The return of the Tim Duncan low post threat

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As age and tendonosis chipped away at Tim Duncan’s offensive ability, the San Antonio Spurs lost their primary way of freeing up perimeter shooters. Duncan was no longer a threat to score on the low block every time down the floor and thus, teams no longer felt the need to send double-teams at Duncan. This meant that those shooters who thrived off of the free space afforded by Duncan’s presence — guys like Brent Barry, Michael Finley and Robert Horry — suddenly had to shoot with more hands in their faces, or they didn’t get shots off at all.

Duncan’s fall from offensive dominance ushered in a new era of Spurs basketball, one which we see ourselves in now. Gregg Popovich and his staff limited the number of possessions the ball would go into the low block and to Duncan, and instead created a drive-and-kick offense designed at first around Manu Ginobili and now around Tony Parker. This offense created a similar effect as the one featuring post entry passes to Duncan, in that it got the defense off balance and opened up shooters on the 3-point arc.

Duncan still received some possessions in the post, mind you, but they were fewer and far between. These instances were limited more to moments when the game was getting a little hectic and the Spurs needed a dose of calm the hell down. Four seasons ago, post-up plays composed over 42% of Tim Duncan’s possessions, according to Synergy. So far this season, that number is down to just above 27%. For the entire Spurs team post possessions have gone down from 9.6% of all plays in 2009-10 to 7% this year.

But this season we’ve seen an improved Duncan. He’s moving better. He’s more explosive. Whatever treatment he’s getting on his knee from the Spurs medical staff is working wonders. Duncan is averaging about two points and one rebound more than he did last season, and his blocks per game are up to a number resembling that of his prime.

That effectiveness is extending to the low post as well. Last season, Duncan scored at a clip of .83 points per possessions in the post, good for 71st in the NBA according to Synergy Sports. Through the first 22 games of this season, Duncan has converted at a rate of .95 PPP, up to 15th in the league.

For the Spurs as a team those numbers are up. San Antonio scored .77 PPP in the post in last year’s lockout-shortened season, putting them 23rd out of 30 teams in the NBA. This year, the Spurs are scoring at a rate of .91 PPP, good for fifth in the NBA. As dynamic as the Spurs offense was last season, this year they’ve taken an area that could be considered a weakness and elevated it to top-5 levels.

With the variety of ways the Spurs offense gets players open and scores baskets, Tim Duncan’s improved low post play adds another dimension that San Antonio didn’t have last season. And for Duncan, it’s given him a role in the offense that is less dependent on other players as he had been. The Spurs have the luxury of being able to dump the ball down to Duncan in the post once again, just like the old days, and can fully expect for the greatest player in franchise history to come away with a positive result.