“If we carry a hand out to the shooter, we can live with them making a shot” – Coaches have preached this for decades.
It means if a defender has a hand up in the face of the shooter and they still make the shot, well that’s all we can ask for defensively.
That still rings true to a degree and its “Defense 101” that is taught to players from a young age.
But it’s not enough in the modern NBA.
On average the league is shooting more and more 3’s every year and the 3 point percentage is not going down despite these extra attempts.
The NBA is a copy-cat league, the style of the dominant team (Golden State Warriors) is being replicated by most of the league and the trend of shooting more 3’s is accelerating quickly.
Looking at the two graphs below, it’s pretty clear that 3 point attempts are trending up, with no peak in site.
The 3 point percentage itself is staying the same, you could have assumed that with more 3 point attempts that the 3 point percentage might have dropped but teams aren’t just jacking up more shots - they are being efficient with them.
3 point shot attempts are going up and up and teams are making them just as consistently, it means defenses in the modern NBA need to catch-up.
Pick-and-roll defense was the focus of the last decade, the next decade is going to be about how teams defend the 3 point shot effectively.
Who’s leading from the front with defending the 3? Surprise surprise……The San Antonio Spurs.
Let’s take a look at what they are doing………
The opposing team’s 3 point percentage against the Spurs (33.1% against) vs the league average (35.4% against) is a difference of only 2.3% which is negligible.
The Spurs aren’t much better than the average NBA team at reducing a team’s 3 point percentage which is surprising.
It’s not to say that holding teams to the lowest 3 point percentage possible doesn’t matter, the old teachings of “carrying a hand out to the shooter” certainly still holds true.
The Spurs are doing the above meat & potatoes defense better than any team in the league, but where is their real advantage coming from……?
The above shows that the key to the Spurs 3 point defense is not in how they defend the 3 when the shot is actually taken, it’s how they are preventing teams from getting the shot off in the first place.
The disparity between the Spurs, the league average and the worst teams at preventing 3’s is significant. The Spurs allow 4 less 3 point attempts per game than the league average and nearly 10 less than the league worst Sacramento Kings.
That is a lot of shots and potential points saved.
“The Spurs must be taking away the corner 3”
It would be right to assume the Spurs are targeting the corner 3 point shot, it’s the shortest distance to the ring from anywhere on the 3pt line.
But no, the Spurs don’t discriminate.
They are stopping the 3’s equally from everywhere. There isn’t a strategic spot on the court where the Spurs want to limit where 3’s are taken from.
Checkout below, showing where teams are shooting 3’s from against the league leading Spurs vs league worst Kings.....
Teams are shooting 3’s from near identical spots against the Spurs and Kings, meaning the Spurs are reducing where 3 point shots are taken from evenly and not targeting a certain spot on the 3 point line.
Let’s now start digging a little deeper into how the Spurs are stopping the best 3 point shooters in the league from even taking a 3 point shot which is even more impressive .....
The Spurs are really locking in on the elite shooters of the NBA, the top 10 shooters in the league are on average shooting 40% LESS 3 point attempts against the Spurs then they usually do.
40% less shots for the best shooters in the league is a HUGE advantage for the Spurs.
How do they do it?
Firstly, any defensive scheme the Spurs coaching staff put in place is only half the battle. The individual defenders need to be dedicated to the scheme, trust each other, have good defensive instincts and have the versatility to guard multiple positions. Without those skills the defensive scheme itself will never succeed.
Secondly, in general terms with defense it’s rarely a one size fits all approach, there can be different defensive schemes for different shooters, but the common defensive scheme the Spurs are applying against the top 10 shooters is.....
Switching on all screens.
Weather it’s a pick-and-roll, guard to guards screen, double screen or hand-off, the Spurs are switching and will live with any mismatch that it causes.
If big man LaMarcus Aldridge is forced to guard a point guard for a few seconds, they will live with it if it means stopping a 3 point shot from being attempted.
Let’s take a look at some vision of it in action……
First we have some great team defense from the Spurs, key things to watch in this clip:
Next the Warriors have Stephen Curry coming off multiple screens from the baseline, the Spurs switch on the screens and also switch the on-ball screen Curry receives. Tim Duncan ends up guarding Curry on the 3 point line and denies any 3 point shot going up.
Also look out for Boris Diaw’s initial textbook “bump the cutter” defense on Stephen Curry just to make things a little harder for him.
Some great team defense again here. Watch the defense on Curry, three different defenders end up guarding him, leaving Curry with no space to shoot.
Now watch the Spurs apply the same defensive scheme against the Clippers JJ Redick, who cuts across the baseline and comes of multiple screens. The Spurs switch on the screens and prevent Redick from getting a wide open 3 point shot.
With that vision fresh in your mind, let’s now take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum with the Sacramento Kings. The Kings are the league’s worst team for preventing 3 point attempts and many other teams are following the exact same defensive scheme……
First we have an on-ball screen for Stephen Curry, Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins helps far too late and Kings guard Rajon Rondo first wanted to go under the screen then decided to go over it leaving Curry wide open to shoot. Poor defensive execution all round.
Next we have Stephen Curry coming off two down screens, watch Rajon Rondo try and chase Curry around the screens with no help from the Kings big men. Remember the Spurs switched in this situation even if it meant a big player had to guard Curry.
Here we have another on-ball screen for Curry. Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins is nowhere to be seen and Curry gets off an easy shot.
Finally against the Clippers and JJ Redick, watch the Kings defender try and chase Redick around multiple screens. The defense actually does a reasonable job but is always a few steps behind which gives Redick enough room to get a shot off.
The Spurs are making a calculated choice on defense to switch on all screens even if means a big player like LaMarcus Aldridge has to defend a smaller guard on the perimeter. They would rather see the guard drive past the Spurs big man into a contested shot in the key rather than having a wide open 3 point shot.
As I said earlier, the defensive scheme itself is not enough. The players need to be dedicated to the scheme and have a defensive nous about them. You saw in the above videos where DeMarcus Cousins at times was close to being in the right defensive position, but he just wasn’t dedicated enough to executing it.
The switching on all screens scheme the Spurs have applied this year is clearly a big reason why they are the best team at defending the 3 point shot and having the number 1 rated defense in the league.
NBA teams are going to look to shoot more and more 3’s over the next few years whilst they copy the Warriors offensive style and defenses are going to need to adjust to this barrage.
Switching on defense looks to be the best way of stopping it and it’s going to take dedicated and versatile defenders to apply it effectively.