The biggest move of the past NBA off-season saw Kawhi Leonard traded to the Toronto Raptors from the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard had sat out for the entire year, leaving LaMarcus Aldridge and a bunch of typically Spursian role players to pick up the pieces and help San Antonio limp over the line to take a playoff spot.
DeMar DeRozan joined the team in return for Leonard. The major qualm people had with the trade was that there were now two high-powered offensive scorers who shared the same region of the court. Having a back-court that shares the perimeter is manageable as that spacing allows others to thrive on the interior, but there was a major worry that Aldridge and DeRozan would simply get in each other’s way.
Those worries have unsurprisingly been eased by the wizard that is Head Coach Gregg Popovich, as his squad ranks second in the league in offensive rating. They rank fifth in true shooting percentage, and only the Charlotte Hornets are better at taking care of the basketball.
The way to describe the Spurs offense this year has been methodical. They don’t have the pieces to necessarily run a seven-seconds-or-less style system, but they take their time getting the match-ups they want in half-court situations. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Spurs are dead last in the NBA in terms of transition frequency. Most of the other teams near the bottom of transition frequency are bad offenses such as the Bulls, Grizzlies and Magic, but the Spurs are somehow bucking that particular trend with ease.
While DeRozan has had a solid season, notably as a playmaker, posting his career high in assists per game by a distance, a big reason for the Spurs offensive prowess has to be Aldridge. The Spurs lead the NBA in post-ups per game, and unlike most of the other post-heavy teams, they generate efficient points from there. The Spurs come away with points on 60.4% of their post-ups, good for fourth in the league. The only other team from the top 10 in post volume that also rank top 10 in efficiency are the New Orleans Pelicans.
Simply put, Aldridge’s post and mid-range game, alongside his feel inside the paint, has made the San Antonio Spurs offense efficient and, most importantly, smooth. Mid-range heavy offenses often have a tendency to look stagnant and ugly, but under Aldridge, the Spurs have been a top tier unit. In an era where most of the bigs are either stretching the floor or energetic rim running centers with astronomical true shooting percentages, Aldridge is a bit of anomaly. This does not stop him being a great player, and a player who should be an All-Star.
The Spurs commitment to the mid-range in comparison to the rest of the league is staggering. They shoot from mid-range on 47.9% of their possessions, which is 9.1% ahead of the second ranked team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. To put this difference into perspective, if you go 9.1% in the other direction, you get all the way down to the Charlotte Hornets in 21st place.
While many have seen this style from the San Antonio Spurs as a throwback style, you cannot help but wonder whether the strategy is more analytically sound than one might think. In an era when teams have simply abandoned the mid-range shot, defenses have followed suit, with most teams either protecting the paint or aggressively pursuing perimeter shooters off ball and fighting over screens. Many modern defensive schemes, such as the Miami Heat, are designed to chase teams off the perimeter while funneling them into a rim protector. Steve Clifford’s defensive scheme in Orlando is designed with the idea that you protect the paint and force teams to take mid-range jumpers, almost allowing it at times. In a way, allowing mid-range shots is a huge schematic flaw, and the Spurs are taking advantage of it more than any other outfit.
If teams roll that extra coverage into the mid-range areas, the Spurs will punish you from outside. While they are not shooting from outside at a high rate, they are first in the NBA in three-point percentage.
The Spurs are not the only team making a solid living from mid-range areas. The Warriors and the Clippers are also in top five of frequency and efficiency. While the Warriors offense is not necessarily the three-point bombing one we saw in the past, they are also taking advantage of the zone that the opposition generally give to teams when they are devising defensive game plans.
Aldridge’s best performance of the year, and maybe of his career, came against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday night. He produced an imperious display and dragged the Spurs over the line in what was arguably the best game of the season so far. His shot chart below is the type that has become common for him this season.
His stat line was unique, quite literally. No player in NBA history had ever recorded 56 points, nine boards, four blocks and four assists. Sure, it’s a very specific stat line, but those are huge numbers worthy of praise.
Perhaps the most notable takeaway from the game though, was that Aldridge didn’t even attempt one three. When stretch-fours are more prevalent due to the rise of rim running athletic centers, seeing a starting big shoot no three pointers is quite remarkable. Aldridge has never really been utilized from beyond the line anyway, but his three-point attempt numbers have gone down to 0.3 per game from 0.8 and 1.2 per game in the previous two campaigns.
So how is LaMarcus Aldridge managing to elevate this Spurs to an elite offensive team despite the shot profile that many think is inefficient? The answer is slightly complex.
On the whole, it is a mix of offensive creativity, and Aldridge simply playing with power, intelligence and poise in half-court settings.
The play below is an example of offensive creativity allowing two inside scorers to thrive.
The Spurs send Marco Belinelli in motion, to clear out space on the strong side. They then use Aldridge to set a flare screen, which gives DeRozan space to attack downhill as Paul George gets caught in the screen. The Thunder then switch Steven Adams onto DeRozan, but this allows Aldridge to slip his man and get the easy dunk. The action is simple but as the Spurs have done over the years, they run it to perfection. Good action and player movement to create downhill opportunities is a good way to maximize two players with limited outside shots.
But Aldridge has not just thrived on great play designs, he has performed well making tough shots. The Spurs are comfortable enough for their sets to end in an Aldridge isolation style play because they trust him to make them.
The play below is a good example of how having a big like Aldridge is being used to take advantage of the switch-heavy schemes we are seeing pop up around the NBA.
The Clippers switch on the simple action from the Spurs, and Aldridge has an easy bucket against Danilo Gallinari. The Timberwolves use Taj Gibson to take advantage of smaller power forwards that are springing up around the NBA, and the Spurs have a real advantage with Aldridge here so they can do the same.
Even if Aldridge does get the tough post defense, part of what has made him so great this year is his ability to make tough jumpers. It has given the Spurs well designed system the element of individuality, which is always required to win basketball games in the NBA.
Many other players on the Spurs are shooting well enough from mid-range to justify their heavy usage of it, but it is mostly running through LaMarcus Aldridge. They always look for him late in the shot clock, and he is the man taking the tough shots and creating the gravity in half-court sets.
You do have to wonder if Aldridge is somewhat underappreciated in the NBA. He has consistently been a high level scorer as a power forward, and he has adapted his game to the modern NBA. Sure, the Spurs run a style that isn’t necessarily seen as modern, but Aldridge can hang with the very best bigs, and he has had some big performances against some very tough defensive centers. He doesn’t stretch anyone out to the three-point line, but you can bet that he is going to fadeaway his man to death, and pummel morale by constantly turning broken possessions into buckets.
The Spurs were out of many people’s playoff brackets purely for the offensive system they were going to run, but they have made people look silly. The NBA is a cyclical league, and you do have to wonder if the success the Spurs are having from mid-range will end the short era where the shot has been portrayed as an abomination.
Featured photo – via Ronald Cortes / Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration