- The San Antonio Spurs have been the best team over the past month, with the best record, the best offence, the third-best defence, and the best point differential.
- The Spurs offence runs counter to many of the trends in the NBA – they attempt the fewest three-pointers and the most midrange shots, play slowly, and are led by two three-point-averse stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan.
- After a rocky start, the Spurs have finally clicked on both ends, and while they may not play in a modern style, they are efficient and smart.
The San Antonio Spurs will never die.
Coming into the season – following the trades of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the free-agent departure of Tony Parker, the retirement of Manu Ginobili, and the season-ending ACL injury for Dejounte Murray – many predicted that the Spurs’ 21-year playoff run would end.
Even with one All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge and an incoming one in DeMar DeRozan, many wondered whether the Spurs had the talent and depth to make it in the deep, competitive Western Conference.
They have proved everyone wrong again. The Spurs are 25-18, sixth in the Western Conference. They’re the hottest team in the NBA over the past month, with a 13-4 record since December 6. In that span, they also own the league’s best offence, the third-best defence, and the best net rating (points by which they outscore opponents per 100 possessions).
More incredibly, the Spurs don’t look like any of the most modern NBA outfits. Maths rules in today’s NBA. Teams emphasise three-pointers, shots at the rim, and free throws. They’re playing faster than ever before. Defences are geared toward making their opponents take the least efficient shots possible.
The Spurs don’t resemble any of that.
At a time when teams are eschewing shots from midrange, the Spurs are taking nearly three more attempts per game than the second-place team (the Golden State Warriors, interestingly).
For the season, the Spurs are 26th in shots attempted per game from less than 5 feet (at or near the rim), though they take advantage when they’re there, making 63% of their attempts, seventh in the league.
No team takes fewer three-point attempts per game. The three-pointers they do attempt are not the easiest ones – they average a combined 5.2 attempts per game from the corners. The five teams ahead of the Spurs in the Western Conference all average more per game. The Spurs do shoot efficiently, however, hitting 40.5% of their three-point attempts, the best percentage in the league.
Thursday night’s 154-147, double-overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder was a prime example of the Spurs’ antiquated yet effective offence. They were blazing hot from three, hitting 16 of 19 attempts from downtown. That’s a scorching 84% – but 19 attempts in a double-overtime game is a minuscule number by today’s standards. Every team in the league shoots 24 or more threes per game.
They were led by Aldridge, who posted a career-high 56 points without attempting a single three-pointer – the first player to score 50 or more without a three since Shaquille O’Neal.
— NBA (@NBA) January 11, 2019
Aldridge’s shot chart looked like something straight out of ’90s basketball:
Aldridge’s co-pilot is DeRozan, who leads the NBA in midrange shot attempts per game and is down to 17.5% from three this season. Perhaps no superstar tandem in the NBA is as three-point-averse as Aldridge and DeRozan.
And that’s fine by Popovich, who has made his disdain for three-pointers known, several times arguing that if there’s a three-point shot there should be a four-point shot, a five-point shot, and so on. The Spurs take some threes because it’s necessary, and they have ensured they make those shots.
Despite a league-leading offence, the Spurs credit their defence for the recent turnaround. The Spurs were one of the worst defensive units early in the season, but the team has since jelled on that end of the floor.
Contrary to their shot selection, the Spurs are pretty good at defending good shots and forcing bad ones. In the last month, they’re eighth in opponent field-goal percentage from less than 5 feet, seventh in midrange attempts allowed and sixth in percentage, and third in opponent three-point percentage. The Spurs also don’t turn the ball over and rarely foul opponents – two effective methods for winning games.
But some things defy numbers. It seems as if they have gained chemistry on the defensive end. As is typical for a Popovich team, they’re disciplined, conservative, and communicative, attached by the metaphorical “string” that so many teams wish to achieve.
Popovich told ESPN’s Michael C. Wright in December that he knew that with so many new faces and departing players, the team would take time to figure things out.
“I just thought that they deserved a lot of patience with the group two-thirds new,” Popovich said. “I can’t expect them to catch on to everything right away and understand each other. So I knew that patience is like the first step in showing confidence in somebody or in a group. So if you expect everything quickly, that’s just not going to work. It’s going to hurt their confidence.”
The Spurs are on pace to win 47 games, the same number as last season, which broke an 18-year streak of winning 50 or more games. But thanks to their recent climb, even if the Spurs cool off and play .500 ball the rest of the season, they’re likely to make the playoffs.
In a season when expectations were low, when it looked as if Popovich and company were devising a plan that ran counter to the best teams in the league, the Spurs are once again defying the odds.