury, the Spurs have been short on players who can create their own shots for much of the season. Moving Tony Parker to the backup point guard role has helped in this endeavor, as it gives the bench a player who can help maximize the reserve 3-point shooters. In reality though, the Spurs’ offense will have difficulty flowing the way it has in seasons past while Leonard is out, which makes sense as the offense is designed primarily around him and Aldridge and the other players playing off of them. The Spurs are hoping to get that offense back in rhythm in time for the playoffs with the recent news of Leonard’s potential return.

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