There are few quotes in the world of sports quite like those from Gregg Popovich. When asked recently about the revolutionary nature of Denver big man Nikola Jokic’s game prior to a matchup in San Antonio against the first-place Nuggets, the future Hall-of-Fame coach ruffled some feathers with his response despite the fact he wasn’t making any sort of political statement.
“When I think of revolutions, I think of people like Che Guevara and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. I don’t think of Jokic, so I think you’re a bit hyperbolic there,” Popovich said. “But he is one heck of a player." (h/t to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News.)
But this piece isn’t about Jokic, it’s not about Popovich’s quote, and it’s certainly not about politics. This is about the idea the Spurs are somehow the revolutionaries of the NBA once again, and the three-point slingers are now mainstream.
The deep ball has taken over the league because teams have realized its value and everyone appears to be attempting to catch up to the likes of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. Hell, the Dubs are just middle-of-the-pack in terms of three-pointers taken per game this season, but their success over the last few years has completely changed the on-court culture of basketball.
When in doubt, take the shot from beyond the arc. The results will ideally bear fruit.
San Antonio, however, is not fully buying into this approach. The Spurs are taking their shots however they can get them. While they do have a handful of deadly three-point shooters, Popovich's team is taking their shots from whichever area of the floor presents itself as the best option.
The Spurs rank dead last in the league in three-pointers taken per game, but tops the list in three-point percentage at nearly 40 percent. San Antonio also leads the league in mid-range shots taken per game, which is basically one of the seven deadly sins in today’s basketball. As a point of reference, San Antonio has taken 943 mid-range jumpers, according to the NBA’s media stats site; the Rockets have taken 160 — by far the fewest in the league.
And yet, the two teams stand just two games apart in the loss column in what has turned into a wild, wild Western Conference. Houston is the fourth seed while San Antonio is eighth.
But the Spurs are not doing this the way everyone else is doing it. And still, since being completely obliterated by the Utah Jazz on Dec. 4, San Antonio leads the league in both offensive rating and true-shooting percentage while sitting fourth in the NBA in defensive rating during that time. And they’re doing so with players who could walk up and sit on the average basketball fan’s lap and not be recognized until police reports were filed.
Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, Dāvis Bertāns, Jakob Poeltl (or Pöltl, for our Austrian readers) — all players embracing significant roles for a team that lost an MVP candidate during the summer, a promising young point guard in Dejounte Murray to an ACL tear before the season started, and Lonnie Walker IV, the Spurs’ highest-drafted rookie since Tim Duncan (Kawhi Leonard was picked 15th overall, but was an Indiana Pacers selection). Walker is now back with the team and should see action soon, though.
Popovich would likely scoff at the notion his team is more revolutionary than mainstream at this point, however. After all, his two best players, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, are All-Star caliber, high-volume mid-range shooters, and the offense runs through them. But the Spurs are indeed playing a brand of basketball that flies in the face of what’s en vogue at the moment. They’re playing that good-ol’-fashioned style most old-heads dream about at night. They play inside-out, take care of the ball (second only to the Charlotte Hornets in team turnover percentage) and work for the best shot available at a relatively slow pace, as they always have. Even if that shot is a contested 18-footer, they play to the strength of their personnel.
The most notable stat given in this article thus far is that the Spurs boast the best true-shooting percentage in the league since Dec. 5. Remember, this is a stat that accounts for both free-throw and three-point shooting, and, with that in mind, San Antonio is essentially shooting better than 60 percent from the floor over a nearly four-week span; and they’re doing so taking barely more than 24 3-pointers per game.
Basketball has changed drastically over the last decade-plus, and the Spurs have been right there at the forefront of the movement the entire time. But as the sport has evolved into a shooter’s game — more in the last few years than ever before — San Antonio has continued to pivot. It does not believe in bowing at the altar of the deep ball at whatever cost. And, again, the Spurs can shoot. Forbes, Bertāns, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are all great shooters. Even Rudy Gay is hitting better than 41 percent of his threes. But nothing is forced.
Nobody is labeling the San Antonio as title contenders. At this point it’s merely fighting for a spot in the playoffs. But that has more to do with a slow start to the season than it does anything else. The Spurs are playing some of the best basketball in the NBA and they’re doing so against modern conventional wisdom. Despite what the data tells us, basketball, if played the right way, can still be won from inside the arc.
They may not be revolutionizing the sport — Pop isn’t Guevara leading an uprising against monopolistic capitalism — but they’re as far from the current basketball mainstream as it gets, and they’re making it work.
Slowly, but surely, they’re making it work, one mid-range jumper at a time.