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The Spurs must turn weaknesses into strengths to hide lack of shooting

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If the Spurs are going to take fewer three-pointers, as Pop has said, they will need to not only hit more of them but also improve on other areas to have an elite offense.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

While concerns about rim protection and rebounding dominated offseason discussions about Spurs weaknesses, San Antonio's potential lack of shooting flew under the radar.

Gregg Popovich conceded that the team will likely take fewer three-pointers this year, which is not surprising considering the personnel they have. Unfortunately, that's not the only concern. Marco Belinelli is gone and Tony Parker will likely regress from a career year from outside, which means the team's three-point percentage efficiency could dip for the second year in a row.

Both things were true in preseason, were the Spurs took two fewer shots from beyond the arc and only connected on 33.6 of them. That can't happen during the regular season. The Spurs' offense can't reach elite status if it features few three-pointers and low efficiency.

It's hard to have an elite offense without volume three-point shooting

The Spurs finished 14th in the league in three-point attempts last year. In the past five seasons, only one team has had a top three offense (which is what the Spurs should aspire to have after the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge) without being in the top half of the league in three-point attempts: the 2012/13 Thunder. The 2011/12 Nuggets came close, as they finished 14th in three point attempts that year and boasted the league's third best offense. So how did they do it?

The 2012/13 Thunder got to the line constantly and led the league in free throw percentage. They also connected on a high percentage of the three-pointers they did take, finishing third in three-point percentage*. The 2011 Nuggets also got to the line a ton and led the league with a bullet in points in the paint and fastbreak points.

The Spurs need to improve on traditional weaknesses to offset their lack of three-point shooting

So the keys to being elite on offense without volume three-point shooting are free throws and fastbreak points. That's a problem, because the Spurs have not been in the top half of the league in both since the 2010/11 season, when they had the best offense in the NBA.

Spurs' ranking 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15
Fastbreak points 8 10 13 14 23
Free throw attempts 13 21 24 30 22

The offseason additions and new pecking order should allow them to do a little bit better in both areas but it doesn't look like the Spurs have the tools to truly excel at either. They have ranked among the teams with fewest free throw attempts for the last four seasons. LaMarcus Aldridge is a free throw upgrade over Tiago Splitter, and Kawhi Leonard should get a couple more trips to the line per game this year, but it's hard to see a jump to the top third of the league.

As for fastbreak points, the Spurs were decent at getting them in the past but they have been trending down for a while. It's not hard to see why. The Spurs like to get into their sets quickly but are not built to run, so they often rely on one-man fastbreaks and Tony Parker doesn't do much of that anymore. Leonard can only create so many opportunities to run with his defense and there's no one else on the team that thrives in transition.

Hopefully San Antonio will at least make marginal improvements in threes and freebies this season, but joining the elite in either seems unrealistic. That leaves achieving high efficiency their three-pointers as the best chance they have of offsetting the damage that taking few outside shots could cause. In that case, two things need to happen.

Manu and Kawhi need to cut pull-ups in favor of catch-and-shoot three-point attempts

Manu has hit under 35 percent of his threes for the past two years, while Kawhi shot a career low 35 percent last season despite not attempting more outside shots than in past years. Yet those percentages are a little deceiving, as they encompass two very different type of shots.

Three-point percentage Pull up Catch-and-shoot
Manu Ginobili 23.8 39.4
Kawhi Leonard 23.5 37

Ginobili was hurt the most by his low efficiency on pull-ups, as a third of his total three-point attempts came after taking at least one dribble. He can't completely take that option out of his arsenal because then defenses would just focus on containing his driving game, limiting his impact as a shot creator.

But with the Spurs now running more of their offense through the post and adding another creator in Aldridge, Manu could be free to be a finisher more often than in past seasons. If that's the case, we could see a spike in his three-point shooting percentage, especially if he can spot up on the corners where he excelled from last year.

Manu's shot chart

Leonard's case is curious. He shot a very good 42 percent on pull up threes in 2013/14 in limited attempts before struggling last season. In a tiny sample in preseason he went 2-for-7 in those type of shots, with one of the misses being a heave as the shot clock expired. Take that one out and he would have shot 33 percent in pull-ups. It's possible Leonard's disastrous percentage on pull-ups last season was an anomaly, perhaps due to the injuries he sustained to his eye and hand.

In any case, the Spurs will certainly hope that Leonard doesn't rely too much on those types of three-point attempts despite handling the ball more this season. In all likelihood he will continue to shoot better in catch-and-shoot situations instead of settling for outside shots that keep him away from the free throw line.

Patty Mills and Boris Diaw need to bounce back

During the 2013/14 regular season Mills was one of just 21 players who shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc while making at least 100 three-pointers. A third of his attempts were pull ups and he connected on a ridiculous 48 percent of them. Last season, following shoulder injury, he shot 34 percent overall and 32 percent on pull up threes.

The good news is that for the three seasons before, Mills shot at least 40 percent. He's a legitimately good three-point shooter, not someone with just one good year under his belt. The Spurs don't need him to develop a new skill, just to go back to being the player he has been for most of his career.

As for Diaw, it's hard to accurately portray how bad a shooter he was last season but this table made by Nylon Calculus does a good job.

Boris Diaw three-point shooting

Turns out that Diaw was open for the vast majority of his three-point attempts last year, but still only connected on 32 percent of them. Considering the difficulty of the shots he took and the conversion rate, it's possible to say Diaw was among the worst shooters in the league last season, when he actually took a career-high of attempts beyond the arc.

Diaw is not a consistent three-point shooter. Plus, he's inscrutable, so it's impossible to know if he will even take threes next season. But it's very likely that if he again takes so many wide open ones, he'll shoot better than the 32 percent from last season, tied for the lowest mark of his career in years in which he took more than 100 three-pointers.

*   *   *   *   *

It's hard to imagine the defense getting much better from last season. In fact, a slight slippage in that end seems likely. That means progress will have to come on offense. Taking few three-pointers makes that hard but not impossible. If the Spurs improve marginally on free throw attempts and fastbreak points and go back to being elite at converting three-pointers, cracking the top three in offensive rating is not out of the question. Unless they can do that, their offense won't reach its full potential.

*They also had Kevin Durant averaging 28 points per game on 50-40-90