I recently noted that the Spurs inconsistent board work is an issue this season. In this post, I want to look at another half-curious/half-disturbing trend: the frequency at which Tim Duncan gets to the foul line, which I suspect is related to his rebound totals. He's rebounding roughly one less shot per game this season, down to 10.3 per contest. How do these numbers relate?
As a team, the Spurs do not have an overwhelming interior presence---odd to say, I know, with Tim Duncan and all. If you've watched any recent telecast, you've heard Sean Elliott say that his former team is at the bottom of the league in free throw attempts per game. As I write, they are ranked last in free throw attempts per game. At the same time, they are ranked 26th in team rebounding, with a differential of -0.7.
In general, Tim Duncan doth protest too much. But he and Tony Parker are not getting any star treatment. Setting aside my homer hat, Tony Parker is fouled nearly every time he's in the open court. Yet, there have been numerous times this season when refs simply didn't blow their whistle. So in one sense the Spurs are not getting calls. But this is a marginal and, admittedly, a controverted issue. This is not the peg upon which to hang your hat. The bigger issue is that the Spurs don't give the refs much opportunity to blow their whistles. Let me explain.
The Spurs are only fouled on 9% of their possessions, which, as I said, is last in the league. This is an internal problem. When you squeeze this particular lemon, you can make some pretty tart lemonade. The Spurs are last in the league in dunks, which is somewhat misleading because Parker and Duncan finish many shots with layups or flip ins. Nevertheless, the statisticians tell us they've only thrown down 27 dunks this season. The next closest team, Indiana, has dunked the ball 61 times. Following right on the heels of this, the Spurs are second to last on And-1s. You may think this is meaningless, but Boston, LA, Cleveland, and Orlando--the league's elite--are all clustered in the top third of these categories. The Spurs score a meager 25.2 points on inside shots, which is, again, last in the league.
The Spurs are settling for too many jumpers, or, as is more likely the case, are going to too many screen and roll sets that result in a mid-range jumper. They score 31.7 ppg from mid-range. They're the leagues 4th most efficient team in this regard, shooting .421 on their 2 pt jump shots. If you watch the games, you know this means Parker's 19 foot jumper at the wing (whenever his defender goes underneath the screen), Finley going left for a curl and catch off stagger screens, and Duncan knocking down a combination of high post pick and pops and innumerable impossibly-angled bank shots. The Spurs have tremendous mid-range personnel.
Their anemic interior scoring numbers are bolstered by a love affair with the three point stripe. The Spurs are near the top of the league from deep, scoring 25.2 per game. Only the Knicks and Magic are decidedly better in this respect. Led by the hot handed Matt Bonner, Roger Mason Jr. and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are the most accurate 3 point shooting team in the league, connecting on .406 of their attempts. Over 25% of their shots come on 3 pt attempts, a percentage that groups them together with another 15 or so teams, including Cleveland, Portland, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix and Denver. This may come as a surprise to some, but these numbers are the mark of a good team.
Last season, 60% of Tim Duncan's field goal attempts came at the hoop. In the 34 games of his current campaign, Duncan's inside shot attempts are down 8%. During the 07/8 regular season, 15% (177/1178) of Tim Duncan's shots came from the area on the left wing where he shoots his bank shot or from the left elbow extended, his favorite pick and pop zone. This season he's shooting 3% more from these areas, with percentages in the 50s, sharp improvements from last season. In addition to this, he's on pace to exceed his 07/8 shot attempts from the left and right baseline and corner (mid-range, of course), and to do so prior to the All-Star break. He's already exceeded his shot totals from the right elbow extended--his totals for last season were from 78 games, he's only played 34 this season. In terms of total shot attempts from that area of the court, he's on pace to bury last season's numbers. In short, Tim Duncan is shooting much more often, and more effectively, from mid-range this season. Why does this matter to this discussion? These are not shot attempts that will win many foul calls or afford Duncan great position to corral rebounds.
During his Spurs game calls, Sean Elliott has mentioned this as a deliberate strategy of Gregg Popovich. Before the season began, it was decided that the coaching staff would do more to preserve Duncan's body for the postseason, more than the careful management of his minutes as in the past. Duncan was asked to pitch a tent at his favorite mid-range spots, and he's so far he's obliged, even with injuries to the frontline. We know that Bonner, Tolliver, Thomas, and, to a lesser extent, Oberto are all bigs who score on set shots away from the hoop. If one adds Tim Duncan into that class--it bears repeating, he's still on the block for over 50% of his shot attempts, so this is loose inclusion--the Spurs are bereft of an interior scoring from their bigs. There is no doubt that this translates into a lack of foul calls, dunks and And-1s.
There is, however, a curious footnote to all this. L.J. Ellis has suggested that Tim Duncan's free throw attempts have been in decline since the Joey Crawford incident. Duncan's free throw attempts per game dropped from 7.1 to 5.9 between 06/7 and 07/8. 15% is a sharp reduction in free throw attempts, especially considering that Duncan attempted more shots per game in '07 (15.1 vs. 14.1) with roughly the same amount of attempts coming from around the hoop (711 vs. 752). At first glance, those are troubling number. Ellis, however, is quick to note that this probably coincidental, and I tend to agree.
These numbers could suggest bitterness among the zebra sect. But there is evidence in the referees favor. In terms of FTAs, Duncan's numbers are up 5% percent from last season. He's averaging 6.5 free throws per contest, despite the fact that he shooting much more often from mid-range. The distrust of Spurs fans for Joey Crawford was forever cemented after the Derek Fischer no-call foul on Brent Barry as time expired in Game 4 of last season's WCF. It's likely an odd arrangement of the moon and stars--a statistical outlier. Nevertheless, San Antonio has its own class of truthers who are certain to provide David Stern with the transparency he so loves.
Popovich Only Coaches for the Postseason
Duncan is shooting more from mid-range, Bowen's minutes are down, the Spurs are providing rookies with valuable minutes, etc... I expect that next season Popovich will keep himself fresh by letting Mike Budenholzer coach the first 40 games. I jest, but these trends point to the fact that not only do the Spurs peak late, they won't even play certain cards until March. Popovich is disciplined that way. Between now and March, his team will get by. (They do have the best record in the league since December 4th, and, honestly, they're not playing terrific basketball right now. Really, you can check if you'd like.) These are the sort of things that make John Hollinger's little machine steam. Nevertheless, this fan worries. Adding another rebounder wouldn't hurt and getting more fanfare from the referees would be an added bonus. In fact, I worry that unless they correct these problems they'll finish second to the Lakers yet again this season. I'm not sure what numbers he's staring at, but Pop seems to agree. Last night he said, "We're just not in the same league with the Lakers right now."