The most valuable commodity in basketball is space. Defenses are constantly working to devour it; offenses are on an unceasingly seeking to find it. Over the last two seasons, no team has systematically generated and exploited space on the basketball court better than the San Antonio Spurs. It’s no surprise that in that same period, they have had the most productive offense.
For a decade, the Spurs offense was built on the idea that no team could guard Tim Duncan with one player and that Duncan could always establish position to catch the ball dangerously close to the rim. After forcing teams to respond to Duncan with an extra player, the rest of court was suddenly spacious and the Spurs role players feasted on the opportunities.
During that decade the Spurs, lead by Duncan, were lauded as great champions and a model franchise. They were also, to many, incredibly boring.
But that Duncan and those Spurs are long gone. The Big Fundamental can still rebound and score inside with the best of them (check his stats per 36 minutes), but the days of tossing it in to Timmy once a possession for 38 minutes a night are over. So as Duncan slowed down, San Antonio needed to find new ways of creating space on the court.
Let Parker push it
That started in earnest in 2010, when Gregg Popovich decided to design the entire offense around Tony Parker (and to an extent Manu Ginobili, but we’ll focus mostly on Parker here). That meant running. Last year, the Spurs went from the nineteenth fastest team in the league to fourtheenth. This year they are the eighth fastest team, ahead of every projected playoff team besides the D’Antoni powered Knicks and the borderline reckless Nuggets.
Parker speeds through defenders in the open court like a world champion slalom skier, as though gravity is on his side. He always takes the most direct angle; and tempers his pace with graceful artistry around the rim. A single defender is helpless to stop him.
There is of course more room in the open court than at any time in the game, but the Spurs also excel at getting Parker space to attack in the half court. Once the paragon of post-heavy grindball, San Antonio is now the pinnacle of the modern spread pick-and-roll attack that is most effective against the game’s best defenses
Again, the real key is Parker (and often Manu Ginobili), but he gets great help from his entire team, which is full of killer 3-point shooters and stacked with willing passers. Phil Jackson was the Zen Master, but one imagines Popovich forcing his players to spend hours each day repeating the Spurs mantra: make the extra pass.
It is an immense credit to Popovich and the Spurs whole “program” that they have been able to find a full stable of players with the aptitude to play this style, or been able to develop guys like Kwahi Leonard, Gary Neal and Danny Green into players who can contribute efficiently to this system. As a sophomore at San Diego State, Kawhi Leonard shot 29 percent from the college 3-point line. This year, he’s shooting 50 percent on corner 3’s.
Six Spurs that see rotation duty shoot better than 37.5 percent from 3 (equivalent to 56 percent from 2). Two, Green and Leonard, are long and active defenders who have internalized a veteran’s understanding of space and positioning while becoming knock down three point shooters. Neal (back up combo guard) and Matt Bonner (rotation power forward) are just assassins who test defenses from awkward positions. So throughout the game, San Antonio almost always has three strong shooters on the floor at any given moment.
And that extra pass leads to not just open shots, but open corner 3’s the closest, most valuable 3-pointer a team can create. The Spurs only shoot a league-average amount of 3’s, but they shoot the second most corner 3’s. It’s a shot that used to come from Duncan posting up but now comes as a result of their spread pick-and-roll offense. Same shot, same result.
For the second year in a row, the Spurs lead the league in 3-point shooting percentage (they were 11th in 2009-10).
No easy choices
A typical San Antonio half court possession begins with a little motion and some non-threatening side-to-side ball movement before Parker initiates the following series with either a high ball screen or handoff from one of the Spurs big men: Parker darts into the middle of the paint off the dribble, and either finishes or draws help defense then kicks out to one of three teammates orbiting the three point line who begin to whip the ball around the perimeter, eventually finding the shooter with the most space to fire away.
When we ask whether an offense “creates space,” what we mean is “to what extent does the offense define space where the defense cannot be?”
Defenses cannot leave San Antonio’s shooters. Yet when Parker drives into the paint with shooters stationed on the 3-point line, he forces them to do just that. And to create even more space in which defenders must account for the wily Parker and the slithery Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have added a terrifying wrinkle to their ballscreen attack.
Instead of the customary side or high ball screen that is initiated from the wing or top of the key, but generally near the 3-point line, the Spurs will pull the pick-and-roll way out away from the hoop, nearly midway between the 3-point line and half court. San Antonio employs a flat screen (screeners shoulders parallel to the baseline) that most defenses counter by sending the guard under the screen to give Ginobili and Parker a running start at the help defense. Big men can be capable help defenders heding on pick and rolls, but virtually none are equipped to manage Parker’s speed or Ginobili’s shifty maneuvering in top gear.
It’s just another example of how the Spurs take advantage of the whole court and make demands that no defense has been able to meet.
Back in 2009 only three teams played slower than San Antonio and Duncan was the centerpiece of a stodgy brand of ball. Who would have predicted then that the same Spurs would help to usher in the most futuristic offense in the league.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com