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The Spurs’ Defense Against Corner Threes Is Stellar. It’s Also Invisible.

Welcome to Four-Point Play, our weekly NBA column that pieces together four statistical trends from around the league and lays out what they tell us about where a team has been or where it’s heading. Find a stat you think should be included here? Email or tweet me at chris.herring@fivethirtyeight.com or @Herring_NBA.

It’s nothing new to hear the San Antonio Spurs described as machinelike. But far too often that label seems to focus solely on the team’s offensive precision as opposed to the club’s perennially outstanding defense.

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No team over the past two decades has been better at getting stops than the Spurs, who not only stand as the NBA’s best defense this year, but have ranked among the top 10 in defensive efficiency in 17 of the past 20 seasons.

In particular, dating back to last season, the Spurs have been fantastic at taking away corner 3-pointers, arguably the most valuable shot in basketball. But is some of that due to sheer luck?

San Antonio, after holding opponents to 33 percent from the corners last season (second best, behind the Clippers), is limiting foes to an NBA-low 33 percent again this season. Seems simple enough! Yet those gaudy numbers are harder to explain when you look closely at another set of numbers: The Spurs are often nowhere to be found when opposing teams take corner 3’s. Last year, according to data compiled by SportVU client manager Matt Scott at FiveThirtyEight’s request, the Spurs contested 35 percent of corner 3’s, seventh-lowest in the league; this year, they’re third from the bottom with a similar rate.

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Unlike when the Spurs played in the cavernous Alamodome, where players complained about struggling with depth perception, there isn’t a clear explanation as to how the Spurs defend corner 3’s so much better than other teams without actually defending them.

But while the numbers may represent an aberration — there’s an intelligent argument to be made that 3-point defense is somewhat random — a couple of things could explain how San Antonio has avoided getting burned from the corners. Last season, for example, the Spurs played in a division where the majority of the teams were among the NBA’s worst at connecting on corner 3-point tries. That meant they got to play against Memphis (worst), New Orleans (third-worst) and Houston (ninth-worst) four times each, whereas the majority of clubs wouldn’t have had that same opportunity. (Still, that wouldn’t explain this season, given that the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks are all hitting corner 3s at about league-average rates, while the Grizzlies rank third best in the NBA in the category so far.)

Beyond that, there’s also the fact that San Antonio’s players are tied for the league lead in terms of how fast they move on defense, according to SportVU’s tracking, perhaps forcing opposing players to pull the trigger a split-second sooner than they otherwise would. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the team’s two best wing defenders, have been impactful when contesting shots, holding shooters to a combined 5-of-24 this season when closing out on corner three-point shooters.

John Wall’s ability to change speeds

If you’re an NBA defender, you don’t want to see Wizards point guard John Wall approaching you at full speed. He’s lethal in the open court, and is just as comfortable finding a teammate in transition as he is dunking with his left hand. But for how speedy Wall can be in the open court, there are indications that the all-star floor general — in the midst of a career year — has a keen sense of precisely when to turn on the jets.

When playing his hardest, according to an analysis run by SportVU data analyst Brittni Donaldson at FiveThirtyEight’s request, Wall is the NBA’s fastest player by far with the ball this season. His max speed is just over 19 miles per hour, per SportVU, a full 10 percent faster than Phoenix’s Eric Bledsoe, who ranked second in the database.

In analyzing the data1 more closely, though, there are key differences between someone like Wall and an aggressive player like Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook, who also ranks among the NBA’s top five players in max speed. Where Westbrook ranks eighth in the league average speed while dribbling the ball, Wall drops all the way to 61st (out of 132 wing players) on average.

That highlights Wall’s ability to play at vastly different tempos — much like a power pitcher also having a reliable off-speed pitch — to keep the defense off balance. And it partially explains how Washington is able to maintain one of the league’s most efficient offenses, in both early and late shot-clock situations.

Fast-paced Nuggets are not forcing turnovers

Going all the way back to the mid-1970s, before they were even part of the NBA, the Denver Nuggets have long played at a nauseatingly fast pace. Larry Brown, Doug Moe, Paul Westhead and George Karl were all Nuggets coaches who emphasized speed, making Denver perhaps more closely tied to the notion of uptempo basketball than any other NBA team over time.

There was some strategy to it. Because the Nuggets play their home games at a high altitude, they figured it would benefit them to run their opponents — who may be feeling oxygen deprivation and fatigue — ragged during contests. As such, they often made teams pay for their mistakes; especially from 2003-04 to 2012-13, when they finished among the league’s top-five in points off turnovers nine times.

But this year’s club hasn’t been able translate the frenetic tempo into turnovers. In fact, Nuggets’ opponents are turning the ball over just 10.9 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest rate since the NBA began tracking turnovers in 1977-78, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group.

The biggest reason for the shift: For how fast Denver plays, the club isn’t as small as the rest of the league. The Nuggets, boasting a roster loaded with big men, play a more conservative brand of defense and put less pressure on the ball than almost any other team. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann pointed out, Denver generally doesn’t hound pick-and-roll ball handlers as they come off screens, allowing them to shoot more often than any team outside of Utah. Giving that much free space inherently limits the number of turnovers the Nuggets can create. (Also of note: They force the third-fewest deflections in the NBA and — unlike the aforementioned Spurs, who fly around defensively — are the league’s slowest defensive unit.)

As such, you get an unusual result: Seeing a historically up-tempo team like the Nuggets ranking dead last in the NBA in points off turnovers. Should they stay in the basement, it’d mark the first time since 1996-97 that Denver finished last in that regard.

The Bulls’ spacing problems get even worse

Even before the season, we knew the Chicago Bulls, for all the big names they’d tout in their backcourt, would struggle with outside shooting this season. That’s what happens when you sign Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade — neither of whom is a good perimeter jumpshooter — to play next to Jimmy Butler, one of the league’s best talents but not the greatest outside shooter himself.

With both Wade and Butler having missed time this month because of illness and injury, coach Fred Hoiberg has turned to a duo that has things even more cramped than usual.

Rondo and Michael Carter-Williams, likely the NBA’s worst-shooting tandem, have shared the court for 28 minutes this month. In that span, they’ve posted a horrendous -46.5 net rating, which measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions. Even more noteworthy: For the season, Chicago’s lineups including those two this season have scored just 87.5 points per 100 plays, more than eight points worse per 100 possessions than any other Bulls two-man configuration with at least 50 minutes under its belt, per NBA.com.

Opposing defenses, feeling unthreatened by Carter-Williams and Rondo — who’ve shot a combined 28 percent (25-of-88) from outside of 10 feet when given six feet or more of space to shoot — have camped in the paint, sealing off the team’s ability to get to the basket.

As such, just 21 percent of Chicago’s shots have come from within three feet of the rim with the two of them playing side by side, per NBA Wowy2, which tracks team statistics with different lineup combinations. By contrast, the Bulls get 27 percent of their shots near the basket with just Carter-Williams, and 31 percent of their attempts at the rim with just Rondo.

So for the Bulls’ sake — and our eyesight’s — let’s hope this lineup is only playing out of necessity these past few games.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. SportVU compiled this research by tracking every time a guard or small forward covered 20 feet or more within three dribbles after a defensive rebound or turnover, with the first dribble occurring in the backcourt and the third dribble being in the frontcourt.
  2. Numbers from this site are through Monday’s games.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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