The Spurs’ Success Is in Spite of, Not Because of, Gregg Popovich

Earlier this week, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer wrote a fantastic breakdown of the San Antonio Spurs’ offense that is well-written, eye-opening, and dead wrong.

In it, O’Connor correctly points out that the Spurs, since December 1 (and through games of January 2) have the best offensive rating in the NBA despite shooting the lowest percentage of their shots from three-point range.

And on the day that piece ran Thursday, the Spurs didn’t just beat the Toronto Raptors, they pulled their pants down, stole their lunch money, and kicked their bare asses back to Canada. It was a 125-107 beatdown that wasn’t as close as the score, a game that was over by the time a minute had elapsed in the second quarter and the Spurs took a 45-19 lead, a game where Kawhi Leonard got booed mercilessly by the fans and handcuffed like a criminal by a determined Spurs defense.

And people started wondering if maybe the three-point shot was better employed as a sniper rifle rather than a machine gun the way it’s used in Houston, where “spray and pray” is as good a description as any for a team shooting under 35 percent from long range taking half their shots from out there.

Indeed, “sniper rifle” happened to be the exact words I used.

O’Connor, meanwhile, helpfully supplied some stats:

Said O’Connor, “It helps that the Spurs are spectacular at shooting from all over the court. They attempt the fewest shots at the rim, but they’re tied for fourth in field goal percentage. They draw the eighth-fewest free throws, but they lead the league in free throw percentage. They rank third from midrange, shooting 43.1 percent. And they hit 39.7 percent of their 3s, which leads the league. As far as this season goes, it doesn’t really matter where the Spurs shoot from since they shoot the lights out from everywhere.”

The Spurs are shooting none of the shots that efficient basketball says are the best shots. They don’t attack the basket. They don’t shoot threes. They don’t draw fouls. What they do is make shots.

And you can’t argue with that. Sheed’s Law. Ball don’t lie.

What you can argue is whether any of that is sustainable.

The Spurs’ 113.7 Offensive Rating is highest in franchise history, and the +3.8 relative to league average is the squad’s sixth-best mark in its NBA tenure.

But the cracks are visible for anyone to see.

For one thing, they’re not playing defense anymore; their 111 Defensive Rating is 1.1 points above the league average; their worst Finals team, 2002-03, they were 3.9 points better per 100 possessions compared to the rest of the league.

In fact, this is Popovich’s worst defensive team relative to league average in his entire coaching tenure, not counting 1996-97, when he took over midseason and the team was tanking for Tim Duncan.

For another, Rudy Gay, one of the team’s snipers, was at one point over 50 percent from three-point land, but he’s made just eight of his last 32 shots since December 9 from long range and has hit just one of his last 13 as he’s down to 41.3 percent and falling fast toward not just his career average (34.6 percent) but possibly the 31.4 percent he put up last year.

Davis Bertans is hitting 48.5 percent of his threes after hitting just 37.3 a year ago. Bryn Forbes has improved from 39 to 43.6 percent.

On those two-point shots, how much stock do you really want to put in DeMar DeRozan, a guy whose eFG% (.482) is lower than Lonzo Ball?

Or LaMarcus Aldridge, whose .503 eFG% is so bad that among 32 NBA forwards with at least 400 shot attempts (using Basketball Reference’s generous definition of “forward” to include all but pure guards and centers), only DeRozan and Andrew Wiggins are worse?

Heck, drop it to 300 FGA, expanding the player pool to 67 guys, and Aldridge still ranks 51st, which means that we’re accounting for 35 players added to the sample, many of whom simply aren’t allowed to hoist up as many shots because their coaches sensibly concluded that they can’t shoot?

When the only guy below a highly-paid gruesome twosome who still has the green light to shoot the ball is Andrew Wiggins, in any stat, something has gone horribly wrong.

A look at the names who get inserted into the list includes Brandon Ingram, Cedi Osman, Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow…you see my point here?

Don’t point at San Antonio’s shooting and say that Popovich has figured out some magic bullet that’s going to make the 22-17 Spurs into contenders; heck, I’m still not ironclad convinced they’re going to make the playoffs.

But let’s go back to O’Connor’s stat work again, since he’s done a stellar job of showing his work.

When Aldridge and DeRozan share the floor, the Spurs have a 113.3 Offensive Rating.

When DeRozan sits and Aldridge stays, that drops to 110.9.

When DeRozan’s on the floor without Aldridge, the number actually improves to 113.9 (because Aldridge is, as we’ve just asserted, one of the worst offensive forwards in the league, a guy whose numbers don’t compare well to Andrew Freaking Wiggins.)

When they both sit? The Spurs’ offense is at its very best, at 114.4.

The team’s “stars” are so putrid, and their midrange jump shooting such a clear demonstration of just what a horror show allowing a coach with Scott-Hollins Syndrome to put two guys who can’t make threes on the floor at the same time can be.

And the guys who are shooting the threes are doing so at what is, based on their career levels so far, unsustainably high levels of efficiency.

Every single statistical permutation for the Spurs just screams regression, and it’s not a question of if but when.

San Antonio is 16-5 at home. They’re 6-12 on the road. And the rodeo’s coming.

By the time March rolls around, the Spurs will be contemplating the lottery. Mark it down.

Because right now they’re succeeding not because they’re good, but because they’re playing out of their minds, succeeding not because of their offensive game plan but in spite of it.

The diagnosis is the same as it’s been all season. Gregg Popovich needs to retire.