How much is coaching worth..?
By Jim Conway on 14 May 2017
Greg Popovic’s Spurs meet the “beast” of the Golden State Warriors in the end of the valley. The basketball planet holds its breath and Hoopfellas goes down to the battlefield.
This is a battle taken from the dreams of the junkies of this sport. The beastly coaching mind meats a beastly team with countless heads. This is not in Europe of the “coaches’ basketball”, but in the NBA. Can the Spurs be a modern miracle or will they give into the Warriors’ total basketball? Let’s put under the microscope this matchup that will make the planet bite its nails in the next few days.
The defensive genius of Ron Adams is the key of what we are seeing…
I am so glad by the fact alone that I am given the chance to write a few words for one of the greatest minds of modern American basketball, the defensive guru and assistant coach of the Warriors, Ron Adams. Mentor… This is the only way to describe a man, who is responsible for the defensive miracle of the best basketball team of the last few years. I remember myself diving into books/notes with defensive strategies for days and how much I would devote myself and try to be as concentrated as I can when what I was about to read something that had been written by coach Adams. When he wrote it (even if it initially didn’t make much sense in my shallow mind), it had to be right…
In the mental workshop that is located inside this defensive guru’s head, the well-known Death Lineup of the Warriors was constructed; this defense not only remained as efficient when Barnes left the team, but it strengthened the chokehold on the opponent with the length and ability of Durant to contest shots and defend above the rim. In total, the Warriors had a long distance to cover in their defence with the new form of their roster, given the fact that apart from Barnes, two of last year’s top-10 Rim Protectors, Bogut and Ezeli, left the team. How is it that a team with Zaza Pachulia in the center of the key and the defensive weaknesses of Stephen Curry managed to have the second best (after the Spurs) defence of the league?
The first game and the bombardment of 129 points from Popovic’s armada was the beginning for building what we are seeing after deep thinking, reflection and countless man hours under the supervision of coach Adams, on whom the rest of the Warriors’ staff relied to rebuild their defensive reliability. The beginning of the season was a transitional period regarding the defensive efficiency of the Death Lineup and the Warriors in general, with coach Adams trying to include the advantages of athleticism and Kevin Durant’s 7’5’’ wingspan in the core of the four. The result was amazing by the end of 2016.
Adams had worked with Durant at Oklahoma (he had also worked with Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls, as well as with Stevens and the Celtics) and he knew that he could make a talented scorer commit and try his best on defence. The Warriors’ defensive structure was built on the pillars of “versatility” and “communication”. When you bet on Switch Everything tactics and your players are up against different kinds of players all the time, you need versatility. Whatever you try to play on defence needs communication bonds. With Dramond Green as the leader (Adams wanted badly the East Lansing forward when he was still with the Bulls, but Chicago chose Marquis Teague in the 2012 draft) and his impressive ability to instantly cover his teammates mistakes by stepping up with great precision and quickness in the defensive rotations (he and Porzingis are the only ones that are among the top-10 in contested 3PTs and the top-15 in contested 2PTs, and he is still one of the best players of the league in deflections) the Warriors allow 98.8 points and 96.9 Defensive Rating after 8 games in these playoffs, which put them on the top of the competition. Their communication level is impressive and this is where their opponents’ sudden death in the “roman arena” of open court starts as a natural consequence.
Since 2014, the two main directions of the Warriors’ defence are to push their opponents’ backcourt towards the key and voluntarily allow open lanes that would lead to Bogut (first stage) and then to press hard on the ball and up their energy levels (and at the same time lower the times in their defensive rotations) with the Death Lineup. This year they rely more on pressure and the second strategy.
It can be understood that the Spurs will rely on their famous ball circulation that has been their trademark these years and less on isolation. Note that the Warriors are a team that (due to their body types) defends very well on spot up shots, the main productive tool of the Spurs. The aggressive double teams the Warriors will probably use against the San Antonio big men will be decisive. Coach Popovic knows that the secret to unlock GS’s defence is in the centre of the key.
Traditional Big or surprise?
Greg Popovic knows well that against this team he must control the pace of the game. The Spurs have no chance in an up tempo style, as it is possible that they would look like old timers that are chasing after their grandkids in the playing ground. Half court is the Promised Land for San Antonio… In order to get to the point of playing the game within this context, they will need to hustle and start from rebounding. The Spurs have already worked similar situations on the Rockets simulator, by playing 6 games against a team that relies heavily on small ball and a 3-point launching offence. The main difference is that the Warriors (apart from the fact that they are very good on the defensive end) have a multi-faceted offence that looks like a monster with countless heads and do not rely on one player’s ability (Harden) to run the central Pick and Roll. When Durant is having a good night, the Warriors train is on the right track and is able to trample any opponent. Curry is in great shape in the playoffs and Thompson is able to “kill” any time. Coach Popovic doesn’t have this kind of talent in his hands. But, hold on a second there… He is the same coach that has defended in an excellent way against super teams with tremendous offensive abilities and weapons.
It is traditional for Popovic to refrain from opening his cards in the regular season against main competitors for the title, so I don’t think we can come to any conclusions. After all, the first game was the opening match of the season, the teams rested their main players in the second game; the only match from which we may draw some conclusions in the third one (the one the Warriors won). The Spurs will aim at making their opponents follow them. This will be no easy task, as this is the Warriors we are talking about (No 1 fast break offence in the post season with 19.3 points and No1 in the regular season with 22.6), but coach Popovic wants to be the one that has the initiative in this chess game. Mike Brown (Kerr came back to training, but it has not yet been announced if and when he will be coming back on the bench) stated that he is expecting surprises and possibly Small Ball from the beginning; at the same time the predictions have the Spurs coach playing with both Gasol and Aldridge on the floor, in order to pose problems to the Oakland team with their size. The truth is that none of them is the mucho big man that will push the Warriors frontcourt deep into the key. None of them is able to efficiently push Green deep into the paint. However, their size may play an important role. The Spurs are No2 in Offensive Rebound % in the playoffs (28.4) and No4 in second chance points (14.1). On the other hand, the Warriors had the second worst percentage in defensive rebounding (74.9) and the third worst in conceding second chance points (14.0 points) in the regular season. If the Spurs manage to make the Warriors coaching staff to play with both Pachulia-McGee (even for a little while), a small battle will be won.
Leonard, the barometer
Leonard’s ankle is the centre of the world for Spurs fans around the globe in the last days. The organisation that knows how to improve players better than anyone else on the planet responded with a unique performance in game 6, where Simmons (13.2 PTS-48.7 FG) and Anderson saw more minutes, and Murray-Ginobili playing at the point guard position, in order to cover the minute of the injured Toni Parker, behind Mills. We ‘ll say it again, though: the Warriors are not the Rockers. We will need to see coach Popovic go very deep mentally and “enter” his opponents’ mind, just like he did last year using the typical gritty eastern basketball with Cleveland. Of course he will need a great series from the best two-way player of the league, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard (27.8 PTS-52.4 FG) will be the cornerstone of the Spurs tactics in this series, as he is able to defend against every nuclear weapon their opponents have in their arsenal, and the team will heavily rely on the offensive end on him, as well as Aldridge, who has been having many ups and downs in the playoffs. With him on the floor, coach Popovic’s team has +9.3 points per 100 possessions in this year’s playoffs. I imagine that the Spurs have marked the foul line and will use Leonard’s game as a means to lower the tempo of the games. Against GS, Kawhi has shown that he may visit the free throw line more frequently and this may be the beginning for the Spurs to set (and be defensively ready) the game. Leonard is a super player, but he has to be in good health in order to bear the burden and cope with the many difficulties of this series.
Pick & Roll D
Can San Antonio stop the ball screen situations of the Warriors? At first glance, it is objectively difficult. Curry is a true “Tasmanian Devil” high in the perimeter, Kerr’s shooters are among the NBA’s elite, and the main screener (Green) has excellent playmaking abilities. Let’s not fool ourselves. The Spurs are no longer the top level PnR defence they once were. They are quite good, but not as good as they used to be. This year they conceded 0.83 points per possession in these situations, whereas last year they conceded 0.77. Coach Popovic will gamble. That’s a fact. His first target will be Iguodala’s outside shooting. “Iggy” missed his first 18 three pointers in this year’s playoffs, before scoring 2/3 in game 3 against Utah. Don’t be surprised if you see Gasol (a big lineup against small ball) floating (zone up) and allow him to shot behind the arc, aiming at playing with the Warriors’ mind. Another approach leads us to the fact that the Spurs may go small and use their good wing defenders in a lineup with Aldridge at “5” and Leonard-Simons-Green together, in order for them to be able to follow and give defensive stops.
Coach Popovic’s approach on Green is also very interesting. The GS “swiss army knife” with the countless intangibles has turned 31% of the regular season into 51% in the playoffs. Will the Spurs choose to go to zone up and allow him clean looks to the basket? This is a good question. Even though Curry is dominant in the backcourt, the Green-Aldridge matchup may decide where this series will go.
To sum up “How much is coaching worth”? Regardless of the outcome, we are about to witness a historical clash between two of the most well coached teams of the last years. This series is the ultimate challenge for Greg Popovic and the Spurs, no doubt about it. “Coach Pop” knows that if after game 4 the series is tied, and a mini-series, which will decide the winner is upon them, coaching will play the most important role. Can he get there? In the beginning as well as during the season, I was thinking that this year’s San Antonio, with their valuing possessions basketball, will be able to overcome any obstacle to reach the NBA title. I saw it as a good “bet”. However, in today’s crossroads, the situation is not the same. The Golden State arsenal is simply huge and the Spurs problems make it difficult for them to reach the NBA finals. Coach Popovic will have to come up with epic coaching in order to write one of the most impressive pages in American basketball’s history book. Something that will stay in our memories forever. Then yes, this will be the greatest win of the coach against absolute talent in a league where basketball of the superstars is played.
P.S.: The way of thinking “I am waiting for the right moment to jump off the train” is one of the worse diseases in a group of people that work together towards a common goal. Well done AEK!
A bit of magic from Tepic (who…?) in Orlandina’s road win at Mediolanum Orlandina Magic…
Translated by: George-Orestis Zoumpos