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Actually, the Spurs Offense Is Just Fine Without Kawhi

After trading the player expected to carry its dynasty into a new era, San Antonio did what it always has done: adapted and thrived

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Spurs are an anomaly: In a league where teams are trending more and more toward an analytics-driven style—abandoning the middle of the court in favor of 3-pointers and shots at the rim—San Antonio attempts the fewest 3s and the most midrange shots in the NBA. In fact, through January 1, 48 percent of its shots come from midrange—nearly 10 percentage points more than the next closest team, the Cavaliers, and the most since the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014-15, according to Cleaning the Glass. But Gregg Popovich’s offense is working. Since December 1, the Spurs rank first in offensive rating. On the season, they’ve scored 112 points per 100 possessions, the fifth most in the league. That’s the team’s highest-ranked offense since 2015-16, the season of Tim Duncan’s farewell tour and Kawhi Leonard’s scoring breakout. Heading into Thursday night’s game against Leonard and the Toronto Raptors—Leonard’s first game back in San Antonio since this summer’s blockbuster trade—the Spurs have won 10 of their past 13 games to get back over .500 and into the Western Conference’s top eight. San Antonio traded its foundational player, but instead of turning to the future, it has found success by turning back the clock.

It helps that the Spurs are spectacular at shooting from all over the court. They attempt the fewest shots at the rim, but they’re tied for fourth in field goal percentage. They draw the eighth-fewest free throws, but they lead the league in free throw percentage. They rank third from midrange, shooting 43.1 percent. And they hit 39.7 percent of their 3s, which leads the league. As far as this season goes, it doesn’t really matter where the Spurs shoot from since they shoot the lights out from everywhere.

The deal that sent Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto paired two of the NBA’s most midrange-happy players this decade, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. The duo’s shared style has become the core of San Antonio’s offensive philosophy. Popovich may hate 3-pointers, but it’s not like he has “Midrange 4 Lyfe” tattooed on his lower back. (Though, can we completely rule that out?) The Spurs are simply playing to the strengths of their best players—just like they have throughout the Popovich era, using a post-based offense during Duncan’s prime and ushering corner 3s and ball movement into the new decade.

The Spurs aren’t conformists, but they also aren’t stupid: Shots from the restricted area and 3 are undeniably more valuable than midrange shots. That’s why their number of 3s spikes when both Aldridge and DeRozan are taken off the floor.

When Aldridge and DeRozan are in the game, the Spurs attempt 52.4 percent of their field goals from midrange. With either or neither Aldridge and DeRozan in, that number drops to 41.9 percent, which would still lead the league. But they distribute those midrange shots to 3-point land. With Aldridge and DeRozan on the floor, only 24.1 percent of their shots are 3s, which would rank last; with one or neither of them, their 3-point attempt frequency catapults to 32.8 percent, which would rank 11th in the league. The Spurs go from shooting 3s like it’s the mid-2000s with Aldridge and DeRozan to playing a contemporary style. As a result, their scoring remains at a high level in most lineups.

Spurs Lineup Combinations

Lineup Combination Offensive Rating
Lineup Combination Offensive Rating
Aldridge and DeRozan on 113.3
DeRozan on, Aldridge off 113.9
Aldridge on, DeRozan off 110.9
Aldridge and DeRozan off 114.4

The playing style does shift, though. DeRozan runs a high volume of pick-and-rolls and isolations and jacks up a ton of midrange jumpers—no different than what he did for years in Toronto. This is who DeRozan is and, at age 29, probably who he will be for the rest of his career. But DeRozan has gained value over the past two seasons by improving as a playmaker. With point guard Dejounte Murray out for the season, DeRozan is averaging a team-high 6.3 assists per game. A handful of those assists also come from the post. DeRozan and Aldridge are the only two players on the team who even post up with any regularity—DeRozan averages 2.6 times per game, while Aldridge logs 11.8 post-up possessions per game, which leads the league. Combined, those two log more post-ups than 22 other teams; the Spurs, as a whole, lead the league.

The post has been Aldridge’s bread and butter his entire career; even at age 33, he remains a force, scoring on turnaround jumpers, hooks, and bull moves to create his shot. When defenses double or show a help defender his way, Aldridge turns into a source for playmaking.

As soon as the Nuggets begin to double Aldridge in the clip above, he whips the ball to the perimeter, and suddenly Rudy Gay is attacking an off-balance defense for a layup. The Spurs might lean on DeRozan for scoring in the pick-and-roll and Aldridge for scoring from the post, but when those players pass, it rarely leads to a midrange shot. Of the 88 attempted shots off Aldridge’s passes from the post, only 11 have come from midrange—and the Spurs score a highly efficient 1.2 points per possession off those passes, according to Synergy. And of DeRozan’s 217 passes resulting in a shot out of the pick-and-roll, only 69 have come from midrange—and 54 of those were from Aldridge. The Spurs’ All-Star big man shoots 39.7 percent on midrange jumpers out of the pick-and-pop, per Synergy—the equivalent of 0.79 points per possession. This is one area where Aldridge should resume shooting 3s, popping more frequently from behind the arc instead of deep midrange.

Both Aldridge and DeRozan may thrive from midrange, but the rest of the team is often looking for layups and 3s—except for when they create their own shot. Gay, Bryn Forbes, and point guards Derrick White and Patty Mills willingly pull up from midrange when they run pick-and-roll or isolate. But for the most part, San Antonio’s non-stars lead to more triples.

Spurs Shooters

Player 3PT% 3PA % of FGA From 3
Player 3PT% 3PA % of FGA From 3
Bryn Forbes 42% 4.9 50%
Patty Mills 39.1% 4.2 59%
Davis Bertans 48.9% 3.9 74%
Marco Belinelli 37.1% 4.8 56%

Forbes, Mills, Davis Bertans, and Marco Belinelli all take a high percentage of their shots from 3, and they’re making a lot of them. When at least two of them are on the floor at once, 32.1 percent of San Antonio’s shots are 3s; when one or none of them are on the floor, that figure drops to 20 percent. The Spurs’ backup units move the ball more frequently, rack up more assists, and run more screens.

In the clip above, the Spurs set two screens to spring Bertans, a 6-foot-10 forward, loose for a 3-pointer. Screens for DeRozan may result in midrange shots, but for Bertans, Belinelli, and Forbes, the goal is a 3. When Bertans plays the 4 off the bench, the Spurs suddenly resemble a more modern offense with multiple floor spacers. Forbes is an energizer: He takes the most 3s on the team, and he’s a secondary shot creator alongside Belinelli.

San Antonio’s reserve units also play faster, logging a pace of 98 when Aldridge or DeRozan are on the floor and a pace of 105 when they’re off. One thing doesn’t change for the Spurs, regardless of the personnel: They take care of the ball. The Spurs lead the NBA in assist-turnover ratio and turnover percentage. White is in only his second season, but he and Mills give the team another smart ball handler who minimizes mistakes. The same is true for their second-best big man, Jakob Poeltl, whom they received from Toronto in the Leonard trade. Poeltl began the season coming off the bench and now starts next to Aldridge; he’s emerged as a defensive stabilizer who sets strong screens, finishes at a high level around the rim off dives and cuts, and avoids careless mistakes typically seen from a young big. Poeltl isn’t a dynamic playmaker by any means, but he has a pivotal role in executing plays, especially with Aldridge off the floor. From top to bottom, the Spurs don’t really have any bad players in their rotation, and they’ve effectively tailored their style to fit whoever’s on the floor.

Fans will probably boo Leonard in his first game back in San Antonio, though there might be mixed feelings. Leonard helped the franchise win a fifth championship and served as a bridge from the Duncan era to the next. Leonard won’t be the one leading the Spurs into the 2020s as expected, but all hope hasn’t been lost. The Spurs may not have an MVP candidate anymore, but they still have Pop, who morphs his system to maximize the best talents of his players. Popovich’s eventual retirement will someday rattle the team’s foundation, but he’s laid the groundwork for sustainable success. The Spurs will search for their new superstar to become a contender again, and until then, they’ll keep winning games thanks to their adaptive philosophy.