Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Small Market Series pt. 3 - The San Antonio Spurs' Motion Offense

Background Info

Up until this point most offensive systems we've looked at can be categorized into a narrow subset of the motion offense. The San Antonio Spurs' offense, however, is a combination of designed plays and read-and-react plays. While it's true that nearly every team runs a combination of designed and read-and-react plays, the Spurs run much more designed plays than most teams. For this reason I'll refer to their offense under the more general term "motion offense" - a very broad term but as we go through their offense I think it will become apparent why I decided to do so.

Also, we're going to discuss a topic that has only been mentioned briefly in the past - execution. Execution is the ability of a team to run their plays effectively. An effective play maximizes the potential of its primary scoring option while also providing plenty of auxiliary options if the primary option isn't available.

Let's take a look.

Motion Offense

As I mentioned earlier, the Spurs' offense varies a great deal. Their motion offense generally runs out of the 4-out-1-in low set, pictured below.
They'll also put the inside man in the high set on occasion to better facilitate hand offs to cutters or give Duncan a high post scoring opportunity.
In this clip we see the 4-out-1-in low set with Blair as the inside man. Cory Joseph opts away from passing to Blair and the ball is swung to the weak side creating a pick and roll for Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter.

Once again we see Blair set up an early 4-out-1-in low set but his positioning is too high so the offense transitions to a low double screen for Leonard while Jefferson and Duncan play the pinch post.

While the Spurs run a lot of this in their offense, we've covered a great deal of this type of offense and I don't believe it represents what is truly unique about the Spurs. A review of the 4-out-1-in motion offenses we've covered so far can be found in our discussion of the TimberwolvesKnicksLakers, and Mavericks.

The trademark of the Spurs is the arsenal of set plays they run and their careful attention to execution.

A Well Oiled Machine

The Spurs are sometimes criticized for running a ho-hum offense that rarely produces highlight-worthy plays. If play execution caused as much excitement as spectacular dunks for the casual fan, highlight reels would be overtaken by the Spurs.

Let's take a look at an example with a Leonard post play.

This particular game featured the Timberwolves' Luke Ridnour covering Kawhi Leonard. The commentators in the game mentioned Leonard having a 5 inch advantage over Ridnour and the Spurs were more than happy to try to take advantage of that. The clip that follows was the first offensive play of the game for the Spurs.

The play begins to look like a 4-out-1-in with Duncan lagging behind along the perimeter. He then quickly moves for a down screen for Leonard. Leonard then sets a ball screen for Parker.

Already we have a few options. The first option was Duncan staying along the perimeter if Blair found good inside positioning. The quick hitter (fist play) would have been:
After the fist play option a screen-the-screener creates a pick and roll opportunity.
Duncan reads the play and notices Parker has opted out of the pick and roll by passing to the wing. This cues Duncan to cross screen for Leonard, creating a low double screen for Leonard. If Ridnour hadn't fronted Leonard, the play would have given Leonard a post up opportunity.
Blair's move to the high post opens up an additional option, one that is taken in this play. Since Ridnour fronted the post, Blair flashes to the ball to create a better passing angle to Leonard. Notice also that Duncan is open for a mid-range shot if Pekovic is too aggressive closing in on Leonard.

The full play animated is as follows:
This play created several options and it was designed to make the defense pick its poison.

The next play the Spurs ran demonstrates their commitment to execution.

Once again we see Leonard pop up for the ball screen followed by a curl around the low double screen. This time Duncan sets the screen lower which allows Leonard to move between the screens and prevent Ridnour from fronting him. While he doesn't make the basket, it does give him a good isolation at the mid-post. On the surface it would seem the first play was the better play but Leonard did make the proper adjustment. The first play is more likely to result in turnovers because of the additional pass necessary to give Leonard a scoring opportunity. The offense should always look for the path of least resistance for its scoring opportunities and the second play is notable for the adjustment to improve in that area.

Good execution not only recognizes mismatches when playing the defense straight up but also can create mismatches. Let's watch the next play to see how the Spurs are able to do this.

Here Parker notices the fast break isn't there so he pulls back. Blair sets a good screen on Rubio causing Pekovic to switch and a mismatch is created. The first possible way to take advantage of the mismatch is for Parker to use his speed advantage against Pekovic. The space necessary isn't available for that option so Parker passes down to Blair. While the defense is focused on the mismatch Blair finds Jefferson in the corner for an open shot.

Let's look at another play the Spurs run.

In this play we have a double down screen, the first down screen is by Splitter to free up Green and the second is by Green to free up Splitter. Depending on how the defense reacts to this play it could give both Splitter and Green an opportunity to score. Also, notice that when Parker drives into the paint how discipline the other players are to give him the spacing and passing options he needs. Blair is available for the short corner shot and Jefferson and Green are at the wings to serve as defensive balance and 3pt shooting options.

Their focus on keeping their options available and execution can even be seen in their isolation plays. Often times we see teams remain stagnant on isolation plays which puts the isolation player at much greater pressure to put up a shot because a pass can easily become a turnover.

The offense rotates using Duncan as a pivot point on the weak side and Duncan can pop out to set a screen when the ball is moved. The constant motion discourages double teaming Blair and makes the weak side players more available to accept a pass. Once the pass is made, a ball screen is immediately available.
In this next play again we see the discipline the Spurs have in their plays.

This is a very common play, it's a 1-4 low with a high ball screen. Often times teams are too quick to collapse into the paint anticipating a rebound opportunity which leaves the ballhandler trapped into shooting the ball or a dangerous pass. Here we see Blair keeping some distance as a trailing pass option and since nobody crowded the paint Duncan was open to accept the pass from Blair.


Teams sometimes struggle with the right balance of designed plays and letting its players react to what the defense gives them and Popovich has done a good job finding the right combination for his teams. By stressing execution his players can gain a better understanding of why plays work which will help them on both the designed plays and the read-and-react plays.

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