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Breaking Down the Spurs Offense

The Spurs have been an offensive clinic for years. Let’s get nerdy and try to make sense of this offense by breaking down two of their main sets.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

82 regular season games completed, and the Memphis Grizzlies find themselves back in the playoffs against a familiar foe, the San Antonio Spurs. Compared to last year’s injury-riddled roster, Grizz Nation can feel better about this team who are at least healthy enough to maybe make things interesting. The only problem is that the Spurs have remained dominant, posting another 60+ win season with their All-Star, Kawhi Leonard, in the running for MVP this season. Even after splitting the season series 2-2, those games mean nothing now entering the playoffs.

In this series preview, we’ll break down the complexity of the Spurs’ offense, showing different sets the team runs. The analysis will also include preventive measures Memphis could take, and have taken in past games, to try and upset this 2-seed. With video for assistance, it’ll be easier to explain how this well-oiled machine has run for so many consecutive years.


Before we get into the technicalities, it’s important to highlight the impact players on this team to see where the Spurs’ offense comes from.

Kawhi Leonard is the easiest place to start. The offense runs through him. He will take the last shot of every game if given the opportunity. He is averaging 25.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists with a Player Efficiency Rating of 27.7. One thing about Kawhi is his importance to the team, both offensively and defensively. He ranks third in the league in win shares, which is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player, with 13.6 more wins for the Spurs. Because of his impact on the defensive side of the ball as well, the Grizzlies cannot let Kawhi have his way offensively, which will be a big task for whoever else is matched up against him.

Next, we can look at two more impact scorers. Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge, who both will be discussed later in offensive sets, are more crucial cogs in this offense. The 34-year-old, aging Parker has had career lows in points, rebounds, and assists since his rookie season. However, this doesn’t take away from how critical he is to the pick and roll offense the team uses with him and Aldridge (and, also, Pau Gasol, who is shooting 53.8% from 3?!?), scoring a quality 0.91 points per PNR possession.

Aldridge has also excelled in this offense, averaging 17.3 points and 7 rebounds a game. In my opinion, shutting down Aldridge may be even more important than slowing Kawhi. The Spurs as a team average the second fewest points in the paint, and the Grizzlies allow the fewest points in the paint. If the Grizzlies have a chance in this series, the points in the paint have to stay down to make the Spurs make outside shots.

After looking at some of the important players numbers wise for the Spurs, let's dive into the offensive sets and plays the team has used to perfection over the years. As we all know by now, coach Gregg Popovich is a wizard. He is the best coach in the league and has shown that by the play calls he’s run year after year no matter the roster that he has out there.

Zipper Sets

I wanted to start here because, out of a Zipper Set, teams build into other plays. The Zipper Set is very common in the NBA, but the Spurs always seem to have mastered it. Here’s a complete definition of it from BballBreakdown:

“It’s when one guard dribbles from the top to the wing, and another guard will zip up the lane line to take their place. The other guard starts on the ball-side block, and usually gets a down screen from a big man to help free him up on his cut.”

To help follow that definition, here’s a video showing many of the Spurs plays run out of the Zipper Set. Note the action relative to the screens in the paint. Also, as stated before, even though this is some older footage, it doesn’t matter who is plugged in there, Coach Pop will be running essentially the same offense.

The main thing the Spurs strive for is the most passes possible until a good shot. Pop emphasizes that team basketball and ball/player movement are more important than individual glory. This is why the Zipper Set works well for them. The big man down screens and frees the guards for open looks, or the player (i.e. Kawhi) has a one-on-one matchup which he can take advantage of. The congestion in the paint is what the set ultimately feeds off of. Defenders have to run laps to keep up with the guards cutting to the three-point arc.

You see in this clip how the ball is distributed to the wing, then LaMarcus Aldridge sets his screen in the paint for Patty Mills to become free for the 3. This is a more recent clip that shows the current players running this set. Memphis will have to come prepared to defend this.

Hammer Sets

In the Hammer Set, misdirection is the key. This set uses pick and rolls on the ball side of the court leading up to a flare screen for the shooter on the weak side of the play opening up for a corner 3.

See all the attention going to the cutting ball handler coming into the paint? Defenders fall asleep on their man and they make a cut by the big man screen into the corner for a 3. This is Danny Green’s livelihood. He has been doing this for years and hitting these shots when left open.

This clip shows a great example of this set. Great ball movement to the wing on one side of the court, then Kawhi drives to the baseline while, unbeknownst to the defense, Pau Gasol is setting a weak side screen. This makes Rajon Rondo (comically bad defender) have to run around the screen closing out on Patty Mills who has already received the pass from Kawhi.

Memphis’s Defensive Mindset

After looking at these two offensive sets, we can now be on the lookout for how Memphis defends. San Antonio has many more variations of all of these, but the Zipper and Hammer sets are the most prominent. They will have to play great face up, man to man defense to not worry about the back door cuts. If they expect to win this series, the defensive intensity is going to have to be at a 2011 level. Switching on all screens may be a way to keep everything in front of the defender, so they will not have any room to shoot.

All in all, the Spurs have a damn good offense with multiple important cogs that keep the machine running. If the Grizzlies can maybe limit some of those cogs from working properly, then the defense may be able to disrupt the machine as a whole.

All Stats and clips provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference

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