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Aldridge, Gasol can improve Spurs by stepping out to 3-point line

AP Photo/Darren Abate
AP Photo/Darren Abate

The NBA’s big men are moving farther and farther from the hoop on offense this season. The league as a whole is trending that way, but it’s the tallest players’ roles that seem to be changing the most.

This season, 28 power forwards and centers are taking at least three three-point attempts per game. That’s 10 more than the 18 who attempted that many long-distance shots last season.

The San Antonio Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol have mostly resisted that trend. The two starting bigs in San Antonio are taking just 1.1 three-pointers per game apiece, despite having more feathery outside shooting strokes than most of the other 4s and 5s in the NBA.

Should Aldridge and Gasol increase their volume from behind the arc? I believe they should, for a few reasons.

Threes have proven to be more efficient shots for both players

A three-point basket is worth 50 percent more than a two-point basket. So if a player is going to take significantly more long two-pointers than three-pointers, he should be hitting said two-pointers at a percentage that is 50 percent better than his three-point success rate.

For both Gasol and Aldridge, their effective field-goal percentage numbers have shown that not to be the case this season. They’ve both been more successful when bombing away from behind the arc than from 15 feet to the three-point line, but they continue to chuck mid-range jumpers in much higher volume.

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If you take issue with the small sample size on those three-point attempts, below are both of their numbers since the beginning of the 2014-15 season (including playoffs). With at least 117 attempts from downtown for each player since then, the numbers have had enough time to stabilize.

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The numbers for Aldridge are especially surprising. He has the reputation of being a great mid-range shooter, but he’s actually pretty overrated there. (To be fair, though, he’s also underrated as a low-post scorer). If he continues to shoot at a 42.5-percent clip from mid-range, he would only need to shoot 28.4 percent from downtown to make those longer shots provide a worthwhile payoff for the Spurs.

Gasol would need to attain a mere 31.8 percent success rate from three-point range. Seems doable for both guys in higher volume, right? Especially since they’ve presumably spent much more time thus far practicing their mid-range shooting than their three-point strokes.

The Spurs could use some help defending in transition

One of San Antonio’s key strategies throughout the past several seasons has been to focus on transition defense instead of aggressively chasing offensive rebounds. The team usually sends just one or two players to pound the glass while the rest of the lineup sprints back to play defense. Not surprisingly, the Spurs have ranked in the lower half of the league in offensive rebound percentage ever since the 2009-10 season.

You would think that the strategy would actually, you know, benefit their transition defense. However, the Spurs rank 20th in fast-break points allowed per 100 possessions this season. You can pin a lot of the blame on Aldridge and Gasol, who are plodders and often get left in the dust in transition because they’re either near the hoop or in the mid-range area and don’t have the speed to get back in the play.

Assuming most of Aldridge’s and Gasol’s hypothetical three-point looks would be above the break in pick-and-pop situations, they’d be a few feet closer to getting back on defense than they would be if they were hoisting a shot from inside the arc. That makes a difference.

The spacing would get better

When Gregg Popovich plays Aldridge and Gasol together, he knows he’s doing it for offensive purposes. Neither player (especially Gasol) is a great stopper, but the hope is that their offensive skill sets will offset their defensive deficiencies.

San Antonio has been reasonably efficient on offense (108.5 points per 100 possessions) when both guys play, but that’s actually a tick lower than the team’s overall offensive rating of 108.6. There’s definitely room for improvement on offense when San Antonio’s best two big men are playing.

If both Aldridge and Gasol become more inclined to pop out to the three-point line, that could do a lot to help the team’s spacing and therefore, its offensive efficiency. That tendency forces their defenders to take an extra step or two away from the basket, opening up some creases for drives from the likes of Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.

Both players would still spend plenty of time in the paint, and the two post players certainly wouldn’t hang around the perimeter at the same time. But on pick-and-pops especially, Aldridge and Gasol could definitely help the offense by sliding a few feet back to give their shots have a chance of earning three points.

Even a slight bump to about two three-point attempts per game for each player would make a significant difference.

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