The Spurs weren't a great defensive team last season. They weren't awful or anything, but they didn't have the type of strong defense that gets stops consistently and can adjust to different styles. That proved to be their undoing. While some might point out that the Spurs' interior defense was somewhat lacking, equally important and yet almost completely ignored is the fact that they have a huge problem guarding jumpers.
The Spurs usually decide to allow long two-point attempts instead of risking penetrations or three-pointers. Looking at the numbers, it makes sense. Last season, across the NBA, teams shot an average of 38.1% from 16-23 feet, as opposed to a 62.6% at the rim. You don't need to be a stat-head to see why it makes sense to dare teams to shoot from outside. The problem is, the good teams have gotten better at sinking those shots, especially in the West. OKC led the league in field goal percentage from 16-23 feet with 42.6%. The Lakers and the Suns were in the top ten, as were the Blazers, Rockets, Mavericks, Warriors and Hornets. The only Eastern team that ranked near the top is Boston. Basically, teams the best in the West can hit the mid-range jumper well above the league's average
Now, in the playoffs the Spurs disposed of the Jazz and Clippers easily and, looking at their shot location numbers, it's easy to see why: Utah and the Clips were very good at scoring efficiently at the rim but were in the bottom half in field goal percentage from 16-23. The Jazz were also an awful 3-point shooting team (27th in the league) while the Clips weren't exactly stellar (12th in the league). OKC, on the other hand, was similarly efficient at the rim but much, much better on jumpers. Of course that's far from the only reason why the Spurs swept the first two series and lost in the West Finals, but looking at the following tables it's logical to consider it a very important factor.
The Spurs did a decent job throughout the playoffs of protecting the rim. They held all three teams they faced below their season average for points in the paint. As for percentages, only the Clippers managed to produce above their regular season mark and it was only by 0.6%, not exactly a huge increase. The Jazz were dominated in every aspect, including points and percentages, both at the rim and from mid-range. OKC scored only 0.2 less points at the rim compared to their regular season numbers, but they did it in a slightly worse percentage. All to the good so far. But now we get to the downside: the Thunder had a 10% uptick in shooting percentage from mid-range and scored 4.6 more points than they did during the year. All the solid work the Spurs did protecting the rim was undone by their inability to guard away from the basket. They simply allowed too many points from jump-shots.
Limiting shots at the rim is, of course, more important than closing out on shooters; penetrations produce open shots and foul calls, to start with. But the Spurs were actually OK at defending their rim, not only against OKC but also in the regular season. In fact, San Antonio allowed a league-average FG%, good for 13th in the league, on a below average number of attempts allowed (7th in the league). On long jumpers, the Spurs allowed the 4th most shots and the 2nd best percentage with 40.9%, trailing only the Nuggets. For comparison purposes, the league-leading Bulls allowed almost 2 shots per game more than the Spurs from 16-23 feet but a field goal percentage over 5% worse. Other top 10 defensive teams (according to defensive rating) like the Celtics, Grizzlies, Knicks and Pacers also allowed a below average percentage from there. Simply put, to have a top defense you not only have to be able to force teams to take long jumpers; you have to be able to make them miss.
It's too early to tell yet, but this season the trend seems to continue. In 3 games the Spurs have allowed 25.3 points per game at the rim on a stellar 54.2% and 22.6 points per game from outside the painted area on 42.1% shooting, according to NBA.com statistical database. Last night against the Jazz, the Spurs allowed 12 made field goals at the rim and 14 from mid-range.
Why are the Spurs allowing open jumpers and why is it a bad thing?
Ideally the Spurs would be good defensively on every shot from every spot on the floor, but that's not how these things work. If the Spurs' big man hedges hard on the P&R, the paint would be more exposed either to penetration or the rolling big catching and finishing. That would probably result in fewer mid-range attempts, but a better efficiency at the rim for the opponent. Obvoiusly we don't want that. Similarly, if the Spurs guarded the long jumper instead of the 3, that would result in more open looks from long range and that doesn't work either. The challenge the Spurs face is finding a balance; maintaining or improving their rim protection while also contesting better on jumpers.
The Spurs pick and roll containment, and help on penetrations, leaves the ball-handler open from mid-range by design. In pick and pops, it's the screener who is given space. The big problem with that tactic, as discussed, is that the top teams in the West have the weapons to take advantage of that. The Lakers have one of the best mid-range shooters off the dribble the league has ever seen, in Steve Nash, while the Thunder have the deceptively effective Russel Westbrook and Kevin Durant to handle the ball. Their new addition Kevin Martin shot a very high 44% from there too. Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka are above average mid-range shooters that can and will take advantage of one of the bigs over-helping to deter penetration through pick and pops, so that doesn't solve the problem either.
What's the solution?
A trade bringing in a mobile, defensive-minded power forward would be ideal, but since that requires the perfect trade partner, it might not be in the cards. That only leaves system changes. A possible solution might be to borrow some concepts from the defense that Tom Thibodeau has deployed with the Celtics and Bulls. By overloading the strong side and playing defense zone away from the ball, Chicago and Boston allow the big to hedge harder, since a wing is on the paint to bother the roller. By the looks of things this season, unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be Pop's preferred plan of action. Leonard's aggressive, anticipatory defense is a good weapon, as is Jackson's ball-denial; after all, if the shooter doesn't get the ball he can't take the jumper. The bigs guarding further out while the wings protect the rim could work on occasion, like it does for Miami, considering Danny Green is a good shot-blocker for a guard and Manu is not afraid to attempt to swat away potential dunks. If I had a definitive answer I'd probably be working with the Spurs as defensive coordinator by now, but those seem to be the Spurs' best shots at correcting the issue.
All I really know is the Spurs need to come up with something, anything really, to be a better team defending the mid-range jumper, be it in the P&R or in any other type of play. Serge Ibaka's 11-11 shooting night still haunts me, and with Steve Nash joining the Lakers, flashbacks from the Suns' sweep are starting to interrupt my day-to-day activities. Last playoffs, a hobbled Chris Paul was able to take advantage of the glitch in the Spurs schemes and the thought of a healthy CP3 or Nash having that kind of freedom isn't one that encourages me about San Antonio's postseason success.
Stats courtesy of Hoopdata and NBA.com