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The NBA Is Playing At A Blistering Pace, But The Spurs Are Taking It Slow

Before Monday’s highly compelling seesaw game between the Spurs and Lakers, a reporter asked Gregg Popovich how he planned to slow Los Angeles’s LeBron-led attack, which plays at the NBA’s fastest pace.

“I’m gonna ask [Lakers coach Luke Walton] not to do that,” said Popovich, who was joking, but not really.

While things have been turned upside down the last 12 months in San Antonio — the team that once famously skirted serious injury or public drama has seen its share of both recently — one thing has stayed true for the past 20 years or so. The Spurs, showing a sense of Southern comfort despite facing doubts on their ability to keep the 21-year playoff streak going, still like playing at a snail’s pace, particularly on offense.

That remains true even as the Lakers and several other clubs push for transition opportunities and launch quick attempts like they were playing Pop-A-Shot at the local arcade. But through three games, San Antonio has been content to simply run its half-court offense — same as always. The Spurs have been in transition just 5.9 percent of the time this year, according to Synergy Sports Technology — the NBA’s lowest rate by a mile, and a low figure even for this team, which has always played at a slower pace.1

San Antonio, led for so many years by post player Tim Duncan, was never a truly up-tempo bunch.2 (If anything, the Spurs were known more for their stifling transition defense.) While the team has pieced together some sparkling fast-break plays — this one comes to mind — its best bet in those situations was often to have a younger, attacking Tony Parker go 1-on-2 or 1-on-3 to try to steal a basket before the opposing team’s defense could get back.

The Spurs are in no hurry — as usual

Where the San Antonio Spurs rank in terms of opportunities and execution while in transition, 2015-16 to 2018-19

In Transition
Season Frequency Rank Points/ possession Rank Score frequency Rank
2018-19 5.9% 30 0.76 29 33.3% 30
2017-18 11.2 28 1.08 19 48.8 24
2016-17 12.0 25 1.13 10 51.1 15
2015-16 10.7 27 1.09 20 50.9 21

Source: Synergy Sports and NBA Advanced Stats

While the current numbers are only a small sample and are likely to climb closer to the rest of the pack as the season unfolds, they illustrate a handful of things about this club. Obviously the Spurs lack the speedsters required to make those sorts of plays consistently. (They currently sit last in transition field-goal percentage, and they score on an NBA-low 33 percent of those plays.) But on the flip side, the tortoise-like pace also speaks to San Antonio’s comfort in its own skin as it begins the campaign. While some teams are playing faster than they should in hopes of bypassing half-court possessions with still-unfamiliar teammates, the Spurs aren’t.

Despite losing Parker, future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili, starting point guard Dejounte Murray (torn ACL) and the team’s franchise player Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have largely stuck to the program, even if it continues to go against the broader leaguewide grain.

Most clubs have gone all-in on creating looks from 3-point range in recent years, yet San Antonio is still taking an enormous number of midrange jumpers — a whopping 28 attempts per game, almost six more than the next closest team. While certainly unusual in the current NBA, it’s also not that surprising. The club got midrange artist DeMar DeRozan in return for Leonard and swingman Danny Green. Plus, returning Spurs big man LaMarcus Aldridge led the NBA in midrange shots last season.

The upside in all this so far is that DeRozan looks pretty comfortable in this offense already — something Popovich deserves credit for after insisting he wouldn’t tinker much with the guard’s game. The Spurs have put the ball in DeRozan’s hands a ton early on (to some extent they’ve had to, because of how short-handed they are at lead guard), and the early returns have been better than anyone could have realistically expected.

Aside from him scoring plenty on his own, DeRozan is averaging nine assists a game through three contests and is coming off a career-best 14-assist showing against the Lakers. An NBA-best 26 percent of his passes are leading to assists,3 according to Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. “That was always the next part of my game I really wanted to elevate,” he said. “I want to be a player that can score at a high level but also makes his teammates better and puts trust in them.”

DeRozan’s game expanding would certainly fit the Spurs’ adaptive nature over the years, as the club has shown the ability to evolve in a handful of areas, from the sorts of lineups they use and even the way they prioritized ball movement during a time where hero ball was expanding.

Yet for all the flexibility the Spurs have displayed at times, certain things almost never change for this club, and in a way, Monday night’s game-winning shot was further evidence of that.

Popovich, knowing that the Lakers would be keying in on Aldridge and DeRozan (who had 37 and 32 points, respectively), called a misdirection play involving them and guard Patty Mills. The look it produced, naturally, was an open shot from midrange. While the play caught the Lakers off guard, it would’ve looked familiar to those who played for Popovich before, as it’s one the Spurs used for years with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili instead.

“In the seven years I was there, we ran the same three plays at the end of the game,” Green told reporters in Toronto. “You knew what was coming and they still couldn’t stop it.”

And perhaps that’s the beauty of this Spurs club. Popovich and his players have shown that they can flip the script when necessary to fit the rest of the league. But they clearly have no problem pulling a number of old and, sometimes, slow-paced tricks out of their bag.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. They ranked among the league’s bottom six each of the past three seasons, too, but had transition rates that basically doubled that 5.9 percent figure those years.

  2. During their 21-year playoff streak, the Spurs have had only four teams that boasted above-league-average pace, the 2010 to 2014 clubs.

  3. Among players averaging 20 minutes per game

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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