San Antonio Spurs 109, Cleveland Cavaliers 99: Gregg Popovich provides a case study for next year’s Sloan Conference
Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland â€” Boston is going to implode this weekend as the entire basketball writing universe descends on MIT. The 5th annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is set to erupt and Gregg Popovich has given sportswriting hipsters and members of the basketball inteligenciaÂ something to talk about over cocktails.
The Spurs defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight, roughly 24 hours after getting roughed-up by the Memphis Grizzlies. The game itself was unremarkable. The Spurs and Cavs played a tight first halfâ€”marked by strong performances from George Hill and, for the Cavs, former Spur Alonzo Geeâ€”but the Spurs pulled away in the second half behind the powerÂ of a superior roster.
After last night’s loss to the Grizzlies, Hill tweeted “Feel like crap right now…Played terrible and let the TEAM down…Good thing we have another one tomorrow to redeem myself. Sorry SA”. Â Hill did in fact redeem himself. He dominated the Cavs, scoring 22 points and collecting 5 rebounds and 5 assists. His plus-27 led all players.
And I would be remiss not to mention that this Spurs victory propelled the team to 50 wins. San Antonio has joined the Lakers as one of only two teams to have accomplished the seemingly impossible task of winning at least 50 games for 12 consecutive seasons.
But I digress. We want to talk about the Grizzlies game, Gregg Popovich, and the things really smart hoops writers talk about over cocktails. That’s what tonight’s win in Cleveland was about.
During last night’s blowout loss to Memphis, Gregg Popovich did what he sometimes likes to do. He threw in the towel long before most coaches would concede a game. More or less, his starters did not play in the 4th quarter.
The thing to understand is this: Gregg Popovich was employing a strategy. Â The question before us is whether or not it’s a smart strategy.
Over at Pro Basketball Talk, Kurt Helin framed Gregg Popovich’s decisionÂ in this way, “…when the Spurs are getting crushed in the regular season, they tend to just roll over. Itâ€™s like an energy saving defense mechanism, and they did it in this game.”
After tonight’s victory over Cleveland I asked Antonio McDyess, a 14 year NBA veteran, if he thought Popovich’s strategy of conceding games was wise.
“Oh, it’s the right decision. [Popovich] is a great coach. [Conceding games] is a good reason why. [The Spurs] have won a lot of championships. They make all the right decisions to help us win.”
Dyess went onto to describe his legsâ€” they’re old. He doesn’t think he would have performed well tonight if he had played heavy minutes in an attempted come back the previous night. “It’s hard to play two games in 24 hrs, especially with the travel, ” DyessÂ explained. “And maybe you pull a muscle in a game you were probably going to lose anyway. Even if you don’t, you still feel it in your legs a few days later.”
So here’s my question for the Sloaning universe: how do we quantify all this? What are the advantages and disadvantages of Popovich’s strategy?
On the surface, I suspect Popovich’s tendency to concede those games which require an unlikely comeback is the right strategy. How often do teams comeback from, say, 20 points in the 4th quarter? What is the effect on the body of playing heavy minutes in a back-to-back situation? Are those minutes worthÂ the effort if a loss is still the likely scenario? And are their fringe benefits in play, such as creating court time for developing players chained to the end of the bench?
I even wonder about theÂ psychologicalÂ ramifications of the strategy. Is it easier to shake a difficult loss if it’s obvious you raised a white flag before the final buzzer. Think of it as the NBA equivalent ofÂ forfeitingÂ a game of chess just to say you weren’t checkmated. Â Is this, in part, aÂ techniqueÂ Gregg Popovich’s uses to limit the bitter aftertaste of a hard loss?
On the other end, there is the ethical question: Is Popovich somehow “cheating” game-attending fans by depriving them of his best players?
Here’s the immediate point: the Spurs looked fresh in this game. They had energy in the 3rd quarter, more than enough energy to pull away from the Cavs, even though they had played in a different city a mere 24 hours before. DidÂ Popovich move himself closer to a victory in tonight’s game by taking a loss the night before. Or, put differently, might the Spurs have been more likely to lose two consecutive games had Popovich demanded more of his rotation in the first game of the couplet?
Quants of the world, unite. You have an assignment.