As Tim Duncan aged and rule changes decreased the efficiency of post play, the Spurs had to change their identity to return to contention. An emphasis on a quicker pace and more ball movement resulted in a better offense, and the league followed suit, adopting some of the precepts of Mike D'Antoni's playbook and frequently going small. The style proved to be effective, as the past three champions show.
Now with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs once again have a big man who is a legitimate first option. As Gregg Popovich adjusts his system to maximize the strengths of the roster, we could see a lot more post play in San Antonio.
What's scary about that is that it runs counter to what has been successful lately. Fortunately, the versatility of both Aldridge and the system already in place will allow the Spurs to avoid some of the pitfalls big teams face when playing against opponents that go small.
Aldridge is both an elite post scorer and a perimeter threat
Aldridge was one of the most prolific and efficient post players in the league last season. Only Al Jefferson finished more possessions in the post, according to Synergy Sports stats. Among players with at least 300 post possessions, he was the second more effective behind Jonas Valanciunas. It all has to do with his versatility on the block.
If he receives the ball in the mid post, he can go over his right shoulder on fadeaways or create space by pushing his defender off with his left shoulder. If his defender plays him too close, he can blow by him and finish with a right runner or a baseline dunk. He doesn't typically overpower defenders but he can when faced with undersized defenders. As long as he's on the left side of the court when he receives the ball, he's hard to stop.
What separates Aldridge from other elite post players is his range. Last season he shot 40 percent outside of 10 feet from the basket. From eight to 14 feet, his percentage was even better. He started to develop a three-point shot, taking more field goals from beyond the arc in 2014/15 that in his previous eight seasons combined and connecting on a solid 35 percent of them despite rarely shooting from the corner. Teams simply can't leave Aldridge open from outside.
That versatility makes it hard for opponents to match up with him. Put a big player who can slow him down in the post and he will hurt you from outside. A smaller, quicker guy might contest those outside looks better but won't be able to handle him close to the basket. While the Trail Blazers took advantage of his multiple talents, the Spurs should be able to maximize them, especially against small ball teams, because...
Small ball teams can only deal with one post scorer
During the last finals the Cavaliers forced the Warriors to sit Andrew Bogut because he was killing their offense, as his presence allowed Timofey Mozgov to stay close to the rim to contest everything. The Warriors countered by going extra small, knowing that Mozgov wasn't going to be able to take advantage of a wing on offense.
It will be hard to employ that strategy against the Spurs, since Aldridge can space the floor and they have other bigs who can punish a wing inside.
Let's use the Warriors as an example. Draymond Green is guarding Aldridge and Andre Iguodala is guarding Tim Duncan. Aldridge could simply take Green outside of the paint by spotting up while Duncan exploits a huge size advantage. Duncan is not the post assassin he once was but against a wing and with a properly spaced floor he could go back to dominating for stretches. Diaw can also take smaller players with his back to the basket. There's nowhere to hide.
If the opponent adjusts and has a small player on Aldridge, he should be able to shoot right over him, nullifying the help defender that is under the basket. Because Aldridge doesn't have to get close to the rim to successfully create buckets, he gives the Spurs the versatility to hurt teams that go with only one traditional big.
The Spurs know how to get the ball to the post
Making entry passes is harder than ever. Small ball teams rely on that to survive on defense. They can front the post and send soft help to discourage the entry pass and double as soon as the big man gets the ball. That's how Matt Bonner was able to guard Zach Randolph so effectively for so long.
If the ball never reaches the post player, it's impossible to take advantage of the mismatch.
Once again, that might prove hard to do against the Spurs. As a remnant of the post-oriented days of the past, they know how to enter the ball and keep the help defense on its toes. The sets they normally run have built in post options, which means that they don't just walk the ball up court and try to make a predictable entry pass. And because the Spurs' wings cut constantly when someone is on the block, sending help after the fact is dangerous.
The type of off-ball movement showed in that play is common for the Spurs. High-low plays to take advantage of over aggressive defenses that try to deny the entry have been in the playbook for over a decade. They know exactly how to get the ball to the bigs on the block and what to do when it's there. They also have great passing big men who can make quick reads. Look at Aldridge's assist chart.
And here's Duncan's.
Not only do both make the right passes most of the time and rarely turn the ball over on the post (7.3 percent of the time for Aldridge and 9.6 for Duncan) but the buckets those passes create tend to be three-pointers or shots near the rim. If the defense leaves someone open to help they will find that man in position to score.
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Small ball presents unique challenges for teams that like to stay big, a description that fits the Spurs now that Aldridge is in tow. Thanks to Aldridge's offensive versatility and the Spurs' ability to first get post players the ball and then offer them options once they get it, however, the question marks revolve largely on the defensive end. At least on paper, any opponent that decides to go small against San Antonio will have its hands full on defense.