In their first season with LaMarcus Aldridge the Spurs churned out a 67-win regular season. They were quietly breaking records and having an historic season in the midst of what the Golden State Warriors were accomplishing. The Spurs were seemingly the only team built to truly challenge the defending champs in the conference, but failed to reach the conference finals to earn their chance at a best-of-seven.
The Warriors emerged as the more dynamic, entertaining little cousin of the Spurs in 2014-15. Like the rest of the league, and now without the help of a retired Tim Duncan, the Spurs are having to build themselves to beat the Warriors.
While the Warriors have become frighteningly more talented, they’ve taken a hit in the area which was already a weakness: size. Even though their small-ball has become a staple of their success, the times when the Warriors were humanized last postseason — when the Thunder went up 3-1 in the conference finals and when the Cavs came back from down 3-1 in the Finals — they were concertedly tested inside.
Kill ’em with twos
One of the things the Spurs inherited by adding LaMarcus Aldridge was becoming more of a two-point shooting team. Aldridge took over 750 mid-range shots in his last season with Portland. That’s where he does his damage.
San Antonio was shooting threes at a 25 percent frequency in 2013-14 and 27 percent in 2014-15, steadily adapting to the trend, but that frequency dropped to 22 percent with Aldridge last season. Their two-point shooting frequency dropped from 74 percent to 73 percent from 2014 to 2015, but this past season it was up to 77.7 percent.
To compare, the Warriors’ three-point shooting frequency was 36 percent last season. Their two-point shooting frequency was 64 percent, via NBA.com/stats.
Stylistically, instead of trying to match up to the Warriors’ style, the Spurs have the means to counter with contrasting strengths.
The Spurs finished second in the league in post-up possessions last season (14.3 percent frequency) where the Warriors finished 23rd at 6.1 percent frequency.
Not only can the Spurs look to make the Warriors play big, they can really hurt them with inside scoring and playmaking. The combined shooting and low-post presences of Aldridge and newcomer Pau Gasol can be even more potent than Aldridge paired with Duncan on his last legs. The Spurs now have high-level scoring and passing in their front court, which includes Kawhi Leonard, who took his three-point shooting to a new level last season but continues to covet his ability to operate in the mid-post area.
As opposed to the approach of teams like the Thunder and Cavaliers last season, imposing strength and physicality on the Warriors inside and on the perimeter, the Spurs have what it takes to counter with the sheer skill and savvy of their size. Bigs like Tristan Thompson and Steven Adams hurt you physically and on the offensive glass, whereas Aldridge and Gasol can attack the Warriors on the block and as pressure release shooters in the pick-and-pop game. The Spurs, should Gregg Popovich choose to stay with mostly two-big sets, can look to wear down Warriors’ forwards by making them have to defend true scoring options inside.
It’s fair to question if these counters will be enough. If the Warriors hit their stride offensively, the Spurs will have a tough time containing them. Dictating pace to their post-emphasized liking will be a challenge. Exchanging lots of twos for lots of threes won’t always work out if enough threes are made on the other side. I’m not saying the Spurs’ potential counterpoints are guaranteed to work, only that they have these advantages to stand on.
Unlike the Cavaliers, the Spurs can’t be successful against the Warriors going talent versus talent, blow-for-blow. They might be the only team that can hope to “out-basketball” the Warriors in a chess match of execution and team basketball. In terms of countering the two-time reigning conference champs, the Spurs are still built to do so.