The San Antonio Spurs have had a successful regular season by most accounts: they are on track to win 60 games for the third time in four seasons, they have once again produced an elite defense, and it appears that key players, such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, are finding their groove just in time for the playoffs. However, an issue that has surfaced for the team has been the tendency to go cold on offense for unfortunately long stretches of time. It’s almost jarring to watch, as the Spurs’ offense will go from effective to struggling back to effective again all within the span of 6 or 7 minutes. Throughout the month of March, it has seemingly happened once in every game, except for maybe the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers which still featured a low scoring third quarter.
There is an inherent trade-off for the Spurs when choosing their starting center. Gasol brings floor spacing and passing to any lineup he is on, while Dewayne Dedmon brings high-level rim protection. There are pros and cons the Spurs consider when starting either of them. From the beginning of the season until his wrist injury in January, Gasol was the Spurs’ starting center. Since the injury, Dedmon has filled that roll. The Spurs’ offensive rating during first quarters from the beginning of the season until Gasol’s injury ranked 7th in the league at 109.8 points per 100 possessions. After Gasol’s injury, their first quarter offensive rating fell to 19th in the league at 103.4 PP/100. This is true almost across the board, when isolating offensive and defensive rating of each quarter, the Spurs have dropped in relative rank of offensive rating in all four quarters and rose relative to the league in rank of defensive rating in three of the four quarters, with the third quarter defensive rating being the only exception.
While Kawhi Leonard is a three point threat, there have been games throughout the season when the three is not falling for him. In these games, having a player like Gasol on the court is very beneficial for several reasons. First, Gasol’s shooting helps spread the floor, which gives Leonard more room to operate on isolation-type plays and inside the arc in general. Leonard has been seeing more double teams in recent weeks, and instead of forcing a bad shot, he will often pass out of them. Gasol’s passing and shooting makes him a good target for Leonard to pass to, especially as many of the double teams Leonard has been seeing are in the post. In games where Leonard’s three is falling or defenses aren’t aggressively doubling him, it makes sense for Dedmon to share the court with Leonard, as Dedmon can add defense as Leonard is carrying more of the offense.
This and more factors into Coach Gregg Popovich’s lineup decisions throughout a game, however it becomes more complicated still. While having both out on the floor at the same time can make guarding pick-and-rolls a challenge, Gasol and Aldridge’s offensive games play complement the other’s. As soon as they were really starting to gel on offense together, Gasol sustained his injury. Aldridge was then required to make the proper adjustments to play next to a center in Dedmon who has a wildly different offensive game than Gasol. When Gasol’s unique offensive skills are taken off the court, the Spurs offense becomes a bit more predictable for opposing defenses, especially in regards to the starting lineup. This results in the slow starts that the Spurs have been prone too over the course of March, having a negative net rating in first quarters for the month before Wednesday night’s game.
There are adjustments that the Spurs can make in the playoffs to keep the offense flowing but keep the defense from hurting for it. One such adjustment, for instance, is bringing Patty Mills in off the bench earlier in the game to provide shooting at the point guard position. The Spurs have been reluctant to go small so far this season, however, the Spurs could field several small lineups that would theoretically keep the offense operating, including playing Leonard at the four and Aldridge at the five while having Mills, Green, and Ginobili on the floor as well, providing the Spurs with an abundance of shooting. Regardless of the solution, the Spurs are certainly looking for one and hoping to find it by mid-April. While the Spurs have been able to keep winning games even after letting the offense disappear for minutes at a time during the regular season, it will be much harder to do so against teams that are game-planning against the Spurs in the post-season.
All stats from nba.com/stats