The Golden State Warriors are the gold standard of basketball modernity. But before this unstoppable monster began their reign of three-point terror, it was the San Antonio Spurs who were blitzing the league by embracing the long ball. When the Spurs defeated LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, the basketball world marveled at their beautiful system and how it allowed a team to be greater than the sum of its superstar-less parts. The Spurs were one of the first teams to recognize the value of the corner three, and that title team represented a full embrace of the three-point shot.
In the time between then and now, a large swath of the league decided to do their best to mimic the beatiful machine that the Spurs created. The Indiana Pacers completely abandoned its brutish identity overnight. Phil Jackson saw value in investing the fourth pick on a big who could shoot. Pop disciple Mike Budenholzer won 60 games last year in a Spursian system. The Warriors under Steve Kerr embraced this philosophy and are using it to even greater success, which is what happens when you have the greatest shooter of all time.
While almost the entire NBA has gone three-pointer crazy, the Spurs, OGs of the three, have gone the opposite direction. Only 23.3 percent of San Antonio’s shots this year have been three pointers, which is 25th in the league. This is a pretty big drop-off from just a season ago, when the Spurs attempted 26.9 percent of their shots from three, the 15th-highest rate in the league (another indication the league has changed is that this would clock in at 19th so far this year). And while the long two has been eradicated from most offenses, the Spurs are scoring 23.3 percent of their points from mid-range. Only the New York Triangles score more of their points from the least efficient area on the court.
A decrease in threes and a bump in mid-range shots seems like a recipe for bad basketball. Once again, the Spurs are defying expectations and are third in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
How is this possible? How could the team that began the three point revolution change course so drastically and maintain elite offensive output?
Last week in an interview, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich declared his hatred for the three-point shot and said he would never embrace it. This is not entirely a surprise, as Pop captured his first title with the twin-tower duo of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Popovich is the best coach in the league at adopting his offense to the strengths of his players. When the roster is loaded with shooters and thin on shot creators, he makes lemonade out of lemons. But with the emergence of Kawhi Leonard and acquisition of LaMarcus Aldridge, Popovich has morphed the offense again, designed to put his new superstars in their most effective spots.
When Aldridge signed with the Spurs, I foolishly assumed Pop would encourage the former Trail Blazer to extend his sweet jump shot beyond the arc to fit in with the incumbent offensive system. But one look at Aldrige’s shot distribution shows that it’s business as usual. Aldridge is attempting mid-range shots at his career averages. He’s taking even fewer three-pointers than last year, instead upping his attempts in the restricted area.
The Spurs are taking different kinds of shots than they have in recent years past, but as SB Nation’s Mike Prada points out, the offense still looks remarkably similar. They may be taking a lot of mid-range shots, but they’re using creative ball movement and early action in the shot clock to free up players for easy open looks.
A lot of mid-range shots can be the result of a poorly executed isolation play. This isn’t the case with the Spurs, who have the fourth-lowest isolation frequency in the league. They’re also third in the NBA in assist percentage and second in assist ratio. A high assist rate is typically a sign of teams taking easy open shots. For the Spurs this season, more of those shots are happening inside the arc.
The Spurs are masters of zigging while the rest of the league zags. Popovich and the Spurs are taking advantage of defenses that were originally designed to slow down their old attack. A lot of teams play conservative pick-and-roll coverages that concede the mid-range in order to wall off the paint and chase shooters off the arc. Last summer, San Antonio went out and got the player best equipped to take advantage of this concession.
San Antonio is holding opposing offenses to historically low scoring rates. Paired with their sort of new-look offense, the Spurs are in prime position to win yet another championship.