“I still hate it,” Popovich said. “I’ll never embrace it. I don’t think it’s basketball. I think it’s kind of like a circus sort of thing. Why don’t we have a five-point shot? A seven-point shot? You know, where does it stop, that sort of thing. But that’s just me, that’s just old-school. To a certain degree, you better embrace it or you’re going to lose. And every time we’ve won a championship, the three-point shot was a big part of it.”
Like Popovich says, the Spurs (begrudgingly?) use the three-point shot as part of their game plan, especially plays to get open looks at the corner three, like the Hammer.
The play starts with Tony Parker or Patrick Mills (1) bringing the ball into the front court and ends with Danny Green (2) getting the ball to Kawhi Leonard (3) for a corner three with a screen from one of the big men, LaMarcus Aldridge or Tim Duncan (5).
But they aren’t using the three-point shot as much as they had in the past. In 13 of the past 15 seasons the Spurs have taken an above-average rate as a percentage of their field-goal attempts. This year they are well below average.
Part of the decline can be attributed to the free agent signing of Aldridge who, according to Synergy Sports, was the fourth best post-up player in the NBA (minimum 200 possessions) last year in points per play (0.94). But four of the Spurs’ five most frequent three-point shooters from last year remain on the team, so this appears to be more a philosophy change rather than a personnel one.
Still, the lack of focus on three-point shots hasn’t diminished their offensive output in any way: they score the fifth most points per 100 possessions (106.5) and have the third highest effective field goal percentage (51.6 percent).
But the main reason the Spurs have won better than 78 percent of their games this season despite working less from long range is simple: defense.
The Spurs allowed 102 points per 100 possessions last season, which was the second best effort in the NBA. This year that has dropped to 94.5, better than any year they won the championship.
San Antonio has improved against every play type with the exception of hand offs, which occur against the Spurs 4.1 percent of the time, and they have made the biggest strides in defending put-backs. Last year, they allowed opponents to score 1.08 points per possession off offensive rebounds. This year that has dropped to 0.89, the second best mark in the league.
Credit part of that improvement to Leonard, who has held opponents to 43.6 percent shooting at the rim.
Aldridge and Duncan have helped: both allow a below-average number of points per possession at 0.83 and 0.70, respectively.
The Spurs also moved from No. 20 (0.86 points allowed per possession in 2014-15) to No. 7 (0.74) against isolation plays.
But the biggest strides are in defending the ball-handler on the pick and roll.
Last year, screen-setters scored 0.78 points per possession on pick-and-roll plays. This year it is only 0.73 on a higher percentage of plays against. That drop might not seem like a lot, but it was good enough to move the Spurs from No. 19 to No. 6 on the leader board. The team also improved against pick and rolls, pick and pops and the screener slipping the pick — allowing the fewest points per possession (0.88) this year as opposed to the 11th most (0.96) in 2014-15.
Popovich is smart enough to know what does and doesn’t win in today’s NBA. If he says he doesn’t like the three-point shot — I believe him. But he is also smart enough to know that if he didn’t have a world-class defense, going back to the three-point shot more frequently would be the right move. Especially if he thought it would win him a sixth NBA title.