The San Antonio Spurs will rely on outside shooting from players like Bryn Forbes to spread the floor, but does shooting more threes necessarily equate to playoff success?
The year is 1999 and the San Antonio Spurs just won their first of five NBA Championships for the Alamo City. They secured a No. 1 seed in the while shooting an average of 10.4 threes per game during the regular season, which is good for just 25th in the NBA. Twenty years later, two individual players – James Harden and Stephen Curry – average more three-point attempts than the entire original championship squad at 13.3 and 11.7 attempts per game, respectively.
The direction of the NBA has evolved dramatically over the years and perhaps the biggest change over that time has been the usage of the outside shot. What started as a specialized skill has now become a primary weapon among guards and centers alike.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has made his negative opinion regarding the league’s reliance on the three-point shot well-known on more than one occasion. The evidence supports this: since 1999, the Spurs have never finished higher than seventh in the league in three-pointers attempted per season. In fact, for the past four seasons, San Antonio has finished no higher than 25th in the league and was dead last in 2018-19.
The fact that the silver and black have won five titles despite never finishing in the top five in three-point attempts shows that Popovich is more than capable of leading them to a title his preferred way; however, these titles all came with the luxury of multiple Hall of Famers on the roster.
The question that arises then is: With their current roster, can San Antonio continue to consistently reach the playoffs and potentially go further despite their reluctance to shoot often from the outside? To determine if shooting more threes is critical to success, let’s look at some recent cases:
The Toronto Raptors proved last year that with enough star power and an effective supporting cast, you don’t necessarily need an abundance of Hall of Famers or heavy reliance on three-point shooting to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Toronto put up 33.8 shots from the outside per game last season, which had them at just 11th in the league. The year before that, the eventual champion Golden State Warriors finished 16th in the league in the same statistic, averaging 28.7 attempts per game.
At the other end of the spectrum, let’s take a quick look at a team that has made the three-point shot their main weapon for years: The Houston Rockets. While Gregg Popovich is the biggest dissenter of the outside shot, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is its biggest fan.
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Over his 15-year coaching career, D’Antonio-led teams have finished first or second in three-point field goals attempted over a regular season a remarkable ten times, with seven of those being first-place finishes. Houston certainly has embraced their coach’s dedication to the longball, as they have finished atop the league in that category for the past three seasons, averaging a staggering 45.4 attempts to San Antonio’s 25.3 last season. Yet, as of today, D’Antoni has been unable to reach the NBA Finals in his coaching career.
While every situation and team is different, it’s hard to look at data such as this and walk away thinking shooting more 3-pointers is absolutely necessary for success. Along the same lines, a lack of attempts from deep does not prevent a team from having success throughout the regular season and playoffs.
When it comes to the Spurs, a healthy balance of efficient three-point shooting, no matter how infrequent, combined with strong defense, have been the keys to success for Gregg Popovich’s squad for over 20 years. San Antonio must do both of these well to have a shot at a record-breaking 23 straight playoff appearances.
If there’s one thing the world has learned by now, it’s that Popovich isn’t a big fan of change. With the return of NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection Dejounte Murray, the addition of DeMarre Carroll, the rapid improvement of Derrick White, and a 15-time All-Defensive Team selection in Tim Duncan now on the bench, he might not have to change just yet.