In the closing moments of Thursday night’s game against Dallas and with the Spurs holding a one-point lead, San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich pulled Tim Duncan in favor of Boris Diaw. From a pure basketball perspective, it wasn’t shocking. When the opposing team has the ball and a shot to win with 5.6 seconds left, most coaches want their most mobile, effective defenders on the floor.
Duncan, who is 36 and who had logged nearly that many minutes in the game, stood little chance of keeping up with whichever player he would have switched onto if the Mavericks made his man the screener. On the other hand, Duncan was having one of the best games of his season so far, scoring 28 points and pulling down 18 rebounds.
After the game, Duncan was, naturally, the consummate professional. “It’s always tough to sit in that position,” he told The San Antonio Express-News. “[Popovich has] got a game plan, a system in those times to go smaller. If they go smaller or have a shooter in there, he likes to put someone a little more mobile in. You’ve got to respect it. You’ve got to sit there and cross your fingers.”
As it turned out, Diaw did not figure into the Mavericks’ final possession. After O.J. Mayo in-bounded the ball to Vince Carter, Carter took the screen and got the switch onto Tiago Splitter. His 3-point shot fell short and the Spurs won, 92-91.
But Diaw not having to defend a final shot was less important than Popovich having built a consistent coaching vision. Not every player is going to be able to take the long view like Duncan, but Popovich has worked with all manner of players during his tenure with the Spurs — from David Robinson to Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Stephen Jackson — and gotten them all to buy into his brand of basketball. He’s done it as much by being consistent as he has by being right.
At this year’s M.I.T. Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Stan Van Gundy, the former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic coach, talked about his approach to the end of a quarter when a team has a chance to squeeze in two possessions by taking a quick shot with 30 to 35 seconds left, otherwise known as a 2-for-1. It is mathematically advantageous, but Van Gundy didn’t want his teams taking bad shots.
“One of the things in coaching is you’re trying to create a style of play and a culture that this is how we play the game,” he said. “Every time you make an exception to that and say, ‘This is how we play the game but not in this case’ … then you’re breaking down your system a little bit.”
It is easy to forget coaches are not just executors of strategy, or conductors who put the score in front of the performers for them to play. As with any leaders, coaches must deal in faith and belief, which are not established by success and evidence alone.
Many parts of Popovich’s coaching adhere to principles based in advanced stats, including fouling at the end of quarters to steal an extra possession. Van Gundy’s spread pick-and-roll system, which emphasizes 3-point shots, shots at the rim and free throws, is backed up by analytics that look at the expected value of different shots.
But whatever the offensive and defensive schemes, whatever the points of emphasis, a coaching philosophy finds its expression in the players on the floor. When they respect the system as much for its clarity and consistency as its success, they can buy into it, even if it means being on the bench in the final seconds of a close game, crossing their fingers.