Close-Up: How the Warriors and Spurs Get Their Short-Range Points

Originally written Mar. 31, 2016

It’s no secret that one of the most important components of a successful team is scoring from close range. Even in a league that finds itself increasingly enchanted with the long ball, strong big men, guards, and wings who know how to create shooting space inside 10 feet are absolutely essential, and are premium assets.

 

With respect to Cleveland and Toronto, the best two teams in the league are the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. Even though they have yet to play each other at full strength (and may not until the playoffs), both of their two games thus far in the season have produced surprising results. In the first, a Father Time Tim Duncan-less Spurs team was blown off the court 120-90. Stephen Curry put the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, on a spin cycle and shelled San Antonio for 37 points. More recently, Golden State dropped a game 87-79 in San Antonio, where they haven’t won since Latrell Sprewell was known more for his scoring than for trying to choke out his coach (twice). They were missing Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, and Festus Ezeli for that matchup. The Spurs defense throttled the best offense in the league, forcing Curry into one of his worst games ever.

There are plenty of differences between these teams, both material and imagined. Old vs. new, fast vs. slow, a winning tradition vs. a (formerly) losing legacy. One that persists is that San Antonio is a paint-oriented team, whereas the Warriors are a jump shooting team–thanks, Sir Charles. In reality, they take almost exactly the same amount of shots in the paint every game. Watching them, though, it’s obvious that that point doesn’t quite pass the eye test because the teams look so different playing. That’s because asking which team works in close-range is the wrong question. The right question is: how do the top two teams in the league get their close range points?

 

Before moving forward, quick points: here, I’ve defined a “close range shot” as an attempt from 0-9ft, and made a couple of assumptions that while imperfect, shouldn’t be far off, like that most transition attempts will be in that range, as well shots taking by the roll man in an offensive possession. All stats were pulled from stats.nba.com on 3/25/2016 (this late in the season, there’s not likely to be significant shifts in per-game numbers anyway).

 

The Spurs and the Warriors take pretty much the same amount of shots from 0-9 per game, and have generated just about the same number of touches in the paint  per game (TPG) over the season–37.5SPG and 16.9 versus 36.3 and 17.0, respectively. There are five types of plays I looked at that tend to happen inside that range offensively, checking the Spurs’ and the Warriors’ frequency and scoring efficiency for each: offensive post-ups, cuts, pick and rolls where the roll man is the handler, putbacks, and transition plays.

 

Play Frequency and Scoring Efficiency, GSW and SAS

GSW/SAS Frequency Points Per Possession Score Frequency Freq. Rank
Post-Up 6.1/14.2 .77/1.00 40.0/50.2 22/2
Cut 10.9/7.5 63.2/62.5 2/18
Off-Roll Man 4.9/7.7 46.7/47.3 27/10
Putback 4.9/4.6 .91/1.3 46.4/66.0 8/7
Transition 17.5/10.9 1.16/1.07 52.8/50.3 4/26

 

There are more than a few things that come out of these numbers that are interesting. For one, both teams get putback attempts on about 5% of offensive plays, ranking them at 8th (GSW) and 7th (SAS). However, there’s a huge gap in scoring efficiency. Golden State scores on less than half of putback attempts for .91 points per possession, while San Antonio converts two-thirds of theirs, good for 1.3 PPP. Looking at their offensive talent, it’s not particularly surprising. Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge are worlds ahead of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli in terms of touch around the rim. Something else to note is that while San Antonio runs plays for the offensive roll man more often and likewise for cuts with Golden State, their effectiveness in both situations is a wash.

 

What we’ll really want to look at here is the huge differences in two categories, post-ups and transition play.

 

The post-up differences are interesting. Both teams produce a similar number of touches in the post every game: 22.1 for the Spurs (1st in the NBA) and 20.4 for the Warriors (good for 3rd in the league). The former just runs plays out of those touches far more often. San Antonio runs offensive post plays just over 14% of possessions, converting on just over 50% of them versus just 6.1% frequency and 40.0% for Golden State (1.00 vs. .91 PPP). The difference in frequency against touches is probably a product of Golden State’s bevy of shooters, resulting in quick passes to the perimeter out of the post more often. Not only is San Antonio more post-oriented, but they’re definitely more effective with it too. Again, not that surprising if you’re familiar with the build of their roster.

 

Where the Dubs win big here is in transition. A whopping 17.5% of their offensive possessions occur in transition, versus just 10.9% for the Spurs. They have similar scoring frequency at a hair over 50%, but the much higher occurrence for the Warriors gives them 1.16 PPP against 1.07 PPP. Granted, this could be a bit stilted by their penchant for fast-break threes, but most of these possessions will still end within 10 feet of the basket. Again, given the personnel, not terribly surprising. The Warriors lead the league in pace, and everyone knows they like to run.

 

This points to an interesting note from the most recent game, a defensive grinder that the Spurs won. Both teams defend well, with historic point differentials, but the Spurs are better. These teams define the “unstoppable force, immovable object” adage. If you want to know where those points the Spurs won by came from, a glance at defensive metrics gives us a look: their best offensive weapon up close is the post, and the Warriors are a pedestrian post-defense team, allowing a bottom-five amount of PPG in the post. The Spurs, by contrast, are a top-three transition defensive team–one of the Warriors’ biggest offensive weapons.

What does all of this mean? Mostly, it’s just numbers backing up some things that the eye test would allow us to guess anyway. Both teams are effective inside scorers, but they get those points in very different ways. It also tells us that maybe the way to beat the Warriors, beyond limiting the perimeter attack and transition, is to attack them in the post. Boasting some of the best talent in the league, there’s no question these titans will play great games every time. But under a microscope, the suspicion has serious material evidence: there’s no team as perfectly suited to defang Golden State as the Spurs. Come playoffs, maybe it’ll be enough. When the Warriors freight train comes to town, only time will tell if the Spurs end up more like Hancock or the kid from Stand By Me.

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