The arrival of LaMarcus Aldridge was always going to impact the geometry of the San Antonio attack. An All-Star talent with the elite ability to dominate from 18 feet, Aldridge left Portland to contend closer to home, and Gregg Popovich's remit has been to marry the power forward's sharpshooting with his team's array of weapons.
A look at the players that led the league in unassisted buckets last season is primarily a list of point guards and playmaking wings. The second big man (Zach Randolph was a percentage point ahead) on the board is Aldridge, who scored without an assist on just over half of his shots in 2014-15.
But it's not only Aldridge's numbers from last season that should've indicated a stylistic shift; Kawhi Leonard was just a few percentage points behind LMA at a 46.2% unassisted rate, in between Jonas Valanciunas and Enes Kanter. With the two sharing the floor, San Antonio would possess two reliable outs that could turn situational lemons into lemonade when all else failed.
It's no great surprise then that in the early stages of the 2015-16 season we're seeing an overall brand of basketball that's far removed from the 2014 title team. Three-point attempts (26th) and percentage (17th) currently place San Antonio in the bottom half of the NBA team rankings, and the starting lineup's assist rate is remarkably low for any group of guys wearing silver and black.
LaMarcus' presence isn't all to blame for this. After all, his Blazers last year were third in three-point attempts, eighth in percentage, and 12th in assists per game. It's more of a tactical response to the starting five as a whole: Kawhi has become a walking mismatch who's much better as a spot-up shooter than doing so off the catch; the diminished gravity of Tony Parker (both with and without the ball) lessens the opportunities for misdirection, and Danny Green has been way more 'Icy' than 'Hot' to start the year.
Through seven games, the starting lineup's assist percentage was 52.7%, according to NBA.com. That number is way down from previous years, regardless of what five are on the floor for San Antonio. The team on the whole averaged 62.3% in 2014-15 and is currently scoring at a 61.8% assist rate.
Collectively the Spurs starters have averaged just 11.7 assists per game. It's a relatively low figure, both compared to what it used to be and to the rest of the league. It's hard to see that jumping too much given the personnel, although plays for Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge should lead to plenty of defensive collapses off double teams, and both guys will continue to develop their feel for hitting the open man.
Of course, none of these percentages would really matter at this stage if it weren't for the fact that these five guys, by far the most frequently used lineup (101 minutes), are playing at a negative net rating (minus 6.5 per 100 possessions). Fortunately, Pop has found more effective combinations deeper in his rotation while he continues troubleshooting.
The Spurs bench underwent its own facelift from last season. Among those gone are Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph, two key players who could shoot, handle the ball and find the open man. But that shift hasn't affected the overall identity of the second unit.
Manu Ginobili has looked excellent to begin the season. Those high-risk passes that can lead to turnovers have always been part and parcel with his game, but his creativity and playmaking have come with much greater efficiency than years past, and Manu's net rating is the highest it's been since his last All-Star season.
Boris Diaw's shot attempts are down, but he's still been aggressive in cutting into the meat of defenses. His 3.7 assists per game are second to Manu.
Patty Mills has continued to grow into one of the best backup point guards in the league. It's not just his three-point shooting - which is currently soaring way above his down year last season - but also his efficient shot creation. His assists are way up, his turnovers are down, and his effervescent play is a syringe of adrenaline to the chest of the Spurs offense.
Mills, Diaw and Manu are key, because they're likely to continue to be the first three off the bench. The three of them will often join Leonard and Aldridge in the first quarter, at least for a stretch. Their fingerprints are all over the most potent combinations that Pop has put on the floor early on (Ref: Basketball-Reference):
The Leonard-Aldridge-Mills-Diaw-Ginobili lineup is the second-most-used so far this season, and I assume its 27 minutes through seven games would be a tick higher if not for LMA's foul trouble against Charlotte. Staggering rotations to keep a top-two wing defender and top-two rim protector in there a bit longer makes sense, and it's also resulted in five guys who are more evenly balanced on both sides of the floor.
That five-man group is not only faring extremely well, but it's playing a style far more similar to what we're used to as Spurs fans with higher assists (60%) and a greater volume of three-pointers (40% of all scoring). (Ref: NBA.com) Check out LaMarcus getting in on the infectious pass-fest:
This is all a small sample size at this point -- and it completely ignores the dynamics on the other end of the floor, as well as what will happen when Pop gets looser with his rotations in December and January -- but there is fun in trying to identify trends and new strengths early on.
Plus, it's a chance to recognize how great it is to have another year of Manu in a Spurs jersey.