How do the Spurs Attack Defenses Through 13 Games?

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    Before playing the Los Angeles Clippers last week, San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich was asked what the most difficult challenge was in starting a season without two of the Spurs’ core players in Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker.

    “Kawhi’s our best defender and our best scorer,” responded Popovich. “Tony’s our best pick-and-roll player.”

    Despite missing both players for 13 games, the Spurs have managed to stay above water with an 8-5 record, placing them in a tie for third place in the Western Conference as of Sunday afternoon. Despite the absence of both players, San Antonio has managed to play elite defense, as they’re holding opponents to 101.4 points per 100 possessions (7th), but offensively, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. The Spurs at times have been ranked 25th in offense, but after their blow-out of the Chicago Bulls Saturday, San Antonio has managed to make themselves slightly above league average offensively, as they’re scoring 104.7 PP/100 (14th).


    So, with two of their premiere players missing from the offense, how have the Spurs managed to still put forth a stable offense on the floor night in and night out? The answer to how the Spurs are attacking teams can be seen from the data.

    Using the statistics from NBA.com/stats, you can pick apart some elements of the play types to see just how the Spurs are attacking teams. Let’s first begin with the frequency of play types and where the Spurs rank in those play types compared to their peers.

    Play-Type Frequency Rank
    Spot-Up 22.4% 5th
    Pick & Roll Ball Handler 13.9% 25th
    Transition 11.9% 26th
    Post-Up 11% 2nd
    Cut 7.7% 8th
    P & R Roll Man 6.7% 13th
    Putbacks 6.7% 4th
    Isolation 6.7% 23rd
    Miscellaneous 6.0% 14th
    Off-Screen 4.1% 23rd
    Hand-Off 3% 22nd

    Here are a few observations from the data:

    • Spot-Up – As written in the Spurs’ 10 Game Evaluation: Volume 1, the Spurs are still moving the ball at a top-10 level in terms of the number of passes per game, as they ranked 8th in that department after their 10th game of the season. When San Antonio uses their drive and kick ability to break down a defense and take spot-up shots, they can become very dangerous offensively, especially when the three ball is falling on the same night. This was observed in three of the Spurs’ last five games, as they tallied over 30 assists in three games where they led by leads of 13, 20 and 41 points.
    • Pick & Roll Ball Handler – As Popovich mentioned, without Parker and Leonard, the Spurs just aren’t running as much P&R’s with the ball handler finishing the possession compared to the rest of the league. Once Parker and Leonard each return, the Spurs’ rank in this category should start to improve.
    • Transition – With the Spurs wanting to slow the pace on offense and not get into track meets, they don’t get a ton of possessions out of transition aside from some steals and live rebounds where the defense is slow to get back. The Spurs rank 28th in pace with 98.31 possessions per 48 minutes.
    • Post-Up – With LaMarcus Aldridge being the main go-to player on offense since Leonard’s out, the Spurs and Aldridge have made more of an emphasis this season to feed him in the post and surround the floor with 3-4 outside shooters in most lineups featuring Aldridge. Running an offense through the post in 2017 can be a debatable topic.

    For the anti-post-up crowd, they may argue that it shrinks the floor on offense and it’s easier to double and rotate with help when the ball is kicked out. However, as Sacramento Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger said before a Spurs – Kings preseason game, it can still be a devastating way to attack a defense if you have the right big man in the low block.

    “Well, analytically, I don’t think it’s a great shot,” said Joerger. “But, at the same time, the idea of putting pressure on the rim is a good shot and so analytically, it does agree with that. So, if you’re going to go down, hit a guy two, or three times to hit a fall-away turnaround, it can be a tough shot. But there’s some guys who are high level guys that, you know, LaMarcus (Aldridge) gets that turn over his right shoulder, he can make 17 in a row. I mean, there’s a reason people had to double team (Hakeem) Olajuwon, obviously he’s one of the great (players), but his turnaround was un-guardable. Well, bad shot analytically turned into two championships. So, I have an affinity for guys of all positions to be able to go down there and do work, but to me, it’s necessary to be aggressive and try to put pressure on the rim, and what that does is put the defense in rotation. Anytime you get two people to guard you, you’ve done your job. To me, that’s what it’s for and that opens up everything else.”

    • PutbacksAs Collin Reid recently wrote, the Spurs’ ability to continue playing traditional lineups with two big men on the floor has allowed them to get a portion of their scoring from just putbacks, by having their bigs and wings hammer the offensive glass for putback attempts, which in turn keeps the game at a pace the Spurs favor.

    Now let’s look at the points per game the Spurs are getting from each play-type in order from greatest to least.

    Play-type Points Per Game Rank
    Spot-Up 26.5 2nd
    Transition 13.0 27th
    P & R Ball Handler 11.0 28th
    Post-Up 10.8 2nd
    Cut 9.6 12th
    P & R Roll Man 8.7 10th
    Putbacks 7.9 6th
    Isolation 6.3 23rd
    Off-Screen 3.5 27th
    Miscellaneous 2.5 25th
    Hand-Off 2.3 27th

    Finally, the last table shows the Spurs’ frequency and points per game side by side, which provides a visual way of seeing which stats align with one another.

    Play-type Frequency Play-type PPG
    Spot-Up 22.4% Spot-Up 26.5
    P & R Ball Handler 13.9% Transition 13.0
    Transition 11.9% P & R Ball Handler 11.0
    Post-Up 11% Post-Up 10.8
    Cut 7.7% Cut 9.6
    P & R Roll Man 6.7% P & R Roll Man 8.7
    Putbacks 6.7% Putbacks 7.9
    Isolation 6.7% Isolation 6.3
    Miscellaneous 6.0% Off-Screen 3.5
    Off-Screen 4.1% Miscellaneous 2.5
    Hand-Off 3% Hand-Off 2.3

    For the most part, most of the Spurs’ frequency of play types aligns with the points per game, aside from the P&R Ball Handler, Miscellaneous, and Off-Screen play types. While this is only 13 games of data, it paints a picture of just how the Spurs are attacking defenses in each game minus two of their core players in Leonard and Parker.

    Once both players return and get a healthy sample size of games with their teammates, it’ll be interesting to compare just how the Spurs have changed their offense with the additions of Leonard and Parker.

    All stats gathered at 2:00 PM CST on Sunday 11-12-2017

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    Stephen Michael 26, is a journalist, social media coordinator, host, and entertainment reporter. Michael graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts and earned a Master's Degree in Digital Media in 2020 from the University of the Incarnate Word. He has worked covering the San Antonio Rampage, Stars, and San Antonio Futbol Club. He was the host of the Project Spurs Roundtable on NBC affiliate News 4 San Antonio from 2015-17.

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