"The Spurs' way" has been in vogue since the team won the championship. Many coaches came into the season preaching the benefits of moving the ball and citing the Spurs' performance in the finals as inspiration. Constant ball and player movement are pretty simple ideas but actually implementing an offense that consistently creates good looks off of them is harder than it looks, as many are finding out. In fact, it took the Spurs years to find the right balance.
The good news for all those failing copycats is that the numbers show it's not necessarily a recipe that everyone should follow.
This past October John Schuhmann analyzed the correlation between ball and player movement and offensive efficiency and found that there is none.
The Spurs move the ball beautifully, move themselves often, ranked sixth in offensive efficiency in the regular season and took it to a new level in The Finals. But the Spurs are special.
There is no correlation between ball movement and offensive efficiency. Three top-10 offenses - Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Toronto - ranked in the bottom 10 in ball movement (passes per minute in half-court possessions). And five bottom-10 offenses - Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Utah, Charlotte and the Lakers - ranked in the top 10.
The Dallas Mavericks lead the league in offensive rating this season and they average just 299.1 passes a game and 41.3 assist opportunities (passes that directly result in shots, whether they go in or not), marks that are lower than the Spurs'. They are just fantastic at scoring on pull-up jumpers and have guys that can create their own shots on drives, so there's no need for them to make moving the ball their focus. It's entirely possible to have a great offense without great ball movement provided a team has the right players.
The Spurs are not such a team. As Manu Ginobili said during the Thunder series: "We don't have a Durant. We don't have a Kobe (Bryant) or LeBron (James) that can go one against one and finish every single time. We need to pass the ball to find open teammates, and that's what we do, and that's what we've been doing."
Last season, that was true. This season, not so much.
San Antonio is averaging only 2.2 fewer passes per game but also 5.7 fewer assist opportunities than they did in the last regular season. The Spurs are driving to the rim an average of 6.3 times more per game. They are taking 2.9 fewer catch-and-shoot shots and 1.9 more pull-up jumpers. Assists, secondary assists and assists opportunities are down. As a result, the team is scoring a full nine points less per 100 possessions than it did last season. Instead of the system creating shots, players are trying to do it on their own despite not being good enough at it.
Why would a team as self-aware as the Spurs stray from a game plan they took years to develop and that has been so successful? Two reasons: some of the players they have been forced to play because of injuries don't really fit the system and others have been slumping badly.
Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli -- two prolific and super efficient shooters with space -- have been out and seen some of their minutes absorbed by Cory Joseph. Joseph is not a catch-and-shoot threat at all so he often drives instead of pulling the trigger despite not being able to create open looks off those forays to the paint. And his best weapon is his pull-up jumper. As for Tiago Splitter's minutes, some have gone to Aron Baynes, who doesn't draw the attention of the defense at the same level on dives and even when he does isn't as talented or willing a passer as the Brazilian. He's strictly a finisher and not a particularly good one at that.
So there's a systemic problem that has emerged as a result of having to give minutes to players whose strengths are not conducive to the type of crisp ball movement the Spurs desperately need to create open looks. But that's not all. What has truly killed the Spurs' offense so far is not so much that they are creating fewer good shots but that the good shots they do create are not falling.
NBA.com's player tracking tool defines "open shots" as shots in which there is no defender withing four to six feet from the shooter and "wide open shots" as shots in which a defender is six feet away or further. Combining the two stats we see that during the 2013/14 regular season, the Spurs created on average 40.5 total shots per game in which there was no defender at least four feet away from the shooter, 19.2 of which were three pointers. On their total shots, their field goal percentage was 46.8% and on open threes their field goal percentage was 40.3%. This season the Spurs are creating 37.3 open/wide open shots per game, 19 of which are open/wide open threes. But San Antonio is converting just 41.3% of their total open looks and a paltry 32.3% on open three pointers.
Danny Green (down 15.1% on wide open threes compared to last season) and Manu Ginobili (down 20.4% on open threes compared to last season) have been bricking shots they normally make. In the front court, Boris Diaw is 4-19 on combined open and wide open threes this season for 21.9% while he shot 40.5% on 111 attempts last season. And designated shooter Matt Bonner and stretch-four in the making Austin Daye are shooting a combined 20.8% on open/wide open threes.
What everyone seems to forget as they praise the ball movement from last season is that equally important to their success was the Spurs' ability to actually turn the resulting open looks into points. That simply hasn't been the case this season.
So how can the Spurs get back on track? Regression to the mean by their shooters should take care of most of the problems. Once again, good shooting mask a lot of struggles and various Spurs have been well below their averages. Danny Green was one of the best outside shooters in the league last season and is shooting 28% right now. That's going to change. The same applies to Matt Bonner. Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw have always been at least league average outside shooters as Spurs and are underperforming on that area. Those guys will start connecting at some point.
Long term, health should also play a huge part in how the Spurs' offense looks. Once Belinelli, Mills and Splitter are back, the offense should improve greatly.
And then there's Kahwi Leonard.
If his role indeed expands, he could help the team one or two ways: By creating for others or by creating for himself. If Kawhi can up his assists and assist opportunities per game, that's another creator that will provide the finishers with open looks. He seems well on his way on both counts, showing better numbers than last season. And if he can score on his own at an efficient rate, he might alleviate the Spurs' reliance on ball movement and open shots. As elite offenses like the Mavs' and last season's OKC's show, there's nothing wrong with one-on-one scorers taking contested shots as long as they make them. If Leonard shows he can do that, the need for ball movement lessens.
So there's no need to panic yet. Yes, the Spurs are turning the ball over too much. Yes, the ball movement is not as crisp and a result there are not as many open looks available. And yes, the shooters are missing the ones the offense creates. But all those problems seem fixable. Fortunately, the defense remains stout. The rest will likely take care of itself in time. And if Wednesday's win against the Warriors is any indication, it might happen sooner rather than later.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats