The Spurs' offense was good last season. The team ranked seventh in offensive rating, fourth in three point shooting percentage (seventh in attempts), third in field goal percentage and first in assists. As always, the Spurs had no interest in offensive rebounding (29th in offensive rebound percentage) but did see a notorious rise in their ranking according to free throw shooting percentage, climbing to a surprising third place in the league after rarely cracking the top half in the Duncan era. The Spurs actually made teams pay when they went to the line. The problem is that they didn't get there often enough.
San Antonio ranked 21st in total free throw attempts in the regular season, which is lower than any of the other top ten ranked offenses. Since the Spurs had a fantastic defense and allowed very few free throws themselves, they more than made up for that flaw. But imagine just how good the offense could be if the Spurs became a prolific free throw shooting team without dramatically changing their spread out, motion-heavy offense. It seems as if it could happen, provided a few things go as planned.
The Spurs had four players that got to the line often in the regular season: the Big Three and Tiago Splitter. Those guys took over five free throw attempts per 36 minutes each and they all did a good job of cashing in on those opportunities, with Splitter shooting the lowest percentage at an acceptable 73% for a big man. The Spurs have no players near the top in free throw attempts per 36 (Harden led all players with 9.6 FTA per 36, followed by Howard with 9.5. Rockets games will be long this next season). It's a bit surprising to see Parker all the way down to 20th considering he had a fantastic season and doesn't shy away from contact. But the Spurs have three other guys that rank in the top 30, which makes up for a lack of a player that can get to the line at an elite level.
Unfortunately, things deteriorate fast after that, as no other rotation player was good at getting themselves to the line. No other guard got more than two free throws per 36 minutes and Kawhi Leonard only had 2.5 trips to the charity stripe per 36. Danny Green, the Spur that was on the court the most minutes, rarely got to the line, as is often the case with shooters, and Boris Diaw is just at bad. So considering it's unlikely the top four improve dramatically and Diaw and Green don't seem to have the tools to get better in that area, the Spurs will need someone from the rest to step up and the most likely candidate is Leonard.
Pop said the Spurs will start running plays for Leonard next season. If he is asked to operate as a ball handler, it won't be pretty, as Leonard has never filled that role and his handles and creativity are limited. I can see his turnovers increase and his efficiency decrease, at least at first. But if he can use his deceptively quick first step and aggressiveness to draw contact and get to the line on drives, the bump in free throw attempts could really help make up for any growing pains. If Leonard can up his free throw attempts per 36 minutes to over three, he will be on his way to being a more complete player and the Spurs' offense could easily survive any early struggles he might have with an expanded featured role.
Other than growth from Leonard, the arrival of Marco Belinelli is really auspicious in terms of free throw shooting. Belinelli got himself to the line over three times per 36 minutes, almost doubling Gary Neal's contribution, while not having a higher usage. Neal very, very rarely ventured into the paint while Belinelli took almost a third of his shots at the rim and there seems to be a strong correlation between driving to the rim and drawing free throws, even for a mediocre finisher like Marco. Of course, getting to the line a lot and taking advantage off those opportunities are two different things, as Shaq and Dwight Howard can attest to. But since both Leonard and Belinelli are very good from the line, a rise in their FTA per game could lead the Spurs' offense to a pretty significant jump in points per possession.
It's harder to predict an improvement from any of the other players in terms of free throw attempts. The best bet might just be Cory Joseph. Cory averaged over five free throw attempts per 36 minutes in the D-League and while it's extremely unlikely those numbers hold in what could be his first full season in the NBA, it's not unreasonable to suggest he could make a marginal improvement on the 1.9 FTA per 36 he averaged last season. After Cory, Aron Baynes might be someone that with more minutes could help the cause if his FTA per 36 minutes hold. But it's hard to predict what Baynes' role will be much less rely on the numbers he achieved in garbage time to stay the same against better players.
So, as you can see, the Spurs could definitely improve at getting to the line and there is a chance the addition of Belinelli and the projected growth of Leonard can help the team get to the top half of the league in free throws per game. If they can do that, the Spurs could definitely go back to being in the top five in the league in offensive rating. But more importantly, having more core rotation players drawing fouls at a high rate could help them significantly in the playoffs, when defenses tighten up and points are harder to come by.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats