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Why the Spurs offense could take a step back next season

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A transformative offseason in San Antonio led to the departure of key veterans, leaving behind a number of statistical gaps and a group of young players ready to step into bigger roles. Here are some numbers on what we can expect.

San Antonio Spurs v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Spurs enter next season with no shortage of questions, one of the bigger ones being what exactly this younger, less proven version may look like offensively. Major changes are usually warranted when you’re coming off two seasons of missing the playoffs, and on a purely binary level, the Spurs did what they needed to do by moving on from high usage and pricier vets like DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills. But to take two steps forward you sometimes have to take one step back, and that’s what the 2021-22 season may represent.

Last year’s system served as a pre-transition of sorts, with a predominantly drive-and-kick, ‘0.5’ approach that pinged the ball around and allowed the team’s up and coming wings to explore the studio space a bit, while still leaning on veteran tough-shot makers like DeRozan and Gay when the offense got stuck in the mud.

While DeRozan remained the Spurs’ most prolific facilitator, there were fewer sets designed around his ability to create in the post and, combined with the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs continued to invert their offense from inside-out to more creation on the perimeter. The result: a 19th ranked offense that was sneakily better when you peel back some layers —Cleaning the Glass ranked them at 13th, isolating out garbage time, and Synergy ranked them 17th in half-court offense— and which had some dynamic flashes and put more pressure on the rim, but also teased some of the individual limitations of a roster built primarily around non-lottery picks and non-shooters.

Gone are DeRozan and Gay, as is the team’s most reliable three-point threat in Mills. Aldridge has also moved on, a lost year removed from eating up a healthy number of possessions in the pick and pop and left block since 2015. For those who have been waiting to see what the youth movement can do with some freed up usage and minutes, this is exciting. But there’s also reason to be concerned about a slide, especially to start the year.

A void in individual and team shot creation needs to be filled

It’s hard to quantify shot creation, especially when pulled back to a team level; offensive systems vary and some players are systems unto themselves. But on most of the metrics we have to go by, there’s a huge gap in volume that will need to be shored up somehow next season.

Effective offenses can either stretch defenses out or go through them—great ones can do both. The Spurs’ issues shooting threes gets its own section, but what happens when defenses stay home on shooters and dare ball-handlers to attack them in the pick and roll or off the dribble?

Last year’s Spurs were 5th in pull-up shooting attempts per game (but, notably, 1st in pull-up 2-point attempts), a product of a system that asked players to probe the defense and make reads, and of defenses happy to yield those kinds of looks. That was anchored by DeRozan, who not only took the most shots on the Spurs, but who attempted the most unassisted buckets (72.3%). Dejounte Murray was not far behind (64.2%), although one may rightly wonder how effective he may be when a team’s best perimeter defender gets his assignment rather than DeRozan next season. (Fittingly, in crunch situations it was those two who led the Spurs in field-goal attempts, DeRozan finishing 4th among all NBA players in that category. Mills was 3rd, Gay was 6th.)

Maybe more concerning for next season: after DeRozan and Murray, Derrick White is the returning Spur with the next-highest unassisted FG rate at 34.4%, followed by Lonnie Walker (31.6%) and Keldon Johnson (28.4%). You’d imagine a similar system to last season will again be in place, attempting to put players in winning situations to attack closeouts and make simple reads, but we should still see most of the numbers go up, for better or worse.

In the past you had a good idea of at least one set (and player) the Spurs may go to in the game’s closing minutes, perhaps more than once, to get a bucket. Next season, it feels like that’s up in the air, which should make for a fun but challenging learning curve.

Outside shooting could be a major weakness, again

Last season’s Spurs ranked last in three-point rate and 24th in three-point percentage. They were also 29th in pull-up three-point attempts, one of the most valuable shots in today’s game due to the pressure it puts on defenses at the point of attack. Next year’s team will be absent their two highest percentage shooters (Gay at 38.1% and Mills at 37.5%) and their most reliable creator of three-point opportunities in DeRozan.

Here’s the glass half-full look at this:

  1. The additions of Doug McDermott and Bryn Forbes, both excellent shooters who can let it fly off the catch, rolling off screens or pulling up themselves, will easily negate the loss of Mills
  2. Internal development and new opportunities could lead to improvements from Johnson and/or Devin Vassell
  3. One of Murray or White could see a positive regression to the mean. Neither shot above what’s generally considered league average (35%), but Murray made strides from the midrange, and White battled a handful of injuries and is still transitioning to a high volume shooting role.

Here’s the glass half-empty take: less on-ball creation will put more pressure on the Spurs’ system to create these looks, which could be easier to scheme against and provide narrower windows for a roster that’s predominantly only comfortable shooting off the catch, feet set. That could impact the Spurs’ volume of threes, efficiency, or both.

This leads to a bigger question:

Where will the easy points come from?

Three-pointers continue to be the biggest variance factor game to game, and a team that shoots them poorly and at a low volume isn’t giving itself a great chance to steal games that way. It can help itself in other ways through transition opportunities, shots at the rim, and trips to the free-throw line, so let’s see where the Spurs stood last year:

There’s good and bad in the above when viewed through the offseason shakeup. The attempts around the rim were largely generated by players returning next season, led by Johnson (5 per game), who attacked the basket without mercy or prejudice—to entertaining but statistically average results. That said, DeRozan, who was 9th in the league in FT attempts, made part of his living by getting to the line. Without him, it’ll be up to guys like Johnson making a leap in how they draw contact—and in how they penetrate without relying on the breakdowns often created by DeRozan.

The Spurs will need to continue to put pressure on the rim

Gregg Popovich spoke last season about the importance of San Antonio going downhill and getting to the rim, and it was often a point of emphasis that would define a game. If the Spurs faced an opponent that had the defenders to limit penetration on the perimeter or contest well at the rim, it often made for a long night.

And yet, that may still be the team’s best recipe for finding a groove and creating looks for shooters. The Spurs’ motion-heavy offense will create its share of breakdowns, and they’ll benefit from being able to run actions for outside threats like McDermott and Forbes, who will attract attention off ball.

The bigs should facilitate as much as possible

Already a hard screen setter, Jakob Poeltl has made strides as a facilitator from the high post, executing hand-offs and learning when to grab and go to catch his defender off guard. That’s a role that newcomer Thaddeus Young should also be able to fill nicely whether he starts or comes off the bench as someone who came off a season averaging over 4 assists a game. Whether it’s sparking a fast break with a lookahead pass or operating out of the short roll, Young’s established himself as a solid connector who could really help a Spurs team that’s relatively lacking in playmaking at the guard position.

The midrange will probably still be relevant

It won’t likely surprise you that the Spurs ranked first in midrange attempts last season at over 18 per game. Aldridge and Gay are gone and DeRozan is taking his 5.4 attempts per game with him to the Windy City but Murray wasn’t too far behind him at 4.7 a night, good for 15th in the NBA.

The Spurs on the whole have effectively made use of the midrange as an axis for the offense, either seeking it out for open looks curling around screens or waiting for defenses to converge and kicking out to open shooters. It’s also worth noting that it’s a shot that has often factored into the developmental arcs of young players, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see someone like Vassell go to work there regularly. A ranking in the top 5 or 8 would make sense and, as usual, won’t be the cause of what ails the Spurs, even if it courts narrative.

Dejounte Murray should get first crack at being The Guy

When it comes to usage, time spent on ball, attempts off the dribble and reps in the pick and roll (as well as deficiencies playing off the ball), Murray seems like he has the most natural fit sliding into being the head of the snake next season. It would make sense for him to lead the team in touches, initiate the offense, and have every chance at seeing what he can do with an elevated role in the offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Will Derrick White trend back to more of an on-ball option?

This is a point I’m more comfortable phrasing as a question, but White’s role next season is an interesting subject. After moving into the starting point guard position in 2018-19, the past two years have seen him shift to a more off-ball capacity, largely to make way for Murray’s return from injury. Last season saw him follow a promising showing in the Bubble by leading the team in three-point attempts. While he didn’t hit them at quite the clip you’d like to see, that’s a dynamic the Spurs may still need next season, especially to keep defenses honest when Murray has the ball.

There’s a case to be made that White is the steadier hand at the wheel across their multi-year sample sizes, but Murray’s weaknesses shooting off the catch make it a difficult fit on offense, despite the kind of punch the two provide on the perimeter defensively. Perhaps Pop finds a way to stagger the two, unless he’s ready to see what Tre Jones can do as the backup point guard after a promising Summer League.

Another leap in team defense should also help

The Spurs improved from 24th to 17th in defensive rating last season, and DeRozan’s departure should see them inch their way into the top half of the league, or better. Here’s how the Spurs fared with and without him last season:

  • With DeRozan on the floor: 113 offensive rating, 115.5 defensive rating
  • With DeRozan off the floor: 104.8 offensive rating, 105 defensive rating

For all the ways the criticisms of his game undersold his offensive impact, he was very much a liability on the other end of the floor, susceptible to blowbys and routinely dying on off ball screens. While advanced stats liked what Gay brought to the team, and Mills’ influence as a coach on the court will also be missed, San Antonio should be a better defensive team in 2021-22, especially when you factor in another year of development for the Spurs’ young core and more minutes for Vassell.

With more stops and, hopefully, more turnovers forced, the Spurs defense should allow them to attack opponents before they’re set. It’s possible a more anemic San Antonio offense could have its own negative impact on the defense, but the defense should still be coming out ahead in the aggregate.

The aggregate is of course all that matters here — and why this offseason transpired as it did. Two losing seasons had the Spurs on the wrong end of that and, whether we see that shift this year or not, they’re in a position to explore a new reality. We’ll see if it takes one necessary step backward in their offensive firepower to get there.