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The Spurs are losing battles against math — and luck

Three pointer-averse San Antonio has found itself on the wrong side of basketball math this season. That includes some extremely hot shooting by their opponents that has led to their defensive slide.

Charlotte Hornets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Gregg Popovich has been fielding the three-pointer question long enough that his replies these days are rote, if not curt. And some of that makes sense: nevermind that his teams were once champions of the corner three and paragons of modern analytical models, or that he’s already publicly, repeatedly resigned himself to the undeniable importance of a shot he’s framed as gimmicky — there will always be doofuses like me finding slightly different angles to broach it.

“[If] the other team shoots significantly larger number of threes, it makes it more difficult to win,” he said ahead of Wednesday night’s home loss to the Hornets. “All those numbers all the time, they’re right in front of us every day.”

To attempt at paraphrasing: yes, the Spurs would probably like to take more of them, so why haven’t they? That has as much to do with what defenses are giving them as it does the players taking and creating them. Pop spoke to the latter point in a follow-up:

“I’d say, it’s a situation where the better your shots are, the more success you’re gonna have. It’s not just a matter of shooting X number of threes — if every one of those is contested then it’s not as good as uncontested threes. The quality of the shots is what’s important, whether it’s a three or a two — but if you shoot twos all night you lose.”

A third of the way through the 2021-22 season, the Spurs rank last in the league in three-point rate, which is only part of a deficit in overall shot profile they take into every game. They’re also 29th in free throw rate and middle of the pack in attempts within the restricted area, which puts pressure on the half-court offense to generate points from less efficient — and typically more contested — spots. No team attempts more field goals with a defender’s distance categorized as either very tight or tight. All of that would be fine with rosters replete with more offensive talent, but that’s not exactly San Antonio’s strength.

To Pop’s point, the Spurs do attempt a higher rate of wide-open looks than a handful of teams that rank ahead of them in sheer three-point volume. That’s a credit to the team’s nightly game plan of getting downhill, attacking in transition whenever possible, and using rim pressure to get as close of looks as possible or create open looks for the team’s better three-point shooters.

The Spurs are 14th in the league in three-point percentage at 34.9%, but almost all of those occur off the catch. In 2021, one of the best ways to stretch or break a defense is the pull-up three, a shot that San Antonio has overlooked both on the floor and seemingly in how it has drafted and developed its stable of young guards, resulting in only 5.4% of the Spurs’ three-point makes being unassisted. New Orleans ranks 29th at 11.6%, 16th ranked Milwaukee is at 18.3%, and the Jazz lead the NBA at 27.2%. For a team like San Antonio, who wants to play outside-in, lacking that weapon in the arsenal quickly homogenizes the offense and simplifies defensive schemes, and it might be telling that their 2021 draft pick is showing those very flashes in Austin.

The net of that shot profile leaves the Spurs losing the nightly math battle. No team makes more field goals per game than they do (and only five teams turn the ball over less) but, because not all field goals are made the same, San Antonio ranks 18th in offensive rating.

More alarming: the defense, which was meant to be their strong suit coming into the year, ranks just 17th in the league and has trended the wrong way. Since November 10th, they’ve been the 23rd best defense, generating fewer turnovers (17.7 in October, 14.1 in November and 13.4 this month) and limiting how often the team can get in the open floor and push the pace, which is when the offense is at its best. Luck has played no small part in this, as well, thanks to their opponents’ proficiency on three-point looks considered “wide open” (when a defender is more than 6 feet away). Every team gets these, which comprise most of the three-point attempts taken, but, because variance exists, you may catch more teams on hot nights than cold, and that can add up if you’re unlucky enough. Teams can attempt to control this by leaving certain players more open than others, but most analysts typically chalk this figure to randomness in a larger sample size.

Take Wednesday night, when the Spurs were buried under a barrage of Hornets threes despite actually attempting more than the visitors on the night. They also got to the free throw line nine more times, but it didn’t matter as the Hornets hit six more threes on the night behind an absurd ten in the first quarter alone.

It’s part of a wider trend of misfortune for the Spurs. Going back to that November 10th watermark when their defensive rating began going sour, no team has been as unlucky against opposing team’s wide-open looks. Opponents have made 45.1% of those attempts over that 17-game stretch, with the next-closest mark being Knicks opponents at 42.1%. (On the flip side, the Jazz have fared the best, at 33.2%.) That has tugged the Spurs’ defensive three-point percentage to 36.5%, good for 7th worst and just outside the top 5.

Of course to be lucky with the game’s most valuable shot, you have to give yourself chances, which plays back to the point that Pop will probably get asked about again. The Spurs’ nightly disparity from beyond the arc means they’re giving up on average 13 made three pointers and hitting roughly 10 themselves, good for a 9-point gap that they’re not currently making up from the line or other dependable areas of the floor well enough.

This is a transition year for the franchise, as well as one for the front office to see what it’s working with. Wins and losses don’t matter as much as development and evaluation, and the team may be able to straddle both if fortune smiles on them just a bit. If not, the season will at least help highlight the roster’s needs as the retooling process continues.