In the first of three articles on why we love the NBA, Conor O’Mahony examines the little things which make the NBA compulsive viewing.
Part 1: Gregg Popovich
Greg Popovich is a writer’s most pleasant dream and worst nightmare, quite often simultaneously. Pop is imminently quotable, but you better come prepared to a press conference with him, otherwise you run the risk of being made look a complete imbecile.
Reasons To Love Pop
The obvious first. Pop is an exceptionally talented coach, who has succeeded in sustaining excellence over his tenure as San Antonio Spurs head coach. In a league which buys and sells head coaches like tradesmen sell charm bracelets at a flea market, he has remained a constant for 18 years. He is the longest-tenured coach in major American sports, and has no intention of retiring any time soon.
Before he joined the San Antonio Spurs they were just another “small market” team who had never won a championship. Popovich has led the Spurs to 5 titles during his reign, and is tied for 3rd all time when we look at what coaches have won the most rings.
2. Brand Of Basketball
The Spurs run the best offensive system of any team in the league. During Popovich’s early years however, his teams were defense orientated, relying on the twin towers of David Robinson and Tim Duncan’s inside presence to stymie offenses. In addition to post offense, this was their recipe for success.
With Duncan at the peak of his powers as a low post force and The Admiral beside him, playing anything other than “walk it up basketball” would have been foolhardy.
But in later years, as Duncan aged, Pop put in place a new system. First Manu Ginobili and then Tony Parker became more important to the offense. Pick-and-rolls became San Antonio’s bread and butter, and spacing became paramount to the success of the attack.
The motion offense which Pop’s team runs today is basketball as it should be played, in its purest form. Fundamentally, it is similar to Tex Winter’s triangle offense, and the Spurs offense incorporates many of the triangles concepts.
Ball movement is the Spur’s holy grail; playing the game unselfishly and passing up good shots for great shots are entwined in this.
Pop explains his offense here:
“It’s a motion offense. It’s malleable. It’s ever-changing, in the sense that when players are moving and the ball is moving, sometimes things happen on offense that you didn’t even plan on, that players just do, and it becomes part of the offense.
“We decided how we wanted to play, what kind of offense we wanted to use and we decided on a motion offense and put in the basics. And each year we would tweak it a little bit ourselves, we’d add something we saw the players do. So it evolved and continues to evolve. It doesn’t stay exactly the same but the base is always there”
3. Pop’s Personality
Pop does not suffer fools lightly all, or at all in truth, and his tactlessness is the stuff of legend. He does not engage in the unspoken agreement that you do not chide “the untouchables” as ESPN’s Doris Burke found out during the 2013 Conference Finals.
His dry wit and incredulous expressions are hilarious to watch. If your question is ill thought out he will let you know, in his own imitable manner. Sometimes you cannot help but feel sorry for the interviewer who asks a question which on the surface appears harmless yet is met with a surly reply. Other times, such as in the video below you can understand why Pop might decide to “go to town” on the journalists.
There is so much hilarity going on here. Firstly, Coach Pop is visibly seething, after shipping a tough loss, so one would think that any writer worth his salt would know not ask a mindless question like “5 games, 5 blowouts, to us who don’t really know the game how do you explain that?” Pop’s face is immovable, lips pursed, and seemingly emotionless.
The only give away that this question has bothered him is his double blink. “You’re serious?” Popovich asks, “You really think I can explain that,” (inward sigh). The reporter, not missing a beat, replies “ In simplest terms,” this interjection draws guffaws from the other reporters. Pop produces a wry smile and seems to take it well, but the reporter obviously is not au fait with the expression “Quit while your ahead.”
He instead comments “ I know you can…The question is will you?” Instantly the smile is gone from Pop’s face, as he realises that the reporter is serious, and wants him to explain the inexplicable, five blowouts in a row.
Pop shakes his head saying “Good Lord… And they pay you don’t they?” only half tongue in cheek. The reporter redeems himself slightly with his reply of “Very little!” Pop erupts into laughter, but he saves the best for last, bitting back with “Thus the question” in between chuckles. Brilliant!
4. Pop’s Relationship With His Players
In Pop’s younger years he was a member of the Air Force Academy, and after graduating strongly considered a career in the CIA, but his love for the game of basketball meant that he decided to forego the opportunity to work in espionage. Popovich’s military roots remain evident, particularly in how he handles his players.
Whether you are a first year rookie from New Zealand called Aron Baynes, or one of the greatest to ever play the game like Timmy Duncan, you should still expect criticism. He can be harsh, and is prone to airing tough assessments of his players in front of the media.
When asked, for example, during this past season to explain the upswing in the play of 2nd year player Patty Mills his answer was typically to the point, “He was a little fat ass last year. He had too much junk in the trunk.” Mills’ response? “I took that as a compliment, if anything.”
Popovich has a close bond with his team. A comment such as that from a coach on another team could be enough for the player in question to start demanding to be traded. Pop is Pop however, he is not other coaches.
Duncan in particular enjoys a relationship with his coach, which is unparalleled in the NBA. “Soul mates, is not too strong a statement to make about these two people,” says R.C Buford, Spurs General Manager.
5. Mastering The Art of Rotation
Popovich has developed a minute allocation strategy that limits every player’s service time dramatically, essentially suppressing individual stats, saving players for the championship minutes. Most guys crave minutes, hunting gaudy stats to try and inflate their free agency value.
One of Popovich’s biggest accomplishments, is that he has consistently succeeded in getting players to accept whatever role and minutes they are given on his team. Those who do not accept their role are moved on, as happened to Stephen Jackson on the eve of the playoffs in 2013.
The Spur’s rotation numbers for the regular season last year are dumbfounding. Did you know Marco Belinelli played the 4th most minutes for San Antonio last season?
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers. Tony Parker played over 20% less minutes than the average minute leader last season. On the flipside, Patty Mill’s was the “9th man” in the Spurs rotation when we look at minutes played. He played 40% more minutes than the league average for a 9th man.
Pop has revolutionised the art of the rotation, and has shown other teams that it is important to have role players who can play big minutes for you during the season. This gives them the chance to prove themselves, and also means that if their number is called in the playoffs, and they are needed, they will have got enough reps during the season to put in a good performance. Boris Diaw had a huge influence in the playoffs, eventually being inserted into the starting lineup, and being a huge factor in gaining victory over The Thunder and The Heat.
Massaging minutes is something Pop is now an expert at. The Heat, on the otherhand chose to take great care of Dwyane Wade, keeping him out of back to backs, and generally over protecting him. LeBron James was consequently put through a nightmarish year, harping back to his early Cleveland days where he was asked to play huge minutes and carry the team.
If Pop was coach of Miami last year, he would never have ran the world’s best baller into the ground during the regular season, particularly factoring in that The Heat played in an historically weak Eastern Conference last year.
We love Pop for a variety of reasons. Who could forget the “happy” interview, with much respected NBA reporter David Aldridge . Happy, Pop told us is not a word in his lexicon.
Neither is “boring.”
PS: The following video is in my opinion the funniest piece of tape that exists of Popovich. It is taken from his pre game presser before game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, in the deciding game in the series after The Spurs heartbreak in Game 6. Not only is it Coach Pop’s most amusing presser, in the pantheon of Sport press conference I believe it is unmatched.
If you have skipped all the videos to this point, let this be the one you watch. It shows Pop, in all his brilliance, starting with a classic. “ Greg why will your team win today?” and includes Pop calling all NBA coaches “sick puppies.” Without further adieu.
Conor O’Mahony, Pundit Arena.