Three-point shooting is a huge part of what makes the San Antonio Spurs the San Antonio Spurs. They’re a pedestrian 11th in the league in three-point attempts per game (18.9), but in terms of approach, floor spacing is nothing short of crucial. Not only because having shooters on the floor gives Duncan the room he needs to operate in the post or Ginobili the lane he needs to get to the basket, but because without that spot-up threat, the number of useful players on the Spurs’ roster is woefully, woefully small.
Consider this: the Orlando Magic shoot far and away the highest number of three-pointers per game (27.3), and playing four shooters along with Dwight Howard is Stan Van Gundy’s schematic design. They swing the ball along the perimeter, work it in to Dwight almost as a distraction, and exploit aggressive defensive coverage against Howard (or on the pick-and-roll) by milking the added point value of the long ball. It’s a strategy that can be insanely effective, and one of the reasons why the Magic are among the most successful teams in the league despite a slightly unconventional roster.
Still, if you take away Orlando’s three-pointers by chasing them off the line — and good luck pulling that off — the players are still versatile and effective. Vince Carter, despite all of his faults, is still Vince Carter. Rashard Lewis is far more versatile than he gets credit for. Even J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, and Mickael Pietrus are far more than just designated shooters.
That’s just not the case with San Antonio. There are role players for whom this is less of an issue: DeJuan Blair obviously isn’t too reliant on the long ball, Richard Jefferson is theoretically a jack of all trades, and a healthy George Hill can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket (even if his ability to run an offense is largely overstated by his positional alignment). Other than that, who is San Antonio really relying on for supplementary offensive production? Keith Bogans (61.4% of scoring production from threes)? Roger Mason, Jr. (52.3%)? Matt Bonner (60%)? Those are one-trick ponies. Bogans is a fine defender, Mason can kind of handle the ball, and Bonner is another body to throw at Dirk, but these are not players that can contribute much offensively outside of the strict framework of the Spurs’ system. If you push them off the corners, what scoring are they really going to provide? The most reliable shot (after being chased off of the three-point line) any of those three is able to hit is probably a step-in two-point jumper, which would indicate a hugely successful defensive possession for the Mavs.
Richard Jefferson and George Hill are the two players that could make a significant difference without having to rely too heavily on threes. Unfortunately for the Spurs, it’s hardly so simple. Hill was a complete non-factor in Game 1, as his ankle injury and the Mavs’ defense on him removed any potential for a positive impact during Hill’s abbreviated night. Jefferson, on the other hand, is just stuck. He hasn’t been able to perform offensively all season long, and though one would think that he has the size, athleticism, and versatility necessary to be a significant piece for this Spurs team, he hasn’t lived up to his own name or his rather substantial contract.
That said, even Hill and Jefferson are less effective when chased off the three-point line. Check out the data for all five the aforementioned Spurs role players in strictly spot-up situations:
|Player||3FGAs/FGAs||PPS (3FGA)||PPS (2FGA)||%TO Chased||%TO Spot-Up|
Data courtesy of Synergy Sports Technology.
3FGA/FGA – Percentage of used spot-up possessions that end in a three-point attempt
PPS (3FGA) – Points per three-point shot attempt
PPS (2FGA) – Points per two-point shot attempt
%TO Chased – Percentage of spot-up plays that end in a turnover after the player is chased from their spot
%TO Spot-up – Percentage of spot-up plays that end in a turnover without the player being chased from their spot (drop ball out of bounds, foot on the sideline, etc.)
Based on this data, you can glean a few things. Most notably, that every single one of these players is predictably less efficient once they’re chased from the three-point line (and in spot-up opportunities within the arc) than when they’re allowed to fire after spotting up. Particularly surprising is that George Hill, who would easily seem to be the best ball-handler of the bunch (save Mason, maybe), exhibits the most dramatic drop in points per shot between three-point spot-ups and other plays. Those other plays not only include spot-up opportunities for two-point jumpers (which are Hill’s most likely sandbag), but consist mostly of possessions in which George is run off of the three-point line by a closing defender. 2.7% of those chase-off possessions alone ended in turnovers, and even when he didn’t turn the ball over, Hill was a far less effective scorer.
Also worth noting is how similar Keith Bogans and Richard Jefferson turned out to be statistically-speaking in these situations. Both were markedly more efficient as spot-up three-point shooters (1.04 PPS vs. 0.75 PPS for Jefferson, 1.06 vs. 0.74 PPS for Bogans), to an almost identical degree. They also both turned the ball over nearly six percent of the time after being chased from the perimeter, in part due to traveling violations on their first step. That’s an aspect of scrambling defense that’s vastly overrated; the far right column of the chart, which represents the percentage of spot-up opportunities ending in turnovers if the player was not chased from their spot on the three-point line, displays drastically lower turnover rates than if the player puts the ball on the floor even for a single dribble. There’s not much opportunity to turn the ball over if a player is simply catching and shooting, and scrambling to contest three-point shooters seems to cause a fairly significant (and understandable) bump in turnover rate.
Taking away spot-up threes for these kinds of role players isn’t quite the equivalent of taking out the Spurs’ legs from under them. It’s more like cutting off both arms. They’ll still be able to function in the same basic ways (Duncan will still work the post, Parker will still attack off the dribble, etc.), but things get awfully difficult when the actions start to get a bit more complex. Open a door? Tough, but okay. Brush your teeth? Very unnatural but manageable. Pour yourself a glass of milk? Incredibly difficult, very gross, and remember not to cry. Use the bathroom? Ay, caramba.
If the Mavs can reduce the Spurs’ offense to the production of three players — even three great ones – they’ll stand a very good chance of taking the series. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker were responsible for 71 of the Spurs’ 94 points on Sunday night. Jefferson, Hill, Bonner, Mason, and Bogans combined for just nine points, and a single made three-pointer (on just four attempts). Dirk credited the Mavs’ ability to scramble defensively after the game, and he was right to do so. If Dallas continues to rotate quickly not only on the pick-and-roll but to open shooters as well, this series could be fun, hotly-contested, and extremely short-lived.