In their first 11 games after pulling off one of the most celebrated offseasons in recent NBA history, the San Antonio Spurs’ starting lineup looks like a gooey work in progress.
In many ways, Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan are a microcosm for the entire team: slow, antiquated, annoyingly patient and undeserving of a pinch of criticism until President’s Day, at the very least.
In 166 minutes, they’ve operated at the slowest pace in the league and chosen the mid-range jumper over the three-point shot. They’re still swinging the ball around, cutting and screening like they always have, but, as Haralabos Voulgaris pointed out earlier this week on The Bill Simmons Podcast, the Spurs are zigging while the rest of the league zags—toiling away with conventional lineups and refusing to show their hand until games actually matter.
Their on-court approach is foreign to everything we associate with intelligent basketball, and, for now, it’s a little confusing. According to NylonCalculus, 46.6 percent of San Antonio’s field goal attempts are from “MoreyBall” zones, aka behind the three-point line and within five feet of the rim. That’s 28th in the NBA, where the league average is currently 54.7 percent. They rank dead last in free-throw rate.
New personnel be damned, it’s a bit of a shock to see San Antonio rank so low here. The Spurs never launched as many threes as some probably assume, but they at least used the arc’s gravity to catapult their attack. Now, with Aldridge in tow, they’re almost ignoring it.
People who criticize the Spurs probably don’t like pizza and are weird. I don’t want to be one of those people. I enjoy pizza. But it’s worth pointing out that some of the space they once enjoyed just isn’t there anymore.
Now, when you say they’re zigging while the rest of the league zags, that means San Antonio is plodding up and down the court, hardly attacking in transition, entwining themselves with long twos and, most interestingly, refusing to go small.
Leonard is their best player, and what makes him so amazing is the ability to guard power forwards as well as point guards. There’s no getting past this guy. On the other end he can knock down threes and create his own shot at will against just about any defender in the league. So, basically, he’s a prototypical small-ball four.
What’s funny? Leonard and Aldridge figure to be San Antonio’s crunch-time frontcourt for the next four years, but have only played a grand total of 11 minutes together without a third big on the court, per NBA Wowy.
As the rest of the league shrinks, the Spurs are growing. Why is this a problem? Watch how Portland’s Mason Plumlee treats Duncan on this possession:
Duncan’s running around on the weakside, screening for Kawhi, flashing to the elbow, darting back to the opposite block. And while Parker and Aldridge run a two-man game, Plumlee’s basically like “okay cool, do something.”
And here’s Aldridge sabotaging a Leonard/Duncan pick-and-roll by hanging out where he’s comfortable instead of where he’d ideally be, spotting up in the weak side corner.
The examples go on and on. But if you scrape through enough numbers—like an archaeologist brushing dirt at an excavation site—you start to see a team that looks like the Spurs most people remember. They’re dead last in isolation frequency and first in passes per game. Wooo! Go Spurs go!
Most of their key trios are still gunning at a top-10 level when spliced with a bench guy or two (Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, etc.), and over a fifth of all their shots are “wide open,” per SportVU, which is above league average.
They’ll figure it out eventually, because they’re the Spurs. The most reliable entity in professional sports outside of football in New England. Granted their schedule hasn’t exactly been a death march, but they’re 11-3 with the fourth best effective field goal percentage in basketball.
Kawhi is undeniably one of the eight best players in the world, Parker looks frisky in limited minutes, Ginobili is a literal miracle and, as has already been mentioned, they’ve yet to turn Aldridge into the three-point shooting rim runner he very well could be come playoff time.
The Spurs don’t look anything like they will when it matters most, and they’re still crushing basically everyone they play. The Golden State Warriors should already have one eye over their shoulder.