The Spurs followed up Monday night’s 145 point explosion against the Grizzlies with a 98 point slog against the Mavericks on Thursday, leaving the Spurs’ offense still right around league average. At 109.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, the team sits at 14th, which represents a significant regression from last year’s top-5 performance. Despite their struggles to score, the Spurs have largely stuck with the script, making almost no meaningful adjustments to their shot selection so far this season.
Enter Zach Lowe, who included a couple of the Spurs’ more frustrating offensive tendencies in last week’s 10 NBA Things... article. To put it in Spurs’ terms, the issue is that the team’s stars frequently turn “good to great” shots into “good to okay”, seeking out some of the most inefficient shots in basketball, often at the expense of more valuable opportunities.
The specific examples he cites are LaMarcus Aldridge popping to a spot just inside the three-point line and strolling right past the arc when trailing the play, as well as DeMar DeRozan dribbling into a long pull up jumper or directly into traffic instead of taking an open look from deep. Although he provides examples of the the first and last point, they aren’t really necessary for anyone who spends much time watching the Spurs.
The memories of all those long twos and shoulda-been threes are firmly etched in our minds. But memories can be tricky. Even though Lowe’s critiques make complete sense, they still warrant a little more rigorous analysis.
LaMarcus has only shot 31 two-pointers 20 feet or longer this season, so even though he’s in that space far more often, he’s only taking about one shot from there per game. Somewhat incredibly, he’s made 17 of those shots, for a FG% of 54.8%. That obviously looks like an outlier, but the big fella made 30 of 59 attempts in that range last season (50.8%), so there might be more to it than just a good start to the season.
Of LaMarcus’ 51 three-point attempts this year, 24 have come on plays where he popped to the three-point line after setting a ball screen, including twice against the Mavericks. That’s the exact scenario most sensible observers, including Lowe, would like to see happen more often. All were above the break threes, and though he made 9, that’s a shot he’s hit a little over 30% of the time since the beginning of last year. Still, if we were to accept that LaMarcus can continue to hit at the 36% clip he’s put up on above the break threes so far this season, that’s a very nice 1.08 points per shot, well above the value of a typical half court possession for the team.
Where the problem arises is comparing that particular shot value to what he’s gotten just a step inside the arc. LaMarcus would need to hit 54% on those long twos to get equal value, but as we already discussed, he’s actually just above that so far this year. If he had done the sensible thing and taken threes on each of those 31 shots, the expected value on those attempts would have been slightly lower than what he actually scored.
This is a great time to point out the old maxim that past performance is no guarantee of future results. We’re obviously dealing with small sample sizes. A hot or cold streak over the next few games could dramatically change these numbers. At the same time, even if this is an accurate representation of his ability, one of the best explanations for why he shoots those long twos is that he’s comfortable there. But if he consistently took threes instead, wouldn’t he eventually become just as comfortable?
There’s also the question of how much LaMarcus’ positioning on the floor is a result of other schematic concerns. For example, the Spurs have leaned into how opponents defend DeMar and Dejounte Murray by dragging the screening portion of the pick-and-pop as low on the floor as it can go, frequently getting all the way down to the free throw line.
He clearly isn’t in the habit of backpedaling to the arc while expecting the ball, so it is a little easier to understand why he doesn’t make it back out to the line on these plays. Changing that tendency could put more pressure on defenses, but would require a fair amount of practice on LaMarcus’ part to turn that footwork into second nature. That might not really be necessary, though, because there is much easier fodder for improvement.
These are the plays that really hurt. LaMarcus sets a screen right at or even outside the arc and still drifts in to 22 feet. Even if that shot were better for LaMarcus individually, it’s worse for the team. Just being in position to take the shot, whether he gets the ball or not, shortens defensive rotations and simplifies help responsibilities, costing the team much more valuable attempts at the rim or behind the arc.
With the Spurs’ offense now putting up a mere 94.3 points per play in the half court, per Cleaning the Glass, LaMarcus would only need to hit 32-33% of these shots to represent an improvement over the team’s typical half court possession, and that’s without considering how his positioning would impact the spacing on the rest of the floor. There’s simply no reason to pay that opportunity cost by walking right past the three point line.
That’s essentially the exact same point Lowe made with his other Aldridge-related issue. When the big fella is trailing the play and the defense is still getting settled, there’s no good reason not to hold up at the top of the key. The Spurs’ offense runs through a big in that spot a lot of the time anyway, so there’s just no excuse to meander any farther unless the defense is cross-matched and he has an opportunity to attack a smaller player down low.
It seemed like LaMarcus might have been changing that particular habit, coincidentally of course, in the Spurs’ first two games after Lowe’s article was published. After walking into just 3 threes as the trail man through the first 27 games of the season, LaMarcus took 3 more over the course of the team’s 2 games against the Clippers and Grizzlies.
The 1.8 threes he’s averaging a game is already a career high, but it would be even better if, as Lowe mentions, LaMarcus could add 1 or 2 of these wide open looks every night. He didn’t attempt any trail threes against the Mavericks, but there’s reason to hope these will be a larger part of his game moving forward.
There’s much less cause for optimism when it comes to DeRozan’s three-point shooting. He’s not nearly as comfortable taking them as LaMarcus, which is readily apparent both in the numbers and on the film. DeMar has made just 5 of his 19 three point attempts this year and is on pace to shoot fewer threes per game than he has since his rookie year. He passes up open looks like they hurt.
The problem is that he might really be a bad enough shooter that driving, even in that situation, actually is the right answer. He’s a career 28.3% three point shooter, and even if we just go back to his best year from deep, when he made nearly 34% in 2015-16, he’s sub-30% over the last 5 years. If we exclude corner threes, where he’s actually been passable, that number drops all the way down to 25.5%.
The Spurs might be better off with him taking these open threes, since it eliminates the potential for turnovers from that point forward, but the math isn’t nearly as straight forward as you might expect. As painful as those plays may be, it’s hard to argue against driving instead of taking a shot with an expected value that low.
His inability to threaten the defense from deep obviously has serious ramifications for the team’s other ball handlers, each of whom are almost always met by multiple defenders in the paint. Even so, just taking the shots won’t help that much if he can’t actually hit them.
That represents an important distinction between the two players. Lowe’s concerns with LaMarcus are largely fixable with a little practice and the right emphasis, while encouraging DeMar to jack up more threes might actually make the offense worse.