It took a little while, but the Spurs are looking Spurs-y again.
For the first 20 games of the year, San Antonio appeared like it was heading towards its worst season this millennium. The team was 10-12 at the end of November, struggling to assimilate their new talent and overcome their offseason transformation. As soon as the calendar flipped to December, however, the Spurs have been firing on all cylinders, going 17-10 with the league's fourth-best offence over that stretch.
That improvement didn't come after a dramatic stylistic change or rotation tweak, just a commitment to their strengths. It was reasonable to read into San Antonio's early struggles as a sign this team didn't have the talent to compete or - more worryingly - that they were attached to an offensive style that couldn't. Instead, they persevered and found a path forward.
In many ways, this is just a different version of the dynastic mid-2000s Spurs teams we all remember. They never turn the ball over and lead the league in both post-ups and points off post-ups opportunities. They slow the game down as much as possible and have the league's best eFG% since December 1st.
None of that is shocking. The Spurs are built to take care of the ball and put their best players in the best position to succeed and with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, that position is overwhelmingly in the mid-range.
🔸 CAREER-HIGH 56 PTS- NBA (@NBA) January 11, 2019
🔸 9 REB
🔸 First @spurs player with 50+PTS since Tony Parker on Nov. 5, 2008
LaMarcus Aldridge's impressive performance propels the @spurs to a 154-147 DOUBLE OT victory! #GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/KL0vH1RGBW
In theory, this could be a problem. We've seen teams try and fail to build an offence around two players who operate in the same areas on the court, especially when the area is one as traditionally inefficient as the mid-range; and yet, the Spurs have thrived.
San Antonio gets up 24.8 mid-range shots per game, by far the most in the league. The only other team close is Golden State. The typical shortcomings of mid-range shots are well established, but when you have elite mid-range shooters like Aldridge and DeRozan - or Kevin Durant in the Warriors' case - those problems aren't as relevant.
Aldridge started off the season ice cold but an incredibly strong December and January has him just under 41 percent for the season, right around his career average. DeRozan is shooting just 39.8 percent for the season - down a couple percent from his Toronto standard - but like Aldridge, has started to find his stroke as the season has progressed.
🏀 @DeMar_DeRozan does it all in the @spurs 5th straight win, finishing with 26 PTS, 7 REB, 9 AST! #GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/s7IjhwKrmR- NBA (@NBA) January 8, 2019
San Antonio takes the highest percentage of their FGA from two-point range in the league. If you flip that stat around, they take the fewest percentage of their shots from 3-point range and yet, they lead the league in 3-point shooting at 40.3 percent.
In a season in which 3-point records are being shattered seemingly every other night, we've come to see efficiency as black and white. Three points are greater than two, therefore the team who leads the league in 3-point percentage should maximize their 3-point attempts. The issue with this logic in San Antonio's case is simply a problem of scale.
DeRozan and Aldridge are not exactly good 3-point shooters - they're notably bad in fact. Of the 30 players averaging at least 20 points per game, just three are shooting below 24 percent from three: Aldridge, DeRozan and the notoriously shooting-adverse Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Aldridge has never been anything approaching a high-volume 3-point shooter and, despite his best efforts over the past few seasons, it appears DeRozan has ended his attempt at becoming a 3-point threat as well. San Antonio simply cannot start taking more threes because that would take the ball out of the hands of their best players.
This leaves the Spurs at a mathematical disadvantage. With DeRozan and Aldridge accounting for over 38 percent of San Antonio's attempts, the team has found a way to bridge the two extremes. They can allow their stars to thrive in the areas that make them great while surrounding them with excellent, low volume 3-point threats.
Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli lead the team in 3-point attempts and are shooting a combined 40.3 percent from deep. Rudy Gay has quietly become an outstanding third option and is having far and away the most efficient season of his 13-year career. Once one of the more mid-range heavy players in the league, Gay has left those shots to Aldridge and DeRozan and turned himself into an outstanding attacker and 3-point shooter (41.5 percent).
The most pleasant surprise of the season has certainly been second-year pro Derrick White stepping in for the injured Dejounte Murray. As Aldridge was putting up his career-high 56 points versus the Thunder earlier this month, White was having a career night of his own with 23 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
White has shown flashes of brilliance but still undergoes the expected ebbs and flows of a point guard with just 25 career starts. This is where the addition of DeRozan has paid the most dividends.
DeRozan hasn't overhauled his game in San Antonio, but his biggest improvement has come as a distributor. He leads the team with 6.4 assists per game and while he's certainly not pass-first, his vision as improved leaps and bounds from where it was in his first few seasons as a Raptor.
As opponents sag off him, begging him to take a three, DeRozan has used this extra space to see passing lanes and find Forbes, Belinelli or Patty Mills cutting open off a screen. For a guy who was averaging just 3.1 assists per game for his career coming into the season, DeRozan's rise to third in assists among shooting guards is pretty remarkable.
For as impressive as their turnaround has been, the uphill battle San Antonio faces isn't going to disappear. Even for as well as they've shot the ball recently, their unfortunate reality is the 3-point shot isn't going away. DeRozan, Aldridge and Co. have been outstanding and have looked like a legitimate playoff team since December, they just have to continue that excellence going forward.