This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently shut its doors.
While the San Antonio Spurs climb out of the huddled Western Conference mess and prove themselves a viable bunch, they remind us of their overall talent:
First-ballot Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich; a world-class ownership group and front office; two All-NBA players in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge; solid, dependable veterans like Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Dante Cunningham and the returning Pau Gasol.
Great teams have players who exceed at their role. Beyond their star power, the Spurs have always gotten auxiliary players to not just buy into a supporting spot, but thrive within it.
Young guard Bryn Forbes is fourth on the Spurs in scoring after entering the season with low external expectations. Derrick White has been a terrifying perimeter defender and a strong slasher.
But no player embodies playing their role more than Davis Bertans.
Per Synergy Sports, Bertans is in the 99th percentile of offensive efficiency, averaging 1.25 points per possession on all possessions that end with him. No NBA player has a higher efficiency in the half-court. He's shooting 47 percent from deep, has a two-to-one assist to turnover ratio and always finds himself in the right spots.
The entire basketball world has evolved over the last decade. Popovich has sought to adapt in some ways more than others. While he resists launching three-pointers all night, he has conceded the down-sizing of lineups to feature only one true big man. Gasol and Jakob Poeltl are relegated to bench duty while Aldridge mans the 5-spot.
Popovich has long coveted size and length on the defensive end, prioritizing rebounding and interior defense. Off the bench, Bertans gives the best of both worlds: a long forward that pitches in on the glass, but is also a unique offensive threat to punish opposing 4's via his 47 percent from deep.
The Spurs thrive by creating off-ball movement, getting all eyes on their focal offensive points, then running a wrinkle for secondary scorers. Now it's Bertans's turn.
For the better part of two decades, Popovich has his team running a set known as Motion Weak. Predicated around playing with two bigs, the action sees a full perimeter reversal, at least four players touching the ball and a nice cross-screen to down-screen combination near the middle of the floor. The action has long looked something like this:
By going smaller, the Spurs put different players down in the post to come off the cross screens—choosing based on whom they believe to have the best interior one-on-one matchup. Often this is Rudy Gay, as defenses choose to put a wing defender on him to match his frequent cutting.
Teams have scouted, seen, and studied this play for so long that defending it becomes habitual. Sleepwalking defenders anticipate the next action and cheat the play. Some teams will instruct their players to cheat in a certain way.
So the Spurs run a nifty counter to Motion Weak for Bertans.
By turning the down screen into a double down screen, the Spurs mess with the regularity of the play and catch the Chicago Bulls off guard:
Disregard the X's and O's brilliance of the tweak for a moment. We have to take a step back and realize: this is a 6'10" big running off this complex screening action. Poor Bobby Portis is trying to chase him around the court. Bertans is 50 percent shooting off screening actions for the season, registering an absurd 75 percent effective field goal percentage and 1.545 points per possession.
In other words, he's a walking bucket.
The Spurs do the same type of wrinkle with their common Hawk set, a play designed to garner a mismatched post-up. It's an action numerous teams around the league have run and know well (which starts at the 1:07 mark):
Instead of running the double screen with Bertans and Poeltl setting ones for Belinelli, the action turns into a single down screen for Bertans. Even the photogenic-minded and instinctual LeBron James cannot sniff this one out:
An effective role player is someone that does not need plays run for him to be successful.
The Spurs run their actions and plays for their main scorers, then rely on Bertans to space the floor, hit open kickouts and avoid turnovers. 113 of his 194 attempts have been catch-and-shoot this season, with a staggering 73 percent of his attempts coming from deep. Almost everything he has comes from plays created by others—just how the Spurs want it to be.
San Antonio routinely plays a lineup featuring DeRozan and four subs. When DeMar, Bertans, Patty Mills, Jakob Poeltl and Marco Belinelli share the floor, the team has been plus-six with an effective field goal percentage above 58, according to Cleaning the Glass. They are 10.4 points per 100 possessions better when Bertans is on the floor—not surprising for a guy shooting as well as he's been.
Thus, it's time to pump the brakes on the narrative about the Spurs offense being clunky and mid-range heavy.
They are fourth in points per 100 possessions, and humming at the highest rate in the metric as far back as the Cleaning the Glass data goes. No, the Spurs do not shoot as many threes as the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks or most teams. But if the emphasis is on quality looks—and you define quality as makeability for their best scorers—there is little doubt they are thriving.
Five Spurs that take at least one trey a game are above 39 percent from deep. The shot selection is certainly not their issue, nor is the plays they run.
As long as they get exceptional production and ball security from their role players, this is a group that can once again push for a Western Conference crown.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).