Tim Duncan and the case of the disappearing bank shot
Note: The Spurs are nearing the end of preseason and making roster deliberations, and so are we. Aaron McGuire is one of the new faces on our team. Many of you probably know him from his work at Gothic Ginobili, and if you don’t, you should. Aaron recently finished up at Duke -— now you either love him or hate him -— and works professionally as a statistician. Follow him on Twitter: @docrostov.
I have a hypothesis that I’ve been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. At its core, the idea is that the Spurs are dangerously close to a not-inconsequential falloff in our offensive efficiency, one that’s going to cascade when it hits and completely change the way the Spurs work on offense. It’s rather complicated, multifaceted, and worrisome. I’ll start from the top and work my way to the theory. But I’ll give you a hint. It all starts with Tim Duncan’s offense.
Let’s break down Duncan’s scoring patterns. Duncan played 31.2 MPG in 2010, and scored 17.9 PPG on 56.0% eFG%. Last year, he played 28.4, scoring 13.4 PPG on a lessened 53.6% eFG%. Not a big gap, right? Correct — in the broader sense, his scoring and efficiency last year took not but a small dive. Nothing particularly concerning — while he decreased his usage (usually leading to increased efficiency), the increase in efficiency from low utilization simply served to offset Duncan’s declining offensive repertoire with age. Which is essentially what Pop wanted, and is perfectly fine. But we’re not quite done yet. Because if you dig into the numbers, you begin to uncover a trend in Duncan’s game that gives me great apprehension as we enter this compressed season. A trend that, given time to stew, may serve to be the Spurs’ offensive achilles heel.
In 2011, Tim Duncan took 3 shots a game from the long midrange — IE, the 16-23 foot range. He managed to make 43% of those shots — a respectable sum, and roughly in line with his career averages. He had a terrible season from the “true” midrange, shooting 33% from that distance and setting a somewhat ignominious career low. He shot lower than his usual 50%+ mark from close-in, but set a 5-year high of 72% at the rim (good for top 30 in a league of 450 players) to save his overall percentages. This all seems rather reasonable on its face — essential conclusion looking at solely those numbers would be that Duncan’s post game and long shot is as deadly as ever, but he’s beginning to lose his touch at canning the close-range bank shot and the midrange. A decent hypothesis, and the numbers back it up. On the surface. Unfortunately for the Spurs, that’s not the only thing going on. And the other things that are going on are — frankly — not good signs for the Spurs’ future with Tim.While he kept his at-rim and long midrange numbers constant or excelling, he did it at the cost of shot creation and volume — on a percentage basis, Duncan only took 28% of his field goal attempts last season from at-the-rim situations. That’s fewer than ever before in his career.
On a percentage basis, Duncan also took more shots from the long midrange than ever before (26% of his shots were from 16 feet and out), and took more bankers than he’d taken in several years (26% of his possessions as compared to 23% last year). In taking more shots from the long midrange, he generally traded off the ability to call his own shot from the long midrange and create his own possession — Duncan was assisted on 85% of his long midrange shots, a vast increase over the last 5 years, where that figure has ranged from 63% to 72%. Which is essentially the story throughout his numbers — at every shot location, The percentage of shots Duncan gets assisted from teammates has taken an upward nudge the last few seasons, despite playing Duncan fewer minutes. Which combines to paint a relatively simple picture — the Spurs are painting over the decline of Duncan’s offensive game by ensuring he’s set up with better passes and that they run plays to get him open, something they never really needed to do during Duncan’s Hall of Fame career up til now. Despite this, he still experienced some serious dropoff in several shot categories, and it appears Pop recognizes the decline and is putting effort into changing his role in the offense without drastically altering the perception of how he’s used. Because perception, in this case, is exactly where the Spurs stand to lose the most.
There’s a classic quote in War and Peace attributed to the Russian Commander Mikhail Kutuzov. He lies on the field of battle, his cheek grazed by a stray bullet and bleeding. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky — this his first battle — rushes to the Commander, trying to help him with his wound. “Are you wounded?” he asks, frightened at the mortality of his commander.
“The wound is not here, but there.”
He ignores his own wound and points to the field of battle; Andrei turns to see soldiers running frantic, confused and rudderless.
In a roundabout way, that’s similar to where we stand now. In a vacuum the Spurs aren’t harmed that much by the cut to Duncan’s efficiency. It’s a marginal effect at best. Duncan’s offense is always a fantastic option to have, but him falling off a cliff wouldn’t suddenly make Tony a bad post player, or sap Bonner of his three point ability, or forcibly wrest from Manu his euro-step. Were that the only effect at play, this wouldn’t be nearly as concerning. The true wound to the team is a problem endemic not to Duncan’s issues but more representative of the broader strategical problems that lie in Duncan’s slow deterioration. It’s the problem of spacing, marginal loss, and — above all — respect.
A strange way to put it, but it fits. Without Duncan’s ability to create his own shot, defenses treat him differently. This wasn’t much of a factor in the beginning of last year as teams played him essentially exactly as they did earlier in his career, but as the year drew to a close and Duncan began to battle minor injuries teams began to figure the 2011 Spurs out. The deterioration of the Spurs offense culminated in the 2011 playoffs versus the Grizzlies — the Grizz bottled up Duncan and ensured that he wouldn’t get the steady stream of perfect passes and easy setups in the midrange that Pop, Tony, and Manu had spent the whole season getting him. The Grizz ran the tapes, took notes, and decided they could live with Duncan getting his shots if they merely bodied him up and made sure that none of the passes would be quite on target. They would make the trade of leaving Duncan slightly open, but in a position where he’d need to make his own shot because a setup man was impossible. Looking on StatCube at his shot location graphs from the playoffs, you see the unfortunate results. While Duncan was still extraordinarily efficient at the rim (shooting 64% at the rim, less than in the regular season but quite a bit more than you’d think if you’re simply reading the postmortems on the series), Duncan’s outside and midrange shooting absolutely fell apart. He shot an anemic 20% from the painted area outside of at-rim shots, and a poor 39% on true midrange shots (as compared to around 45% overall if you examine his regular season numbers).
Which leads you to the essential conclusion — whatever Duncan is doing in the painted area, it isn’t working. And what does Duncan do in the painted area? Close range bank shots, if you’ve been watching his career. The numbers tug at the finding that Spurs fans uncomfortably realized as the season went on — Tim Duncan’s banker is becoming less and less valuable as an offensive weapon. While his post game is still extremely potent and he can still can a midrange shot if you set him up properly, Duncan’s bank shot has essentially gone AWOL. Which has a number of cascading effects on the Spurs offense. It ruins virtually every set the Spurs used to run where Duncan would challenge the defense by faking a bank shot and passing to the open man or handing off to a driving Manu or Tony when the double came — when teams no longer respect his bank shot, Duncan isn’t going to attract doubles anymore. And not only that, his single defenders are going to begin to challenge him to make the shot, and give him the room to do it. He’ll make them look silly, occasionally. But more often than not they’ll have made the right move, and cut off the better play by allowing Duncan to shoot a shot he can’t consistently make anymore. And that’s where respect come into play. If Duncan isn’t attracting doubles, suddenly, there’s that much less space for Manu to slash. There’s that much less space for our three point shooters to get their feet set. Tony can’t drive as comfortably. There’s a whole host of problems that pop up once teams realize they no longer have to consider the Duncan bank shot a significant threat.
And in this case? Perception is everything. Pop, Duncan, and the Spurs as a whole have tried their hardest to keep Duncan’s shot distribution even with his career averages in such a way that dulls the visual impact of his decline — most teams simply notice that he makes it, not that he’s set up with a far more open shot than he used to be. For much of the Spurs early season hot streak, teams continued to double Duncan’s bank shot — a sensible option, given that as early as November of 2010 Duncan was still producing MVP-quality statistics. Which actually is an aside worth mentioning — Duncan was averaging semi-amazing 21-11 type numbers in an absurd 31 minutes per game as recently as the opening months of the 2010 season. Going into this season, it wasn’t a given that his falloff at the end of 2010 was an age-related thing. So it made perfect sense for teams to continue treating him like the historical great he is. But now? The Spurs enter next season having been defeated by a team that dared to let Duncan shoot.
I’d like to think Pop will come up with a strategically brilliant way to get our spacing back without requiring Duncan’s customary doubles. And I’m sure he’ll do his best. But it’s worth understanding — when we experience our inevitable offensive falloff — that the loss of efficiency inherent in an aging star isn’t the only factor that depresses a team’s offense. The killer isn’t the star losing his points. The killer is all the little things that get harder when the star loses his respect. The few inches less Tony has to drive in. The few less seconds Duncan has to complete the pass. The one three point shooter who won’t be open because his man will stay home.
That’s what kills the team. That’s — indeed — exactly where the wound is.