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Five Things I Learned From A Conversation With Gregg Popovich

Gregg Popovich spoke to a small group of PomonaPitzer alumni on the floor of the Staples Center after the Spurs beat the Clippers Friday night. Here’s what I took away from his remarks.

Photo credit: Fredric Paul

As many of you probably already know, Gregg Popovich’s first head coaching job was at Division III Pomona-Pitzer in Claremont, California. He still speaks fondly of his experience coaching the Sagehens and the entire 5-college experience. So as a proud Pitzer alum, I was thrilled when the Alumni office offered the chance to attend the recent Spurs-Clippers game in Los Angeles and chat with Popovich courtside at Staples Center afterward.

“Poppo” (his nickname in Claremont) was warm, funny, and self-deprecating. In response to our questions, he touched on many subjects, from his experience disciplining frat boys to which Italian restaurant the team would be dining at later that night. When asked his advice for a struggling 20-something looking for direction in life, he replied that, “You know I’m just a coach, right?” And he noted that after coaching the 2020 US Olympic team, he’s likely done with coaching, too.

The entire conversation was delightful, but a few things really stood out for me:

He is fully aware that his political stances aren’t always popular back home in Texas. “I’ve made a lot of friends back in Texas, let me tell you,” he joked.

His plan is to rest guys more than any other team in the league. Athletic performance and team management is a lot more scientific than it used to be, he said, including arcane practices like testing calcium levels every day. Resting players can be a problem on some teams, he acknowledged, because it causes players’ stats to go down. But he said that wasn’t an issue on the Spurs, and he credited the practice with helping increase the longevity of his players’ careers.

He “hates” it that so many Spurs fans show up at away games. He’s worried that seeing all those fans supporting the visiting team will make the home team mad and play harder.

He loves foreign players’ work ethic. Many foreign players grew up in places where basketball wasn’t taken seriously, he noted, saddled with “crap equipment” and forced to “get over themselves” early in their careers. So they often play better team ball: players are less selfish and the ball moves better. On the other hand, too often, “everything here is playing to the camera.” He sarcastically added, “ Oh my God, you made a three-pointer! That is so important. That will be a really big deal when you’re 35!” But then he couldn’t resist adding how much he loves Kawhi Leonard’s attitude, noting that Kawhi was likely to beat himself up for having an ordinary game: 21 points and 5 fouls in 30 minutes in a 105-97 victory. (Note: this was in response to my own question.)

He brings in famous people to talk to his team and build cohesion. Examples include Spike Lee to screen Chi-Raq, and scholar Cornell West.

Bonus fact: Most famous Pomona-Pitzer basketball alum? Mike Budenholzer!

More on Poppo’s Pomona-Pitzer experience:


Season 50, Game 57
San Antonio 105, Los Angeles Clippers 97
44-13, 2nd in the West

I’m certain the extended All-Star is a good thing. The players and coaches get a real vacation in the middle of the season, a chance to get their minds and bodies right for the stretch run and playoffs. (It also allows the trade deadline season to have its own stage, but that’s another story entirely.) It likely has a very positive impact on the quality of the late-season games.

But man if it isn’t hard to get back into the season after a full week off. (The All-Star game does not count.) It feels like I forget how to watch basketball. There was a moment when I thought Gasol was Splitter, which confused me.

It seems like it’s hard for the players to get back into it, as well. This game was played hard, but it wasn’t necessarily played well. The Clippers are the easiest team in the league to dislike (the Rockets are nipping at their heels in this department), so it’s doubly frustrating that they have the Spurs’ number. In the end, we got the win against a loathsome  rival, so it was a good game.

Kawhi seemed to be having a hard time getting back into the flow. He strikes me as a player that relies heavily on rhythm and repetition (he always seems off in the first game back from missing even a few games), so the week off is probably hard for him. He played with good energy, but his rhythm was way off. He was forcing shots and passes, and just didn’t seem in the flow of the offense.

Also, he almost fouled out, which might have been a good thing. The Spurs played a long time in the second half without their All-Star, and might have been better for it. Patty Mills, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, David Lee, and Pau Gasol carried the team through the 3rd and 4th quarters, not only keeping them afloat, but taking control of the game.

In this particular game, with Leonard out of sorts, it was probably better for the team to not rely on him so much. In the long run, it could also pay dividends to get comfortable playing well without always relying on Leonard. (Kawhi will also likely be better not having to do so much.)

Pau Gasol celebra un triple ante los Clippers / Kelvin Kuo (USA Today Sports)

The other point of interest in this game: the return of Gasol. What made it especially interesting was that he didn’t start the game. This was likely just to ease him back into the system and the flow of the team. But it also presents an interesting question.

Is Gasol better coming off the bench?

Coupled with that question: is Dedmon better in the starting line-up? Dedmon offers a skill set the Spurs haven’t had for years. He’s an athletic big man who is super mobile, protects the rim, and excels rolling in the pick and roll. His skill set is a nice fit with the starters, who could use that jolt of athleticism and superlative defense against other team’s elite big men.

Gasol, on the other hand, is actually a perfect bench player in today’s NBA. His shooting and deft touch are a perfect fit with the bench. His defense won’t get as exploited against second-unit big men. And his post game is more useful against other team’s back-up big men. While he is still a solid starter, he could be a “superstar” bench player, much like Ginobili still is late in his career.

Would Gasol accept this role? Likely not.

Would Pop have the balls to do it? Probably, though he is also smart enough to know if Gasol’s psyche could handle it.

One thing is certain: Dedmon has earned playing time, no matter when and where it comes.

The Spurs finish off the Rodeo Road Trip Sunday afternoon against the Lakers in Los Angeles. Much like the Sunday matinee game in New York, this has “trap game” written all over it. Here’s hoping the Spurs beat it… this time.

Go Spurs Go.


Season 50, Game 56
San Antonio 107, Orlando 79
43-13, 2nd in the West

The Spurs were owed one, and they called in their chit against the Magic Wednesday night.

I don’t have much to say about this game. After dealing the Spurs one of their worst losses of the season at home way back in November, I had no doubt that the Spurs would come out and take this one. Add in the fact that it was the last game before the All-Star Break (an easy game for the road team to steal, and an easy game to steal from a bad team) and that the Magic had lost Ibaka in a trade the day before, and the table was set for the Spurs. They did what they were supposed to do; they ate.

I’m happy that LaMarcus got off the shooting schneid and seemed to regain his stroke. (Let’s hope it’s still there in L.A. next week.) I’m happy the team looked cohesive and played with force on both ends of the court.

As we now take a week off, let’s take a bit of stock of the season thus far. As hard as we can be on this team, we’re grading on a ridiculously hard curve. So let’s put some objectivity into it.

The Spurs are currently 43-13. The are on pace to finish 63-19. That is very good.

They are 2nd in the West, 4 games behind the Golden State Warriors, and 4 games ahead of the Houston Rockets. This is also very good. There is little hope of catching the Warriors, who are in a class all of their own. Likewise, though, they have full command of that 2-seed. It would take quite a bit for Houston to catch up. Of course, the two teams play 2 more times this season, so it’s not impossible. But if the Spurs just continue this pace, they should easily be the 2-seed, which will be very important in the playoffs, particularly in the second round.

By the advanced efficiency numbers, the Spurs are currently 1st in defense and 5th in offense. The only other team that appears in the Top-5 in both categories is the Golden State Warriors (2nd and 1st, respectively). For comparison, the Cleveland Cavaliers are 3rd in offense, but only 20th in defense. The Houston Rockets are 2nd in offense, and 14th in defense. The next three highly rated defensive teams (Utah, Memphis, and Atlanta) are 12th, 2oth, and 26th in offense, respectively.

If you take the total of the two rankings and average them (to create a sort of ‘overall efficiency rating’), the Warriors would be first at 1.5 (1+2/2). The Spurs would be second at 3. The next best teams would be the Jazz (7.5), the Rockets and the Clippers (8.0), the Wizards (9.5), the Raptors (10), and the Cavs (11.5).

The Spurs are second in the league in Net Rating, with a +9.0 differential. The Warriors are 1st at +12.6, the Rockets are 3rd at +6.0. (The Jazz are 4th at +5.6.)

In essence, there are two really great, well-balanced teams in the league: the Warriors and the Spurs. The Warriors far outpace the field, but the Spurs are pretty much alone in that second tier. The next best teams appear to be the Rockets and the Jazz, and the margin between them and the Spurs is pretty much as great as the margin between the Spurs and the Warriors.

So the Spurs are having a fantastic season. Yes, there is plenty to nitpick; and yes, they might be, once again, better equipped for the regular season than the post-season. None of this changes the fact that they are chugging right along, same as they always have.

The problem this season is with expectations. And that problem is directly traced to the Golden State Warriors. Nobody expects them to lose in the playoffs. And they shouldn’t. That team is stacked. Anything less than a title is a fairly large upset for them.

What do we do with this info as Spurs fans? Do we write the season off?

For me, it’s going to come down to the second round of the playoffs (remember, the round we somehow lost last season). Getting to the Conference Finals will be this season’s “title”. Yes, once you get there, anything can happen. But if we’re realistic, the Warriors have a huge edge in every round of the Playoffs.

So that second round–the right to play the Warriors in the Finals–becomes huge. I want to see the Spurs get to the Conference Finals again. I don’t want to watch the team flame out in the playoffs after a great regular season. I want to see Kawhi and LA play like studs as lead players in the playoffs. I want to see Tony and Manu win with veteran moxie. I want to see the role players shine, and the y0ung players get their feet wet.

I want to beat OKC or Memphis in the First Round. And I want to beat the Clippers or the Rockets in the Second Round.

Yes, it’s still months away. But the first hints of the playoff push start just after the All-Star Break.

Los Angeles. Friday Night.

Go Spurs Go.

Kawhi To The Rescue

Season 50, Game 55
San Antonio 110, Indiana 106
42-13, 2nd in the West

The Spurs might be relying too much on Kawhi Leonard.

There’s no doubt that Kawhi is the best player on the team; he might be the best player in the league. There comes a certain responsibility with that standing. The fortunes of the team should rest most prominently on his broad shoulders.

But there is a point of diminishing returns, and there is too much for one player to do. (See: Russell Westbrook, OKC.) Right now, Kawhi takes (and makes) more shots that anybody else; he controls the offense more than anybody else; he is one of the lynchpins of the defense; he plays the most minutes; he is responsible for the most important decisions.

It’s crazy to say this about a team that is 42-13, but he needs some help. Aldridge is slumping (though he continues to work hard in other areas of his game), unable to hit his shot reliably. Parker has morphed into a caretaker, only ‘exploding’ for small bursts of points every so often. Mills’ seems to be lagging a bit at this point in the season. Manu is no longer the threat he once was. Dedmon needs others to set him up. Green is best as a spot-up shooter (though the development of other parts of his offensive game have been better than expected). Gasol is out. Anderson is fine, but not good enough at any one thing. Simmons is streaky. Lee has been great this season, but part of that greatness is his very limited, niche role. Asking him to do more would give the team less.

That’s it. That’s the roster (outside of the young, end of bench players). When it all clicks, it’s great. When it doesn’t (as it hasn’t so often lately), it’s Kawhi pulling the team across the finish line.

The offense in particular has been really up and down lately. Mostly down. For the season, the Spurs still rank 5th in offensive efficiency. However, in the last 15 games, the team is ranked 23rd, right next to offensive powerhouses like the Knicks, the Lakers, and the Hornets.

I don’t know if there are any good answers. Gasol coming back should help. His shooting and offensive intelligence is really important for the starting unit. Plus, he puts everybody back in their best roles, particularly making the second unit rotations whole. Aldridge will likely find his stroke again. Hopefully Mills will find his legs.

Parker has been fine in his role, but the very nature of that role might be the cap on this team’s possibilities. Parker was always a pretty good playmaker and an incredible scorer. While his playmaking has gotten better (along with his corporate knowledge), his scoring ability has dipped considerably. If he is not elite at any one thing, I don’t know how much he helps the team. The problem is, he really doesn’t hurt the team, either. He just is.

Maybe that’s good enough for now while we wait out the Warriors. Murray is not ready now, and we need good to competent PG play in the meantime.

Maybe there is no good answer. Maybe you just put the players out there, and trust that they will do what they can do. I love Kawhi, and we’ve seen by himself he can make the team pretty special.

I’m just tired of watching him have to carry the team night in and night out.

The Spurs finish the East Coast swing of the RRT against Orlando on Wednesday night.

Go Spurs Go.

A Tradition Unlike Any Other

Season 50, Game 54
San Antonio 90, New York 94
41-13, 2nd in the West

Of course the Spurs lose to the Knicks at the end of the week in which the Knicks craziness completely out-Knicks’ed even the Knicks. Of course.

Follow all of that?

Perhaps it’s just because it sticks fresher in the mind, but it seems like the Spurs have a tough time playing the Knicks, especially in New York. Two years ago, the Spurs lost in New York in probably the worst loss of the season, one of a few games that potentially cost them the 2-seed that year.

Factor in this trouble with the Knicks in New York with the fact that they were playing a Sunday matinee in the city that never sleeps, and this had loss written all over it.

I hoped it wouldn’t happen. For a while, things looked promising. Despite shooting poorly, the Knicks were turning the ball over and giving up offensive rebounds like crazy, giving the Spurs a slight edge in the first half. (After a while, all the offensive rebounds just became a form of cruel torture, as we had to watch twice as many bricked shots.) With about 3 minutes left in the half, the Spurs led 48-36, and seemed poised to seize a modicum of control on the game.

About 7 minutes of game time later, the score was 51-48–the Knicks going on an extended 15-0 run–and the Spurs never had control of the game again.

Kawhi played great, shaking off a slow start to do his best to keep the team in contact. But there just weren’t enough contributions elsewhere on the roster to counteract the surprisingly competent and inspired play of the Knicks. This is a pretty consistent theme in these losses: Kawhi playing great, and no one else showing up.

We can look a lot of places, but Aldridge needs to be singled out. Once again, he didn’t shoot it well, and seemed hesitant and unsure of himself on offense. We know it’s a slow transition to the Spurs offense, and we know he is in his head a bit, but it’s been a season and a half–146 games!!–and he’s still not all there. How much time is enough time? Last season he came on strong at the end, so maybe he will again. At some point, though, there aren’t any more excuses, and this is just the player he is, making $84 million.

It’s not all on Aldridge, obviously. The team shot 36% from the floor, just under 21% from deep. For the second time in 4 games, it was a truly abysmal shooting night. The shots were mostly there: the team just didn’t hit them. You just have to shrug your shoulders, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be frustrated.

And yet, the team was right in this until the very end. As bad as the afternoon was, they could have stolen this game. And they should have. You want to hear a fun stat (which you would have heard on the broadcast many times if you watched)? The Knicks have lost 12 games this year by less than 5 points; 7 games since Jan 1st by less than 4! They do not know how to close out close games. Factor in the drama of the recent week, and they seemed ready to implode.

But they didn’t. One play late encapsulated the whole evening. Mills got a steal and was breaking down court on a one-on-one fast break. A layup seemed assured. Instead, he bobbled the ball enough to let the defender back in the play. No mind, he had a teammate streaking down the middle of the floor with him. As Mills tried to shuffle the ball to his teammate, he instead gave it right to his defender, how passed it ahead to Carmelo Anthony for a quick strike 3-pointer.

A certain tie went to a 5-point game instead. That’s pretty much the story of the game.

And now the team has to turn around and play the Pacers–who have been playing well recently–on Monday night. The Spurs should beat them, but the way they’ve been playing recently, who knows.

Go Spurs Go.

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