Despite posting an offensive efficiency of 111.7 last year (9th in the NBA) Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich felt like he needed to change the offense around if he wanted his team to compete in the tough Western Conference, and he let his feelings about it be known during the offseason. Normally, experiments like these seem to fail, and with Popovich overseeing a group of experienced veterans, I thought changing roles around wasn't going to be the answer for the Spurs.
However, this is just another example of coach Popovich being smarter than just about everyone. The Spurs have seen their offensive efficiency rise to 115.1 this year, which leads the NBA. What exactly changed for the Spurs from last year to this year?
Two things: First, the Spurs are getting out in transition more. Second, San Antonio changed the roles of some of its key players.
The Spurs have always been a very good team in transition. Last year they posted a PPP of 1.21 in transition, which is almost identical to their 1.22 PPP of this year (in both cases, it has been good for 5th in the NBA). The major difference is that they are running a lot more. Last year, the Spurs got out in transition on just 9.6 percent of their possessions. This year they are running on 12.9 percent of their possessions. Over the course of a season, this means about 300 more possessions in transition. There are two reasons that the Spurs are getting out in transition more. First, they are creating more turnovers. Last year, the turnover rate of Spurs' opponents was 13.9 percent. This year, that number has gone up to 16.5 percent, which is above the league average. More live turnovers and steals means that there are more opportunities for Spurs to get out in transition.
Second, they are forcing the issue more often. Popovich has told his team that he wants them running every chance they get, so they are pushing the basketball in situations where they would slow it down in years past:
Here, Tim Duncan secures the rebound and instead of waiting for Tony Parker to come get the basketball from him, he throws a pass out into open space, allowing George Hill to chase the ball down and start the two-on-one fast break. Longer outlet passes have become a more frequent occurrence for the Spurs, which shows how important running is to them this year.
Here, Parker gets the rebound and dribbles the ball up as there are three defenders back. In years past, Parker would slow it down during one on three situations and wait for his teammates so the Spurs can run an offense. This year, Parker attacks the rim despite the three defenders, and he gets a lay-up out of it.
When the Spurs get out on the break, they like to look for three-point opportunities. According to Synergy, 21 percent of the transition shots are three-pointers. This isn't anything new as the Spurs always seem to look for threes when in transition (last year, 22 percent of their transition shots were threes). However, since the Spurs are running more, that means they are shooting more threes (attempting 22.2 threes per game this year vs. 18.9 threes per game last year).
One of the reasons why the Spurs are able to get clean looks from three on the break is because it goes against everything the defense is taught in transition opportunities. As a defender you are supposed to run to the middle of the lane and then out to your man when defending in transition. The Spurs are able to take advantage of this:
Here, as Parker brings the basketball up in transition and attacks the rim, the entire defense sinks in on them as they are taught, leaving Richard Jefferson wide open for the kick out.
This time, the Spurs start the break off of a turnover, and Parker takes the ball and tries to attack the rim. He is unable to get a lay-up as three defenders get back into the paint to protect the rim. Parker kicks the ball out, and eventually it finds its way to Matt Bonner. Bonner's man is unable to get from under the rim to the three-point line for a close out, and Bonner is able to knock down the open three.
The second major difference in the Spurs offense this year is the change in roles of Duncan, their franchise player more over a decade. Duncan has had to make major changes in his game to benefit the Spurs' offense as a whole.
First, let's look at Tim Duncan. The decrease in Duncan's usage on the offensive end (from 26.2 percent last year vs. 23.1 this year) has been talked about quite a bit, but what doesn't get talked about is that Duncan is contributing more in other areas than ever before, especially passing. Duncan's assist rate is 5.8 percent, which is a jump from 4.6, and it is his highest assist rate in the past five years. It shouldn't really be a surprise that the increase in Duncan's assists come from his passing out to the three-point line (this is another reason why the Spurs are taking more threes this year--Duncan is kicking out to shooters more often). Last year, 20 percent of Duncan's assists resulted in threes, a number which has increased to while 29 percent this year:
Here, the Spurs work the ball into Duncan on the block, but the goal isn't to get Duncan a shot. In years past, Duncan might go quick to try and beat the double team that comes once he puts the ball on the floor. This year, Duncan is taking a "bait dribble" a dribble used to draw a double team that he knows is coming, and then he kicks it out for the wide open three.
At times, Duncan isn't even looking for his shot in obvious shooting situations. How many times have we seen Duncan make this catch and hit a bank shot? Well, this year he isn't looking for that. His first look is cross court to his teammates spotting up, in this case it's Jefferson.
When you see a team switch their offensive philosophy around, it is usually when a new coach or player comes in, or if you have a young team. For a team like San Antonio, which has prided itself on stability, to switch things around is kind of a weird concept and you're prone to think it wouldn't work. However, Popovich and the rest of his staff know their players so well that this switch has turned a good offense into a great offense.