We’re rounding the corner from the NBA All-Star Break and have less than two months from the playoffs. There’s a multi-team race in the Western Conference for the final postseason spot that figures to go down to the wire.
After twenty-two straight playoff berths, six 60-win seasons and five NBA Championships, the San Antonio Spurs are in danger of golfing by late-April. Sandwiched in the crowd of hopefuls, the Spurs are the least boisterous group. Have they been as disappointing as their record suggests (by their standards at least)? Or has this group been laying in the weeds and making as little noise as possible?
Only three-back in the loss column, and with six games remaining against other 8-seed hopefuls, their presence will be felt one way or another down the stretch.
To prepare for the final run of the regular season, I’ve been unveiling a scouting report on each team in the race over the next few weeks. These pieces focus on personnel notes (including the most effective ways to mitigate their success), overarching themes of their scheme and a preview of what the road ahead looks like with the schedule. We’ve already previewed the following teams:
Teams are who they are at this point, and that makes scouting a lot easier. We’ve learned a lot about individual player tendencies, the purpose of how an offense or defensive scheme is structured and how legitimate their success is.
The Personnel Files
DeRozan has always been a mid-range scorer, through and through. Mid-post isolations, bully back-downs on smaller guards, pull-ups and turn-around jumpers…He has all the moves in his bag.
When he landed in San Antonio last year in the Kawhi Leonard trade, DeRozan found a home that wouldn’t push him to become a high-volume 3-point shooter. Now he’s hitting a career-best 54 percent from 2-point range.
A lot of it has to do with the position he’s being put in. DeRozan is vicious when coming to his right hand off the catch. He can drive past and through defenders, then has a simple game if forced to spin back to his left. Much of the Spurs’ offense has shifted from a motion to set calls and actions.
Coach Gregg Popovich has embraced DeRozan’s tendencies and started him in the left offensive corner so he can attack off screens and handoffs going right:
Sitting hard left is one strategy to disrupt DeRozan, as is going under the pick-and-roll. DeRozan has yet to make a 3-pointer when handling in ball screens this year.
We have seen Aldridge reliably expand his game to 3-point range this year, and now that the switch has flipped with his comfort level, the Spurs’ offense is operating differently. Since December 23rd, Aldridge is shooting 42.2 percent from deep on a healthy 4.2 attempts a night. The Spurs are only 12-14 in the games he’s played since that point, however.
The biggest difference for Aldridge in wins and losses is usually whether he lives at the free-throw line or not. In wins, Aldridge takes 4.9 attempts. That number drops to 2.9 in losses. San Antonio is 6-3 when he shoots seven or more free throws.
While stretching the defense has been effective, it’s taken away the Spurs’ ability to get opposing bigs in foul trouble and earn easy points.
Beyond that, what Aldridge does well is pretty widely known: He’s a tremendous scorer with his back to the basket, especially from about 12-16 feet on the left side. His turnaround jumper is slow and unorthodox, making it difficult to block, and he’s had it perfected for years.
This season, he’s shooting 33-for-72 (45.8 percent) on turnaround jump shots from the left block. It’s a cheat code type of shot:
Aldridge is spending more time at center now, where his stretch-shooting ability is most vital. It’s nice to know where to go when the team needs a bucket: Throw it into Aldridge on the left block and let him go to work.
The Shooting Guards: Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills
Bryn Forbes fills a vital role in San Antonio’s starting group as a catch-and-shoot threat, knocking down 38.6 percent of his treys. He takes almost twice as many 3-pointers as he does twos and is in there to space the floor.
He rarely makes mistakes, so he’s not a guy that can be sped up or blitzed, and he often defers to others in the half-court. His spacing is why he starts with DeRozan and Aldridge, aka: the two iso-ballers.
Mills, who also shoots around 38 percent from deep and takes twice as many treys as deuces, is cut from the same cloth.
He’s currently posting a career-low in assist to usage ratio, indicating a move to spot-up territory as the offense shifts into the hands of more slashers. The Spurs are also immensely better whenever Mills is on the floor. Actually they are 11.5 points per 100 possessions better, likely due to how he anchors a talented second unit.
Both Mills and Forbes are terrific on-ball defenders, but their size (or lack thereof) limits their versatility or ability to help in the lane. The Spurs are reliant on the next two guys to minimize the defensive burden on DeRozan while not exposing the smaller guards to a poor matchup.
The Slashing Guards: Dejounte Murray and Derrick White
These two are the de facto point guards and perimeter creators within the structure of the offense.
A low-volume shooter, Murray is as frustrating as he is talented. He’s taking only 30.4 percent of his attempts at the rim, often relying on floaters and other pull-ups despite his terrific length. A fabulous creator, he’s another guy that you can go under ball screens on.
When teams go under against him, Murray’s shooting 35.7 percent and has an 8.5 percent turnover rate—far too high for non-pressured coverage. He has all the raw tools to be great but must first improve as a finisher and a decision-maker when defenses ultimately keep going under.
White is a little more of a scorer when he decides to attack. He’s turned himself into a reliable driver and has a strong assist to turnover ratio.
He is shooting 35.7 percent from deep this year, so why is he listed as a slasher? That’s the meat and potatoes of his game, and the jumper doesn’t show up every night. When it does, the Spurs are usually winners. He’s 41.4 percent from deep in wins and 31 percent in losses.
The Frontcourt Helpers: Rudy Gay, Jakob Poeltl and Trey Lyles
One player for each role. Gay is there to score; it’s what has paid him millions during his career, and it’s why he anchors the second-unit as their scorer. While he’s a solid mismatch scorer in the post and has enjoyed a renaissance with the Spurs, his success is largely dependent on who he shares the floor with.
When playing with Poeltl, the Spurs are scoring 112.8 points per 100 possessions, an above-average rate. When Aldridge is the center, that number drops to 108.2. The Spurs are best when Gay is playing 15-18 minutes a night and gets to be in purely attack-mode, mismatching guys wherever he pleases off varying screens and not having to limit his touches by defaulting to DeRozan or LMA.
Lately, Gay has become the backup center while the Spurs try a zone to hide his shortcomings (pun intended). Opponents should prepare for that substitution with a shooting-based lineup.
Poeltl has found his niche as a second-unit big as well. He’s turned into a terrific passer and somebody cut out of the Tiago Splitter mold for the Spurs: He’s not a shooter on the perimeter, but he’s smart enough and a good enough facilitator to hurt teams that abandon him simply because he doesn’t shoot.
As enigmatic as they come, Lyles is a glue guy within the Spurs’ starting lineup. The theory of Lyles is that he’s a shooting big, and thus he allows Murray, DeRozan and Aldridge to have ample spacing.
Hitting 38.6 percent from deep this year backs up that label. But Lyles is not a high-percentage guy and will cap his own usage to move the ball to others.
Starting Lyles as a frontcourt shooter is more due to the lack of other stretch bigs on the roster. San Antonio lost out on Marcus Morris and Davis Bertans in their summer free agency mixup. Then, things didn’t work out with veteran DeMarre Carroll, and the Spurs aren’t ready to play younger options like Luka Samanic yet.
Thus, Popovich plays Lyles at the all-important stretch-4 spot because he needs someone there, though Lyles is not a comfortable starting option on a playoff team.
As mentioned above, the Spurs have traded in a good deal of their past motion-based approach to feature a more set-based, tactical deployment.
DeRozan and Aldridge are their top scorers and require the ball in the mid-range or in isolation, so the Spurs have to manufacture spacing with player movement since they don’t have enough elite shooters around them. Most of what the Spurs do is out of a Horns formation (with two bigs at the elbows) or a Spread formation (with their trailing big initiating at the top of the key).
Be prepared to guard one-on-one and in the post if you’re an opponent. Much of Pop’s playbook this year is designed to clear out an entire half of the floor for an elbow or block isolation for his top scoring threats.
Both DeRozan and Aldridge are great passers out of double-teams, too. So, while the four-man weak-side may lend itself to proper spacing for a trap, the Spurs have typically bladed such coverage.
From a schematic standpoint, let’s dive into the defensive end instead of on offense, where the Spurs are 24th in defensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass. They were 20th a season ago, and before that had only finished outside the top ten once since 2003.
The absence of a pure defensive-stopper like Kawhi Leonard is crucial: They don’t have an answer to the multitude of long scoring wings this league has to offer. Murray and White are a bit too small or thin. Starting Lyles and Aldridge means one of them will be mismatched if they draw the assignment.
The various attempts at masking these flaws has led to a lot of lineup changes and tinkering, but the overall conclusion hasn’t changed: San Antonio just doesn’t have a lot of good individual defenders, with Aldridge atop the list.
San Antonio’s typical defensive game plan is designed around limiting the amount of corner 3-point attempts an opponent can get. They’ll sag against the pick-and-roll to encourage mid-range jumpers and won’t hesitate to go under against poor shooters. While they are working inside-to-out, flying at the corner to prevent corner treys causes extra defensive rotations.
The goal is to scramble and anticipate the next pass to take it away, but that’s where the Spurs have been caught the last two years. They don’t do a great job closing out under control and can have two or even three guys fly at the ball, which is a cardinal sin.
Popovich likes to switch things up with a 2-3 zone in the first quarter, particularly if he’s trailing early. If he likes how it fares, he’ll go back to it later. If the zone isn’t effective, he ditches it and forces his team to get better in man.
The zone is weak in the typical spots an NBA 2-3 would be: susceptible to quick reversals and extra passes to the corners, guys struggle to guard one-on-one and can get driven by, pick-and-rolls lead to open pull-up jumpers and the three seconds violation causes funky rotations that can lead to a smaller wing being sucked into the lane for rim protection duty.
More than anything, Popovich is searching for an answer with this group. It’s really strange to watch a Spurs team struggle so consistently on defense. Personnel changes have certainly contributed to that drop, but more than the moving parts and different types of scorers, the drop in defense is what could lead to their missing the playoffs for the first time in over two decades.
There is both good and bad news when reviewing the Spurs schedule.
The good: They have plenty of opportunities to win head-to-head contests with their direct competition for the 8-seed. Three games with the New Orleans Pelicans (two of which are at home) and two with the Sacramento Kings highlight that slate, although a March 16th hosting of the Memphis Grizzlies should be atop the marquee. This week also kicks off a string where they are home for six of the next seven.
If there was ever a time to make a move, it would be now.
Then there’s the bad news: After March 9th, the schedule doesn’t have many breaks. A tough back-to-back at Minnesota and at Denver in late-March will provide Popovich with a tricky decision on resting his guys.
On April 7th and 8th, the Spurs have a back-to-back with the Kings at home, then at Houston. Less than a week later, the back-to-back returns with a home game against Houston and an overnight trip to Indiana.
Three back-to-backs in the final two-and-a-half weeks of the season… Such scheduling is horrible timing for a team in San Antonio’s situation.
But they’re done with the Los Angeles teams, don’t face any of the top-four teams in the East and hold their fate in their own hands. The Spurs need to finish their homestand within a game or two the 8-seed, or their chances to come from behind will severely diminish.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of March 8, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.