As San Antonio Spurs fans prepared to watch their resurgent team take the opening tip against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, a Fox Sports graphic flashed onto the screen. “You see this note?” chirped longtime play-by-play man Bill Land. “Thirty-plus three-point attempts in five straight games. Longest streak in franchise history. The other night, they were 19 of 35!”
When Land finished his sentence, Sean Elliott, his passionate-yet-cantankerous partner for 17 years of Spurs games, chuckled. “We’ve officially joined,” he began before pausing for dramatic effect, “the rest of the NBA.”
Maybe it’s come while kicking and screaming, but it’s also long overdue. Over their last eight games, the Spurs are 5-3 while scoring nearly 121 points per 100 possessions, the best in the league over that stretch. A month ago, it seemed like their incredible 22-year playoff streak was ending. Now, the Spurs are the West’s No. 8 seed.
The catalyst for that change is obvious. Up until Dec. 23, the Spurs attempted just 26 threes a contest, the fewest in the league, while making only 35 percent of said attempts. Since Dec. 23, they’re taking nearly 31 threes a game while making 43.5 percent of their shots from downtown. That difference has been made up almost entirely by one guy who appeared to have an epiphany sometime just before Dec. 23.
Prior to that date, LaMarcus Aldridge was one of the last of a dying breed of automatic mid-range shooters that wouldn’t take a step back to get an extra point. His reasons never made much rational sense, but it’s hard to teach an old dog with Aldridge’s historical pedigree new tricks. Even the Spurs seemed to accept that he’d never change.
Until all of a sudden, he did. Who is this guy?
Since Dec. 23, Aldridge is firing up 4.2 threes a game while hitting a whopping 60 percent from out there. To put that in perspective, Aldridge never shot more than 1.5 threes a game in any of his previous 13 seasons and was only taking 1.7 a game before Dec. 23. He’s still picking and popping for jumpers, except now he’s actually standing behind that spherical line painted on the court.
Aldridge won’t keep making 60 percent of his threes, but the religion he’s discovered to finally start taking them has a significant cascading effect on the rest of the Spurs. His willingness to stand beyond the line has opened the rest of the floor for San Antonio’s other retrograde star, DeMar DeRozan. As Pounding the Rock’s Bruno Passos noted, DeRozan is suddenly sizzling inside the arc, shooting 64 percent from the field since Dec. 23 despite taking only five total threes in eight games.
That hot shooting probably won’t last, but DeRozan’s game is significantly enhanced when he has all that space to make his moves. Say what you want about DeRozan, but he is still one of the league’s toughest covers when he doesn’t have to worry about opponents shrinking the floor on him. His downhill power becomes far more dangerous when Aldridge is pulling the opponents’ biggest help defender away from the basket.
Aldridge’s willingness to pop all the way to the three-point line also creates more mismatches for DeRozan to exploit. Because Aldridge can fire away from 27 feet away, opponents will often switch DeRozan-Aldridge pick-and-pops so their bigger defender doesn’t have to leave the basket area. That’s barbecue chicken for him, especially with players like Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, Trey Lyles, and Rudy Gay also spacing the floor.
Indeed, Aldridge’s floor spacing is contagious. Even less proficient shooters like DeJounte Murray have internalized the importance of only having one player standing inside the arc at a given time. If Aldridge is willing to step away to open the paint for DeRozan, so can anyone else. That’s given the Spurs’ other guards more room to drive themselves.
It may seem wild that a small sacrifice like Aldridge standing a few feet further from the hoop can do this much to change San Antonio’s fortunes, but it’s solved a fundamental problem with the Spurs’ roster. Up until this recent eight-game stretch, the Spurs’ two best players simply did not make the team better when they shared the court. The reason is simple: Aldridge and DeRozan kept bumping into each other because both wanted to go to work in the same space inside the arc. Spurs lineups with both out there played about even last year and were getting outscored significantly this season prior to Dec. 23. That’s necessitated some creative rotation choices to keep them apart as much as possible, which worked last year but not this year, for reasons I wrote about earlier in the season.
But all that changes now that Aldridge is standing somewhere else on the court. Now, the Spurs are a juggernaut when their two best players play together, outscoring opponents by 85 points in 229 minutes over the past eight games. Their ability to actually complement each other clarifies the rest of the rotation. Murray can now rediscover his game slowly, Walker can get chances to experiment with an open floor, and reserve big man Jakob Poeltl can be funneled into spacier lineups where his lack of offensive skill isn’t as glaring. Snap the main pieces into place, and the rest of the puzzle becomes much easier to solve.
The obvious question is why it took so long for Aldridge to make this transformation. (Assuming he’s made it for good, of course. Even now, he’s downplaying its significance publicly). As Elliott’s bemused comment at the top of the Celtics broadcast suggests, pleas for Aldridge and San Antonio to embrace the “modern NBA” and shoot more threes are nothing new. So why now? Why was this simple change so hard to make?
It’s hard to say, but I have a couple theories. One is a psychological concept I referenced last year when discussing Brook Lopez’s transformation from brutish post player to long-range floor spacer: the paradox of expertise. As I wrote then:
Psychologists refer to this as the Paradox of Expertise: the more immersed one is in a particular subject, the harder it is to spot new solutions that would seem clear to outsiders. This explains why industries get disrupted, and why expert forecasters are often no better at predicting the future in their respective fields than novices. The more one learns about a subject, the more they develop mental shortcuts that process new information through the prism of what they already know.
Gregg Popovich is arguably the most successful coach in NBA history. He’s also been famously grumpy about the proliferation of the three-point shot. Even now, he’s framing Aldridge’s transformation as one he had to make due to the rules and norms of today’s game. As brilliant as Popovich is — and kudos to him for at least recognizing his own bias against threes — he wouldn’t be human if the same core beliefs that helped him become so successful didn’t also sometimes make it difficult for him to adapt quickly.
I also suspect Aldridge’s natural disinclination to shoot threes in the past may have to do more with status than strategy. As Seth Partnow of The Athletic (and formerly the Milwaukee Bucks) has repeatedly noted, the “lost art” of the mid-range shot is really the lost art of the assisted mid-range shot. Those attempts have been converted into threes, but the mid-range shot that stars tend to take — off the dribble in a situation where they are the designed playmaker — is still alive and well.
It’s not that the mid-range itself is dead in today’s NBA. It’s more that it’s become the exclusive domain of a certain level of scorer. By contrast, anyone not in that special club helps their team more by standing behind the line, giving those lucky enough to have mid-range privileges more room to operate while getting an extra point for their trouble.
When framed that way, calls for Aldridge to embrace three-pointers can come off as asking him to sacrifice his place in the star club. That’s not always easy for a player of Aldridge’s pedigree to accept, even if it seems obvious that doing so helps his team improve. Sometimes, it takes time for that message to sink in. (For another case study, see Simmons, Ben).
Remember when Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle vehemently argued against TNT broadcasters’ calls for Kristaps Porzingis to post up more? Carlisle is obviously right that posting Porzingis up more makes the Mavericks worse, both because Porzingis isn’t good at it and because the Mavericks as a whole have benefited tremendously from Porzingis drawing his defender away from the basket. But he also understood that the undercurrent of those comments wasn’t about the efficacy of Porzingis post-ups, but rather that he belongs in the select club of stars that should be bestowed the right to take those shots in today’s game. Carlisle needed to fight back against the subtext of the post-up complaints to maintain the harmonic, Luka Doncic-centric environment that’s caused Dallas’ incredible offensive success.
The Mavericks’ opponent on that TNT night? That’s right: LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs. Six games later, the Spurs “officially joined the rest of the NBA,” to use Elliott’s words. The timing’s a hell of a coincidence.