San Antonio Spurs 109, Cleveland Cavaliers 99: Gregg Popovich provides a case study for next year’s Sloan Conference


Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland — 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 inteligencia 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 half—marked by strong performances from George Hill and, for the Cavs, former Spur Alonzo Gee—but the Spurs pulled away in the second half behind the power 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”.  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.  The question before us is whether or not it’s a smart strategy.

Over at Pro Basketball Talk, Kurt Helin framed Gregg Popovich’s decision in this way, “…when the Spurs are getting crushed in the regular season, they tend to just roll over. It’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 legs— 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, ” Dyess 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 worth 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 the psychological 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 of forfeiting a game of chess just to say you weren’t checkmated.  Is this, in part, a technique 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. Did 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.


  • grego

    You also have to factor in that he dropped the game that the team seemed listless/lacking energy in. They made runs, but they never kept it up. They kept turning it over and/or giving up all the hustle plays.

    I think Pop factored that into play. They never could put together a consistent run even earlier in the game. So he picked the right game to concede, if he had to give one up.

    Losses do seem to help the Spurs collect their thoughts and it would be helpful as they have two tough games coming up in Miami and Los Angeles, especially without Parker.

  • meong

    to me, it is a good strategy. obviously, the team were having trouble creating offense and handling the ball. maybe all they need is chuck this one up as number 10 and come back stronger for the next game.

  • Bruno

    Is That the same Pop strategy of NYK game: He give up, and put all starters in bench, and them think “crap, what the hell was that game, we need run more, we can’t play like that”, and after Knicks game Ginobili score 6 straight 20+ points game and the spurs win 8 straight games

  • Nima K.

    Well, let’s see how we deal with Miami and LA in the next couple if days, without TP. That should be a good gauge of our abilities in the face of true adversaries.

    Too bad Brewer went to Dallas.

  • Bruno

    I think Pop do that thing more for psychological effects than rest the team…
    Sry bad english, i am not from United States…

  • grego

    @Nima – they probably only win one of the two big games, but that still is a success.

    The ultimate gauge, isn’t whether they win or lose, but if they play a competitive game. If Spurs can streak into the playoffs like last year (obviously way more talent this year), then they should have a solid chance.

    Parker should be back sooner than last year so Spurs still have a good chance. Hopefully Spurs lock up HCA throughout the playoffs very soon.

  • SpurredOn

    I think Pop’s attitude about these types of games is most on display during the runs of every game. He’s never up fist pumping and arm waving when his team is making shot after shot anymore than he hangs his head when the opposition starts of a game making shots with their fresh legs. He knows that things tend to even out so long as you play the right way. Thus he knows that no matter how talented his team is, they still won’t win 70 games. Likely not even 65. That means that in 15-20 games per season, there is little that can be done to reverse a loss. Some nights your guys don’t have the energy or focus, some nights the ball just won’t go in no matter what play is run, other nights your opponent is more focused and determined if not healthier and more talented. The time to fight these truths is not every step of the 82 game journey.

    I’ll add that putting in your bench is not a full white flag wave. He expects those guys to execute and perhaps, with the same likelihood as their star mates on a struggling night, spark a comeback.

  • Michael Erler

    I think Pop has the pulse of his team and a good 95% of the time he waves the white flag, he does so because he thinks there is absolutely no way in hell the team can come back to win because nothing from the previous 36-40 minutes leads him to that conclusion. I’m of the firm opinion that in the Knicks game when he gave up down 10 with three minutes to go, we definitely would’ve lost no matter what because the team never showed the ability to string even a couple of stops together. So for the most part, Pop is indeed just resting legs and doing what he can to prevent needless injuries.

    However, there’s a psychological component too. I think occasionally Pop pulls the plug to send a message that’s less “I don’t think you guys can win this game” and more “I don’t think you DESERVE the opportunity to try to win this game.”

    I think if the team makes a spirited late comeback to win a game they trail by 20, it can send a wrong message to the guys, that they’re bulletproof, invincible. Pop doesn’t want the guys to think they can be lazy or listless or unfocused for 24, 30, 36 minutes and then simply turn the switch on to pull out games. He wants to make it clear they’ll need to play hard from the beginning to beat anyone, and even then it might not be enough because they’re not as good as their record. He wants to be their biggest critic and biggest skeptic.

    The message to the players at all times seems to be, “Oh yeah, you think you guys are contenders? Prove it to me.”

    The pats on the back come during practices after losses. They don’t get come during winning streaks. It’s Pop’s way.

  • Tim in Surrey

    Nice piece, Tim. There’s another perhaps deeper psychological effect of this sort of thing: Underestimation.

    I’m pleased as punch that the Spurs have played so well this year but I’m even more pleased, when I think about it, that they’re so overlooked. Let everybody worry about the Heat, Lakers, Celtics, and Bulls. When the playoffs roll around, these Spurs will be focused and rested. And if other teams don’t fear them as much as they should, then that’s another advantage. You’d think that sort of thing wouldn’t matter to professionals, especially in the playoffs. And for the better teams it probably doesn’t. But every little bit helps.

    There’s something of an individual corollary to this: Tim Duncan’s defense. I’ve always thought he was the most underestimated great defender of all time. He should have far more DPoYs than, for instance, Jordan. Look at his blocked shots. Tim has always altered far more shots than he has blocked and when he does block them he doesn’t them into the crowd or out to halfcourt, a la Howard or O’Neal. It’s partly strategic: Those blocks and forced misses lead to Spurs possessions, where Howard’s lead to possessions for his opponents. But the spectacular block is as much about intimidation or, when you get down to it, male sexual display, as it is about winning the competition. As such, it’s inherently juvenile. (Dominant adults don’t generally waste energy intimidating their rivals unless it provides a competitive advantage.) When Tim simply deflects a shot or simply forces a miss, it causes his opponent to doubt THEMSELVES rather than fear Tim–which is more useful. As long as they don’t realize that he’s making them miss, they’ll keep taking ineffective shots and losing defensive rebounds. Advantage Spurs.

    I think to some extent Pop is employing the same, mature strategy over the course of a season. A 70-win season doesn’t get him any closer to a championship than a 60-win season does (after all, the record for wins in a season came in 2006, a non-championship season). But if a 60-win season provides strategic or psychological advantages, why not deliberately concede a couple of games, especially if it helps you rest your players? Very mature, very… wily.

  • Tim in Surrey

    [A bit off-topic]
    Tim – I hope someone from 48MoH is going to the conference? Perhaps Scott? I’d love a report, if you don’t mind.

    I love your line “We want to talk about… the things really smart hoops writers talk about over cocktails.” Funny image. It reminds me of a music theory conference I went to, which was held at the Century Plaza in LA (2025 Avenue of the Stars). It was hilarious seeing the usual cast of music poindexters in little groups singing madrigals or talking about pitch-class set theory at a swanky LA hotel and I’m sure there will be similar images in Boston. But it would be even funnier if someone at the Sloan Conference tried to stand out by being hip. I did that in LA with a friend. We were very pleased with ourselves, gliding down the escalator on Friday evening with sharp suits and martinis, looking like cast members from Swingers–right up until we walked into a panel on women in music and received withering glances from about 100 middle-aged feminists. There’s just nothing funnier in this world than failed attempts to act cool. I’m sure there will be a few in Boston.

  • Mr. Robinson

    This strategy works with this group of guys because of who they are. This team has professional basketball players that I believe take it personally when they get benched at the end of the game. These guys love to play and when they are not in it really pisses them off but instead of taking their frustration out on the coach like some players on other teams they are also smart enough to realize it is ultimately on them.

    We are fortunate to have good character guys that motivate themselves. These players have a lot of pride in what they do and they pride themselves in winning games as a team. This is why you see Manu throwing towels on the bench like in New York when Pop pulled his starters and Tim and Tony looked like they could of killed someone.

    Vince Lombardi once said “Show me a good looser and I will show you a loser”.

  • Timothy Varner

    @Tim in Surrey,

    We’re going to do better than that. Scott AND Graydon will be blogging from the conference starting tonight and through the weekend. Henry is at the conference, and I’ll be editing a special Saturday edition of TrueHoop in his place, trying to keep up with all the happening at Sloan. Between that and the Heat and Lakers games, should be a fun weekend for the 48MoH crew.

  • rob

    @ Tim in Surrey

    My comments would only be repeating what you said. I agree 100%.

    If I may add something. Basketball is a strange sport. I’ve played many games throughout the years. League teams, pick up games, etc. I never played college ball though many asked where I used to play in college. I loved playing so much that in my 20’s through mid 30’s I would play 3 to 4 times a week full court basketball 4 to 5 hours straight. With that in mind…there were many games when playing against opponents that I thought we would never beat…somehow we won. Consequently…losses to opponents I thought we had no business losing to happened as well.

    I used to ponder that heavily. How could we beat a team that was obviously more talented than us or lose to a team we had no business losing to?

    The answer always came up the same. Which ironically enough had nothing to do with physical capabilities though physical capabilities is what propels one to winning if they’re in the right mind set.

    I think Pop has been doing this for so long that he knows this more than the weekend jockey or college coach could understand though those people know it exists.

    Throwing in the towel is not giving up…but preparing to move on. It was a great call by Pop in the Memphis game to throw in the towel. There won’t be many games he would do like that…just those that need to be done for the better of the team and it’s goals.

    One never said they should keep pounding the rock (without rest). Just make sure you have the strength at the end to make that final blow.

  • ITGuy

    Go Spurs Go!!

  • NYC


    I’m 50, and I’m loving it. Cause I kick… and I kick… and I kick. 50!

    (I expect most of you will not get that, but I’m hoping one of you will.)

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  • bong p.

    While it is a cliche, there is maxim to what Pop does: one step backward, two steps forward – knowing when to retreat but advancing later on until reaching the ultimate goal, which is, in this case, a fifth championship for San Antonio. Depriving the crowd of it’s money’s worth by such a tactic may run counter to the norm, but wait till the playoffs come, the Spurs will turn on the juice and all will be forgiven and forgotten.

  • Alix Babaie

    Is this, in part, a technique Gregg Popovich’s uses to limit the bitter aftertaste of a hard loss?

    I disagree with that statement because Pop sure seemed bitter beer faced and down right pissed after that game, hence the interview only lasting a mere 38 seconds.

    March 3rd, 2011 at 5:42 am 50!

    I’m 50, and I’m loving it. Cause I kick… and I kick… and I kick. 50!

    (I expect most of you will not get that, but I’m hoping one of you will.)

    Hey NYC, Molly Shannon playing Sally O’Malley but she says “I like to kick, stretch and kick! I’m 50!”

    I got your back, dawg. 😉

  • Alix Babaie

    March 1st, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Horrible night, Quinn plays better than Hill as PG, Hill has 4 assist and 6 turnovers, Grizziles score 30 points of turnovers!!!If Cavs win tomorrow, omg, we can say good bye to the 5th.

    Now do you see how dumb it was to make this comment?

    Stick to what you do best, playing characters like Borat and making us all laugh. :)

  • Mr. International

    Just wondering what Tim’s cocktail of choice is while discussing these hoops related matters.

  • Bruno

    @Alix Babaie Cavs don’t win, so is a good thing…But is true, Quinn played better than Hill in Memphis, because that Hill of Memphis was not our Hill, this is our Hill

  • ThatBigGuy

    Pop’s got much bigger things in mind than a random, regular season game. He’s thinking championship. He’s thinking about how to keep his guys as fresh as possible for the playoffs. This is why he’s one of the greatest coaches ever. He doesn’t care about his win/loss record, because ultimately, careers are defined by post-season success.

  • Clearlybehind

    I agree with the bigger picture et al. At the same time I have to second your closing thought that this in a way cheats the fans. I also hear that players are human and get tired and cannot be at their best everyday. But to fans of Spurs who do not live in SA it is a major disappointment when the team plays this poorly and ruins the one time a year we get to see them. I had taken my son to the game and it was bad. Could not explain why his favorite players were not competing till the end of the game, like he is asked to do when he plays and his team is losing. Oh well..

  • Titletown99030507

    Tiago! Denied them the Chalupas only for Hill to almost feed them. So actually Tiago and an air ball did the job.

  • jwalt

    It’s all about saving the legs for the next game. Pop does throw in the towel sooner than any other coach. It’s called job security. And it also happens only when the Spurs are playing the next night.

    He also pulls his studs sooner than anyone else with a commanding lead in a game, last night being a perfect example. And I love that he stuck with his bench guys, even though it got a little scary with about 2 1/2 minutes to go. He’s telling his bench, this is your game now, your responsibility. If we lose it’s on YOU!

    I coached high school for 14 years and one thing I learned is to not save your bottom guys if they are getting hammered. Clears up why they are not playing much, much better for team chemistry in the long run.

    Once we were ahead by about 25 points, I had my last five in the whole fourth quarter, the other team still had their starters and were pressing us, and we wound up winning by 6 points. But I stuck with that group, and never heard a peep about playing time again.

  • rob

    @ jawalt

    I kinda figured you had some (other than casual experience) in depth knowledge of the game. Now I see why.

    It would be nice to know what type/ how much experience of the game other bloggers of this site have.

    I’m in my 50’s. Busy running a business so I can afford my kids college, (retirement too). So I don’t get much playing time anymore. I miss those days of just lacing on a pair and going for 5 hours straight, hard core, full court basketball. Played until the feet bled and then took off the shoes and played some more. Some may be offended by this but…in the day…I loved me some Laker ball when it was Magic, Worthy, Cooper, Rambis, Kareem. Don’t get me wrong, the Spurs always have been my favorite team…but the style of play I and my colleagues used to play was more in the line of those Laker teams in the 80’s.

    Would love to be a fly on the wall when the Spurs are talking to each other about things other than basketball.

  • JTEX

    Too many Spurs fans thinks it an automatic to make it to the finals, WRONG! I’ve been a Spurs fan since they walked into the Hemisfair Arena. If the Spurs don’t do well in the playoffs it’s going to be a severely demoralizing thing to the present team and to S.A. We have become spoiled by our past success. No one expected the Spurs to be as successful as they have been this season but the Spurs have not won anything yet. The Spurs have weaknesses that didn’t get addressed before the trade deadline. We we will soon see Friday against the Heat and the upcoming Laker game, where our weaknesses and strengths are! Go Spurs Go!!!!

  • jwalt

    Thanks Rob. I’m also in my 50’s, but it’s been a long, long time since I laced them up. B-ball is NOT a lifetime sport. I also was a fan of the Lakers Showtime, in fact, was a Laker fan my whole life (I’m from So Cal) until Kobe and Phil Jackson showed up. But those two I can’t stomach. I became a Spur fan the year Manu showed up, from his rookie year on I’ve thought “here is a guy who cares nothing about winning, and knows how to go about it.” Since then my respect for Pop, Duncan, and others has grown, but it started for me with Ginobili.

    Last tidbit, the Spurs are the only team at the pro level who does a lot of the things we believed in, namely top side defense, which in a nutshell means force everything to the baseline and then provide early help. Works a lot better in high school, and I have been amazed how often and how well it works for SA. And it starts with having bigs who can think, and that’s why I believe Duncan is tremendously underrated defensively.

  • DavidB

    Did Pop give up in the 4th against the grizz? yes. But I got the feeling he was punishing his starters too when he took them out. They were all playing like crap, and I really think that pop thought his second unit couldn’t do any worse in that game, so he gave some playing time to his bench. I don’t think that the spurs care about any one game anymore. They are just trying to get better for the playoffs and if playing the bench helps their confidence, it seems like the right move to me

  • njqnjq

    I was just looking at the total minutes for the best teams (Boston, Lakers, Miami etc) and they all have at least one player whose played over 2000 minutes total this season, the Spurs have none. That should make a difference in the playoffs hopefully.

  • bong p.

    @jwalt: you’re not the only fiftysomething guy who’s writing on this blog, glad to be in distinguished – or some would say ‘extinguished’ – company. Cheers

  • Dimitri

    On the quant side of things, it would be interesting to analyze the effectiveness of players in the 2nd game of a back to back. More precisely, run a regression using some effectiveness measurement from the 2nd game (e.g., +/- if available, PPG/RPG/APG, FG%, etc) as the dependent variable and utilization measures from the 1st game (MPG, Point Deficit at the end of the 3rd Q, 4thQtrMin/TotalGmMin) as the independent/explanatory variables. You could even include 1st game effectiveness measures as independent variables. You could even go further by projecting performance more than 1 game out, that is, attempt to find the incremental (albeit diminishing) benefits of rest as the week of games goes on. Anyway, I suspect you’d find what Pop already knows, more rest=more effectiveness in upcoming games. Still, it’d be neat to quantify it.

  • Jean

    @jwalt, You’re the only one who mentioned what I see as the important thing Pop does with games like Memphis.

    I believe for playoff time, it’s vitally important that the bench be capable of playing important minutes. They may not get that time, but one never knows when an injury or match-ups will make a bench guy a key piece. If they’ve played significant minutes during the season — either in big wins or big losses, they develop that confidence they will need if they must be called upon when it counts.

    Earlier this season, when the bench guys were playing, I saw a lot of individual play and very little teamwork. What I saw in the Memphis game was a team comprised of Spurs 2nd and 3rd string players playing cohesively against mostly Memphis starters, and they cut Memphis’ lead in meaningful ways.

    I believe this, along with keeping the Spurs starters fresh, will pay huge dividends come playoff time.