The 2018-19 Spurs were last in the NBA in three-point rate and first in percentage of midrange attempts, a shot profile that was fun enough to throw at analytics wonks as the team went on to overachieve off the strength of its 6th ranked offense. For a year at least, Gregg Popovich showed there was more than one way to skin a cat in an increasingly uniform league.
The Spurs coach is certainly aware of the added value of the three-point shot, and narratives that run with his various colorful quotes framing it as a gimmick overlook his history in making ample use of it when possible. Here he is at May’s end-of-season media availability when asked if he’d re-evaluate the emphasis on outside shooting in 2019-20:
“I think that that’s something that we really have to discuss and think about, because that’s what the league is all about now. You end the game, and the first thing you look at is three-point shooting . . . it covers up a lot of warts.”
Of course, that presser also included sound bytes such as this:
“You have to go with what you have, and all our players aren’t three-point shooters . . . You’re not gonna make them into Steph Curry just by practicing over the summer. I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
That leaves us with more or less the same picture of the Spurs that we’ve always had, a team that will balance the realities of its roster with an appreciable reverence of three being greater than two. And while the latter hasn’t changed, developments with the former suggest that figure of 25.3 3PA per game may regress, while the rest of the league goose steps the other way.
This starts with the simple matter of where the same quantity of attempts (2,071 in the regular season) will come from in next season’s anticipated iteration. Its four leaders in that category were Bryn Forbes (413), Patty Mills (404), Marco Belinelli (395) and Davis Bertans (338). Rudy Gay (184) was a distant fifth.
Bertans is gone, through one of the more unfortunate lapses in recent Spurs transaction history, taking his 338 attempts with him. The newly acquired DeMarre Carroll may see a similar minutes share in his stead but won’t have as green a light to bomb away, while fellow big wing Gay may need to recreate his career year from distance (40.2%) to approach his same total.
We should also expect less production from Forbes, Mills and Belinelli, now in a crowded rotation of guards and wings. Forbes, who started all but one game and was third in total minutes, won’t likely see 28 minutes a night again, while Mills and Belinelli (4th and 6th in total minutes) will also cede time on the floor. What’s more, that trio is ceding it to Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White, who bring youth, defense and upside but are all lower-volume shooters. Murray is an unknown coming off a season lost to an ACL injury, and he took just 34 threes in 2017-18; White shot 33.8% on 142 attempts last season; Walker’s role is still unclear heading into his second season, but his game appears better suited to attacking the basket and pulling up from 15 feet more than anything else right now.
LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan (who combined for 87 three-point attempts last season) should both venture out beyond the arc more next season, but, as Pop said himself, no one’s becoming Steph over night, and a coach who already tried to force too much change on Aldridge once won’t likely do so again with his two mid-range scorers of a certain age. More important than individual habit is the way this team will probably need to continue operating: Aldridge post-ups and DeRozan’s creation from 15 feet were the two best ways to generate offense last season, and the Spurs can only move away from that so much.
One piece of irony here, beyond the fact that the 2018-19 Spurs paced the league in three-point percentage while being last in attempts, is that this team is ostensibly changing with the times. Last season’s 25.3 attempts per game from beyond the arc were the most of the Popovich Era, as was the team’s pace of 98.3 possessions per game, the kind of nominal growth that would matter if it wasn’t framed by the pace-and-space sea change.
As they have always done, the Spurs will continue to attempt to get with the times — at their own pace. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them approach or eclipse last year’s 30th ranked figure, but it’ll have to come through various threads of individual development, as well as a well-implemented system that makes the best use of all the pieces on the floor. Either way, we’re likely headed for another season of hearing about San Antonio going against the grain to win games.