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The Missing Shot From the Spurs Playbook

There’s one play the Spurs have trouble both running and defending. How can they address it?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, the Spurs have changed up their offensive playbook to adjust to their personnel. From the post-up heavy days of Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, to the pick-and-roll centric style with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and the mid-range assault of DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have used a variety of styles in order to get the ball in the basket. However, there’s one play that’s never really been a part of their repertoire: the alley-oop.

Sure, they’ll throw one from time to time – I think back to Tim Duncan hammering one down against the Bucks — but I n the modern NBA, having a big that can set a screen, roll to the rim, and provide an outlet for the ballhandler to toss it up to opens a world of possibilities. Think along the lines of what Clint Capela and John Collins do for Trae Young, what Deandre Ayton does for Chris Paul, and what Jarrett Allen provides for the Cleveland Cavaliers. This type of explosive big man has been a missing piece from the Spurs roster for some time now, and finding one might help elevate Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker, and all the other Spurs guards to a new level of playmaking.

While Jakob Poeltl is in the midst of the best season of his career, the ballhandler is pretty limited to mainly throwing a pocket pass when the Spurs run the pick and roll with him, with the occasional dump the ball over the top. He and Dejounte have built a good connection with those pocket passes, and the pop-a-shot Jakob has developed helps him be a somewhat effective scorer, as evident in the fact he’s averaged 18.7 points over the last six games. He’s shooting 47.8% on non-dunks and layups, and he’s 50.9% on 55 shots he’s taken from 10-16 feet, which is probably better than most would’ve expected from the big Austrian. However, there’s still room for improvement offensively at this position.

I’m not saying the Spurs need to replace Jakob — that’s far from the truth. But what could the Spurs offense look like if they had a more explosive big man on the roster? It’s well known dunks are the most efficient shot in basketball, but it’s just not something the Spurs have prioritized. I can hear Sean Elliott now, complaining about Jakob not going up for the dunk and either missing a lay-up, getting one blocked, or getting fouled without making the shot. Being able to put a leaper on the floor and creating the threat that an alley-oop puts the defense in a pickle.

Take James Harden, for example, as he may be the first person people think of when they think of a player that knows how to properly use this threat to their advantage. When he and Nic Claxton run a pick-and-roll together, the defense has to be weary of a few things: Harden driving it himself, Harden taking the three, Harden dropping a pocket pass to Claxton, and Harden throwing a lob to Claxton. But there’s more to it than that, because with Claxton rolling hard and there being the threat of a lob, the backside rotation has to be on point — they can’t slide over too soon, or else Harden throws a skip pass to the open three-point shooter, and they can’t slide too late, because that’s a recipe for a poster. You’ll see in the clip of a few ways Harden attacks how the defense guards the pick-and-roll.

There’s a saying in baseball that goes, “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Apply that idea to the game of basketball, except it’s pass it where they ain’t. Harden’s vision, combined with the way the Nets space the floor when running the pick-and-roll, allows him to pick out the pass best equipped to score points. And when those passing lanes happen to be cut off, that usually means the defense has chosen to allow Harden to shoot the ball. There’s not much a defense can do in these scenarios — they typically have to commit to playing it a certain way and hope for the best.

While looking at what could happen on offense for the Spurs if they had a more explosive big that they could throw alley oops to, it’s also worth noting how this could also improve their defense. There are a number of teams that have reverted to playing larger lineups, like the Memphis Grizzlies, whom the Spurs lost to last night. These bigger lineups create a massive mismatch for the Spurs, as they have nobody taller than 6’7” who is athletic enough to play alongside Jakob and can help guard the paint and rebound. (It’s yet to be seen what Zach Collins is going to bring to the table).

Getting a player who can fit into this role would be huge for the Spurs. It would allow for Gregg Popovich to play any lineup he so chooses, like going with two bigs — Jakob hasn’t played a second with Drew Eubanks and only 11.8 minutes with Jock Landale this season. Having a guy on the roster big and athletic enough to use in pick-and-roll to the full extent of its powers, as well as having them on the court to help matchup against some of the bigger teams in the NBA, would improve the Spurs leaps and bounds.

And apparently the Spurs might not have to even wait to get this guy. With reports the Atlanta Hawks have put an asking price on John Collins, it may be time for PATFO to be aggressive, especially if all it takes is Derrick White and a first-round pick. His fit with the Spurs has been broken down here before, but just imagine running Spain pick-and-rolls and double drag screens for Dejounte with Jakob and John Collins. I can already see all the lobs he’ll be able to throw knowing John Collins will be able to go up to get them.

If they choose not to go that route, then look for them to fill this void in the draft. At some point, it’d be wise for the Spurs to fill that position on the roster — and hopefully things don’t turn out like Luka Samanic.