I mentioned this in passing in yesterday's column, but it bears repeating: the biggest problem right now on offense for the Spurs is their inability to get to the line. San Antonio now ranks dead last in free throw rate and they've been at or near the bottom throughout the season. The only reason this is not a killer for the their chances is because they also rank first in opponent free throw rate, allowing even fewer free throws than they get. But as we've seen in their losses, in which the Spurs got 41 free throws to their opponent's 92, when other teams manage to get to the line a lot, the Spurs can't counter with free throws of their own.
The Spurs have no one in the top 50 in total free throw attempts and the highest ranked Spur in free throw attempts per 36 minutes among players to have played 400 minutes or more is Tim Duncan, with 58. Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter also get to the line over four times per 36 minutes, which is good. But after that, the Spurs are a disaster and the performance of two players is the biggest reason why. Here is the list of players that have taken more than 150 field goal attempts but less than 25 free throws. The Spurs third and fourth best players (I'll let you decide the order), are on that list that only includes eleven guys. How can that be?
Manu is not going all the way to the rim
Manu Ginobili is the biggest culprit, if you will, as his free throw rate has plummeted to a career low. Ginobili used to live at the line, as his career average of 5.9 free throws per 36 minutes shows. Even last season, when he was considered to be washed up, he went to the line 5.3 times per 36. This year that number has dropped all the way to 1.5 per 36 minutes, which is beyond terrible. So what happened? The popular explanation might be that Ginobili is simply playing the role of facilitator more. But Ginobili is taking the same amount of field goals per 36 than last season and his assist percentage is pretty much the same. What Manu is doing less of is getting all the way to the rim.
Here are the distribution shot charts from this season and the last:
What immediately jumps out is the increase in shots in the paint but not the restricted area. Manu is using those long finger rolls or the floater more to avoid contact, instead of going all the way to the rim. It has helped him improve his percentages from both spots but it might be costing him and the team a few trips to the line.
That explains at least part of the decrease. The type of play the Spurs run for him might be another factor. Ginobili is getting more looks off screens, per Synergy, and those plays typically result in less fouls than situations in which a player dominates the ball like isolations or as a pick-and-roll ball handler.
Those explanations shed some light on the mystery but they don't completely clarify it. It's impossible to comprehend how a guy that has been a foul magnet for so long is receiving so few free throw attempts. Manu seems spry enough to turn the corner in pick-and-rolls and he scores at a very high rate at the rim. It might just be that he is saving himself for the playoffs.
If this is the case, I heartily approve. But it's definitely something to keep and eye out for.
Kawhi takes way too many jumpers
Leonard was never particularly good at getting to the line as a pro and has actually regressed this season, going from a very low but promising 2.5 free throw attempts per 36 minutes to a miserable 1.4 per 36. Those numbers were excusable in the past because he was basically a low usage three point shooter. It's hard to get to the line when you are parked in a corner for 15 seconds every possession. But this season his usage percentage has climbed to almost star level (19.3%) while his three point rate (percentage of total attempts that are three pointers) has dropped. And yet his free throw rate regressed significantly.
So what has stunted Leonard's development when it comes to drawing fouls? He has simply fallen in love with the mid-range jumper.
There's little Leonard can do to draw fouls when he is spotting up behind the arc or when he is darting out in transition for a breakaway dunk. But while the Spurs really don't call many plays for him, he does get a few occasions when he is asked to create for himself. I checked MySynergySports for all 38 shots Kawhi took as a pick-and-roll ball handler or in isolation and found out that more often than not, he finishes those opportunities with pull up jumpers. Only nine possessions resulted in a shot in the paint and he drew just two fouls. For the most part, he either jab-stepped and fired or took a dribble or two and when he had a sliver or room, pulled up. Leonard is physical enough to go hard to the rim yet he consistently chooses to pull up for jumpers more often than recommended.
Don't get me wrong, the mid-range jumper is a good tool to have. It's not an efficient shot, comparatively, even when you are as good as Kawhi at hitting it (49.1%) but it's impossible to just take shots at the rim and three pointers. Sometimes the defense will force you to pull up and the fact that Leonard is excelling there is the one silver lining to an otherwise underwhelming offensive performance so far. But it can't be all you do in a half court offense and that's increasingly being the case with Leonard.
Hopefully it's more of a mindset thing with Kawhi and he begins attacking the rim more often. The only other prospective solution I can find is to involve Leonard more in post ups. In 20 opportunities, he has been fouled twice when he operates with his back to the basket. That's nothing to write home about but it's better than the rate at which he draws fouls in other situations.
Can someone else step up?
Not realistically. Mills and Diaw are performing slightly above their career averages in this area as it is and can't be counted to improve even more. The only other players that get enough playing time to make a difference are Marco Belinelli and Danny Green. Belinelli is well below his average for free throw attempts per 36 minutes but he is being used almost exclusively as a shooter instead of a ball handler and he is excelling in that role. And shooters don't get to the line much, which also explains why Green ranks second to last in the team in free throws per 36. It does really come down to Manu and Kawhi.
So let's hope they can figure things out because, at this rate, the Spurs are projecting to have their lowest total free throw attempts in a season in franchise history since the three point shot was introduced. It's hard to find a direct correlation between free throw rate and playoff success so being historically terrible at getting to the line might not be a death sentence. But it certainly won't help the Spurs' chances of winning it all.
Stats courtesy of MySynergySports and NBA.com/Stats