The Genius of Gregg Popovich ... or What I Hope Ty Corbin Can Learn, Part 1

Are you gonna ask this guy about his Keys to the Game?

Note: Clark is writing a series about three-point shooting specifically. My look at the Spurs could be called a companion to his. There are a lot of similar themes. So read his, get smart, and then look at mine and see what you think.

* * *

The playoffs were, according to the official Jazz Stance, a terrific learning experience. So I wanted to see what could be actually learned, starting with this:

What can Tyrone Corbin learn from Gregg Popovich?

I love Gregg Popovich.

Now that Sloan is gone, he is my favorite coach in the NBA—and it's not even close. It comes from how he coaches the game, how he gets his team to listen, how he wants to kill sideline reporters, how he makes sure reporters who as stupid questions know exactly how stupid the question was.

Everything about him is wonderful.

I also think he's the best coach of my lifetime. Yep, in some cases 4 > 11.

This year he gave a great quote telling us exactly what he thinks of "Keys to the Game" (I think it's a response to BTS, but that has never been made clear). From the SLTrib:

Popovich on Sunday, asked about 'keys to the game': You're kidding? … Score more points than them. Play hard. Come on. This is ridiculous.

Popovich on Monday: Did you ask me that last night? Say whatever you want. It's transition D. It's making shots. Don't turn it over. It's all bull[crap]. Have more points than they do, that's the key. Just make it up and say I said it. I don't care.

You gotta love the reporter being dumb enough to ask the same question in back-to-back nights. There's stupidity, there's bravery, and then there's that.

But the real genius of Gregg Popovich isn't just that he treated a stupid reporter like an imbecile. No, the real genius is actually his answer. Notice he repeats what his key to the game is. It's the only statement that makes both zings:

Score more points.

We laugh, we roll our eyes (because it's obvious), but please take this seriously. I wonder if Gregg Popovich is the only coach in the entire league that actually understands this. I'm not being facetious at all.

More after the jump.

Scoring depends on how you use possessions

In a single basketball game, both teams have the same number of possessions.

This should be obvious. They get the ball, then you get the ball, then they get the ball, then you get the ball ... and on and on, for about 100 sequences in a game.

If you look at offensive rebounds in a certain way—as extensions of possessions rather than providing a new possession—then total possessions are always the same, +/- 2 (in case a team gets the ball at the start of the quarter and takes the last shot of the quarter. This is possible exactly twice a game for either team).

So, to win a team must score more points than the other team, even though both teams have pretty much the exact same number of possessions to score. In other words, you have to make your possessions count more than the other guys. If you do—then you win.

Score more points.

There are five primary ways to maximize possessions. That's it. If you do these five things, then your game plan is designed to make those 100 possessions give you as many points as possible:

  1. Shoot a high FG%
  2. Shoot a lot of 3's
  3. Shoot a lot of FT's
  4. Get offensive rebounds
  5. Limit turnovers

Those are the key factors. And although 3P% and FT% do matter, they don't matter as much as the number of attempts. And this is why: even mediocre FT% and 3P% result in more points per possession than two-pointers.

It's simple math. Take 6 shots. The best teams shoot about 50% at two-pointers. That results in 6 points. Mediocrity is 34% 3P's. For 6 3P's, that's 6.12 points. Extend those rates over an entire season, and the mediocre 3P is more efficient.

Same with FT's. Take 4 shots at 50%. 4 points. Take 8 FTA's (equivalent of 4 shots) at 72%, and that's 5.76 points. Again, extend over an entire season and those FTA's turn out to be much, much more efficient.

So again, while better percentages are good, the number of 3PA's and FTA's matter more. With the other three aspects above, those are the ways to maximize possessions—to make sure you are getting as many points as possible out of those 100 possessions.

And since those are the ways to maximize possessions, here's what defense needs to address. To make sure the other team uses their possessions as inefficiently as possible, you:

  1. Force a low FG%
  2. Allow few 3's
  3. Give up few FT's
  4. Get the defensive rebounds
  5. Force turnovers

The five aspects in action

To get a handle for how these things affect the final score, let's look at a mock game between the Spurs and the Jazz. To make things interesting, let's ignore the first principle (FG%), give both teams 100 possessions, say both teams shoot exactly the same: 50% FG, 40% 3's, 75% FT's. Obviously, a decent night shooting for both teams.

Let's look at a baseline first—one in which all things are equal: 20 FT's apiece, 10 3's apiece, 10 TO's apiece, 10 offensive rebounds apiece (so 90 total shots):

Spurs

Jazz

Number

Points

Number

Points

FG (50%)

90

90

90

90

FT (75%)

20

15

20

15

3P (40%)

10

4

10

4

TO

10

10

O Reb

10

10

Final Score

109

109

Here's what the stuff in the table means: the first column for each team shows the number of shots, turnovers, rebounds, etc. that each team gets. The second column shows the points accumulated because of that. This only occurs with the FG's, FT's, and 3P's—because the turnovers and offensive rebounds affect the points accumulated by increasing and decreasing the number of shots. And the 3's column shows the points added because it's a three instead of a two. Thus four 3P's add 4 points—not 12 (8 points were counted in the FG section already).

Obviously, in with all things being equal, and both teams shooting the same percentage, we have a tie.

Now let's change things according to the teams' defensive philosophies: i.e. according to the number of things allowed. For example, here the Spurs will attempt 26 FT's. This is not how many they average (they actually average fewer). This is how many the Jazz typically allow. So the Spurs column will show what the Jazz typically allow their opponents to do, and the Jazz column will show what the Spurs typically allow.

Spurs

Jazz

Number

Points

Number

Points

FG (50%)

83

83

87

87

FT (75%)

26

20

18

14

3P (40%)

19

8

17

7

TO

15

14

O Reb

11

10

Final Score

110

107

In this scenario the Spurs suddenly win by three. Again, all shooting percentages are completely equal. This shows the effect of the two teams' defensive philosophies. The Jazz foul more and willingly allow more three's. The differences between turnovers and offensive rebounds forced/given is negligible (they cancel each other out). So the entire difference in score is based on the number FT's and 3P's each team is willing to give up. Because 3P's and FT's provide more points per possession than FG's, the team with more 3P's and FT's wins.

Now let's look at offensive philosophies. So we're looking the team's season averages of what they take, e.g. the Jazz average 25 FT's per game and 13 3P's per game, etc.

Spurs

Jazz

Number

Points

Number

Points

FG

86

86

87

87

FT

22

17

25

19

3P

22

9

13

5

TO

13

14

O Reb

10

13

Final Score

111

110

Again, the Spurs win—simply because of how they play. The fascinating thing to me is that the Jazz shoot more FT's and get more offensive rebounds, but they shoot so many fewer threes that it doesn't matter.

The Spurs still use their possessions better.

Consistency means it's not a fluke

But, of course, all things aren't equal. The Spurs shoot better, both overall and specifically on 3P's. In fact, here's what you see when looking at the Spurs stats over the last 13 years—and I am specifically looking at those five ways to make your possessions count as much as possible and your opponents' possessions count as little as possible.

The Spurs are ALWAYS:

  1. Top 10 in FG%
  2. Top 10 in 3P%
  3. Top 10 in 3PA
  4. Best 10 in Turnovers (as in not coughing them up much)
  5. Best 10 in 3PA allowed
  6. Best 10 in FTA allowed
  7. Best 10 in both offensive rebounds allowed and defensive rebounding

I can't think of a single other team that so single-mindedly focuses on the five major principles that maximize possessions. Not the way the Spurs do both offensively and defensively. And it also shows why a team like the Baron Davis Warriors wasn't all that successful. Sure they jacked up a bunch of 3P's. But they didn't do much else. It's not one thing that makes a team great, it's focusing on all the important things on both sides of the court.

What's even more telling are five specific things consistently better than top-10. That they are so good over and over means this is what the team focuses on more than anything else. The Spurs are often:

  • In the top 5 in FG%
  • In the top 5 in both 3PA and 3P%
  • In the top 5 in 3PA allowed
  • Give up the fewest FTA's in the league. They simply do not foul.
  • Give up the fewest offensive rebounds in the league.

It's one thing if a team does this stuff for a year or two. But for them to do it year after year, regardless of personnel, for 13 years—then you're dealing with a philosophy. And considering they averaged 57 wins over those 13 years—it's a philosophy that works and is usable no matter who your players are.

And it all goes back to what Popovich said, sarcastically and mostly to ZING yet another idiot reporter—yet both brilliantly true and accurately reflective of his team's entire game plan:

Score more points.

And in his brilliance, he focuses on things that lead to more points:

FG%, 3PA, FTA, Rebounds

He focuses on these things both offensively and defensively. Of course his teams have never been perfect (they don't force many turnovers, for example). But it's not one magic thing that makes them win. The key is focusing on so many together that enable a team to win.

A final look

Let's once again look at the Spurs and Jazz season averages.

The Spurs take 22 FT's per game (average) and allow 18 (WAY below average). They also take 22 3P's per game (above average) and allow 17 (below average). At their FT% and 3P% this means they already have a 5-point advantage over their opponents—simply because of how many FT/3P's they take compared to how many they give up.

The Jazz, on the other hand, take 25 FT's per game and allow 26. They shoot 13 3P's and allow 19. At the league's average %, this means the Jazz already have a 3-point deficit—simply because of how many FT/3P's they take compared to how many they give up.

Mull over those again and remember Gregg Popovich's Key to the Game: Score More Points.

There are specific things that most drastically enable this. The Spurs focus on accomplishing these things themselves and preventing them in other teams.

I hope Ty Corbin can learn how to do this.

* * *

Future installments will look closely at exactly how the Spurs go about shooting so many 3P's at a high percentage, how they go about getting a high FG%, how they prevent 3PA's and FTA's, how they limit turnovers, etc.

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