Pace and space basketball continues to take over the NBA as teams are chucking threes and running the floor like never before. The league saw an increase in pace for the eighth straight season and broke the record for three-point attempts per game for the ninth consecutive year.
While this trend has swept the association, San Antonio has seemingly spurned the three-ball in favor of mid-range jumpers. The Spurs took 289 more shots from that zone than any other organization in 2019-2020 and finished 28th in three-point attempts per game (28.5 3PA).
Believe it or not, San Antonio hasn’t always shied away from the three-ball. They were once among the highest volume three-point shooting teams in the NBA, with only five franchises taking more long-distance attempts than the Spurs from 2006 to 2015. So, what happened?
It logically starts with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge during the 2015 offseason and continues with the DeMar DeRozan / Kawhi Leonard swap in the summer of 2018. Suddenly the two best players on the roster are mid-range specialists in a league experiencing a major stylistic shift.
Of course, that’s likely an oversimplification of how San Antonio ended up in their current situation, but that doesn’t change the fact that, as mentioned earlier, the Spurs shot fewer three-pointers than just about any team in the NBA last year. Yet, somehow they managed to break their franchise record for most three-point attempts per game in a single season (28.5 3PA).
Not only is that one of the weirder statistics I dug up when researching for this article, but it brought a legitimate issue to the forefront. While fans have celebrated the recent departures of Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli, how will San Antonio replace their three-point production?
The above duo combined for roughly 28% of the Spurs’ 760 three-pointers a season ago, which accounts for about 3.0 makes on a nightly basis. Take that away, and the Spurs are left with a measly 7.7 triples per game, nearly two less than the league-worst New York Knicks (9.6 3PM).
Marco Belinelli and Bryn Forbes accounted for roughly 28% of San Antonio's 3PM and 3PA last season.— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) November 30, 2020
That's good for about 3.5 3PM per game which the Spurs should be able to find elsewhere on the roster.
The answer to this conundrum feels relatively simple. Other shooters have to step up for the Silver and Black to sustain any semblance of a threat from downtown. And luckily, head coach Gregg Popovich appears to have the personnel to make up for any perceived losses.
Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Dejounte Murray, and Aldridge increased their three-point volume and efficiency last season, and drafting collegiate sharpshooter Devin Vassell should help the Spurs too. Even Keldon Johnson looked the part of a standstill deadeye during the seeding games.
Although volume can be substituted, the type of three-point shooting Marco and Bryn provided the Spurs isn’t easily replicable. LaMarcus, Lonnie, and Dejounte are mostly stationary from beyond the arc, whereas Marco and Bryn can shoot off screens, off the dribble, and on the move.
If I had to bet on a pair of guys adding that sort of dynamic shot-making to their bag, it would probably be White and Walker. While inconsistent throughout the season, Lonnie showed encouraging flashes of becoming more comfortable operating off the bounce.
As for Derrick, he was automatic from deep during the NBA restart before an injury sidetracked his bubble breakout. The Colorado alum knocked down an unimaginable 45.2% of his long-range looks on 8.4 attempts per game over that five-game stretch.
I saw @BleacherReport made a mistake so I worked my photoshop magic to show Derrick White some bubble love: https://t.co/m4ML7fdVrw pic.twitter.com/G3VXL6xI0y— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) August 8, 2020
More than an influx of catch-and-shoot opportunities for the third-year guard, Derrick drained triples off a variety of sets, showing off significant shot versatility. Maintaining that efficiency for an entire campaign is improbable but hovering around 37% on similar volume isn’t.
Derrick White showing some confidence as he nails his fourth triple of the contest: pic.twitter.com/rT7VpBNXzg— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) July 25, 2020
Some people may question whether or not the three-ball is as important as many basketball pundits make it out to be, and the answer to that inquiry isn’t straightforward. It mostly depends on roster construction and what approach best fits their particular coach and makeup.
Seven of the top ten three-point shooting teams by volume made the playoffs last season. Five of the ten lowest three-point shooting clubs by volume also qualified for the postseason. The Lakers ranked 23rd in volume and 21st in efficiency yet won the 2020 NBA Finals handily.
Now, where San Antonio and Los Angeles differ is they don’t have a LeBron James or Anthony Davis on their payroll. Employing two of the five best players in the world makes it much easier to negate the effects of poor spacing, and the Spurs don’t have the luxury of rostering a superstar.
However, once the Spurs hit the NBA restart, they primarily relied on small-ball lineups that were well equipped to push the pace and take advantage of bent defenses in transition. More shooters were on the floor, but the San Antonio shot fewer threes than they did before the hiatus.
While their long-distance volume (26.7 3PA) decreased, their success rate skyrocketed to a league-leading 42.0% over their eight-game stint in the bubble. On top of that, they posted a 5-3 record which feasibly could have been 7-1 if not for a few extenuating circumstances.
Should the Spurs go small and play a breakneck brand of basketball next season, they’ll still need reliable three-point shooting to generate a respectable half-court offense. I’m not 100% sure that will happen, but as long as Chip Engelland is on their side, I’ll always have a little faith.
From Tony Parker to Kawhi Leonard, Engelland has turned a handful of bricklayers into sharpshooters over the years. Several members of San Antonio’s young core already possess a solid foundation to expand upon, so don’t be surprised if one of them makes major strides next season.