Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches in NBA history, a five-time champion, the man who is to Tim Duncan what Bill Belichick is to Tom Brady in football.
The Spurs won 50 games or more for 18 straight seasons between 1999-2000 and 2016-17. Stretching back to David Robinson‘s rookie year in 1989-90, San Antonio has, in all but one season (the 1996-97 tank-o-rama that netted them Duncan in the draft), won at least 47 games out of every 82 (they went 37-13 in the ’99 lockout year, a 61-21 full-season pace.) They are the ultimate proud NBA franchise.
But Popovich said something so mind-numbingly stupid last week, and Serious NBA Journalists are defending his words, that it’s time for him to step away from the 14th-seeded Spurs and enjoy his retirement.
Pop’s words: “Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the 3s. If you made 3s and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition (defense) was involved. You don’t even care. That’s how much an impact the 3 shot has and it’s evidenced by how everybody plays.”
Pop went on, because when all you have is a shovel, everything starts to look like a hole into which you can dig yourself deeper.
“I hate it, but I always have. I’ve hated the 3 for 20 years. That’s why I make a joke all the time (and say) if we’re going to make it a different game, let’s have a four-point play. Because if everybody likes the 3, they’ll really like the 4. People will jump out of their seats if you have a five-point play. It will be great. There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”
Now here’s the kicker. Until recently, the three-pointer was part of a balanced Spurs breakfast. Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Tony Parker, even Kawhi Leonard would hit them when the situation warranted.
The Spurs led the league in three-point percentage in 2016-17. They’re leading the league this year. Throughout Popovich’s tenure, giving a shooter the green light to shoot from downtown has always paid off for San Antonio, as they’ve been in the top echelon of three-point shooting every single year…except last year, when nobody was healthy and they were fifth-worst.
Meanwhile, they’ve also been near the bottom in three-point attempts per game, but part of that is that the Spurs play so slow it’s like they’ve got their shoes nailed to the floor when they’re getting up court.
The last time a Popovich team was in the top ten in pace, they won the championship in 2014. More recently, they’ve been near the bottom.
So OK. Popovich has a system where the three-pointer is a surgical strike rather than a carpet bomb the way it is in Milwaukee or Houston.
But the way Popovich worded the answer led to one of the dumbest takes I’ve ever seen published in a major media outlet.
That’s right. I’m going after Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports, who unleashed this absolute howler of an article:
NEW @NBCSports COLUMN
On Gregg Popovich's classic rant on 3-pointers and what the hard data really says about the 3-point shot dictating wins and losses:
(Hint: Basketball Purists will rejoice)https://t.co/VbdLWzu57F
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) December 6, 2018
In it, Haberstroh rests an argument on the simplistic (and mind-bending stupid) argument that the team that makes more three-pointers wins.
He points out that the team that makes more threes than its opponent wins 64 percent of the time, and this has been true since 2008-09, and therefore three-point shooting is “not predictive” of victory.
Wait just a damn minute.
You’re saying that if a team, with absolutely everything else being equal, had a way to average a 52-30 record every year for a freaking decade, that’s “not predictive”?
Excuse me, but I thought we all just got through popping our shoulders back into joint after dislocating them patting ourselves on the back for how smart we are listening to Gregg Freaking Popovich!
In 2016-17, there was even an outlier of a year (thanks mainly to the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs, and Celtics being the top four teams in three-point makes a game) where the “better” (in pure counting stat terms) team had a .682 winning percentage, which is good for 56-26 per 82 games.
So you’re telling me you’re going to eschew a simple counting stat method for winning 52-56 games a year?
Shut right the hell up.
And as if that weren’t bad enough, Haberstroh then produces another nugget so obvious I saw it try to sell me a deal on a hotel room:
Field goal percentage is the single best predictor of winning percentage in the NBA.
Well gee, you don’t say.
On the bright side, Haberstroh does get one critical piece of context right.
You know why field goal percentage is so predictive these days?
Because teams that shoot more three-pointers do so as part of the modern four-out offense where a big man down low collects easy baskets. This is the part of Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni‘s grand design that everyone forgets about.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a terrible three-point shooter. But you know what he does, like, a lot?
HE DUNKS THE FREAKING BASKETBALL. I mean, do you guys watch any basketball at all?
Comically missing the point like so many others who haven’t stopped listening to Popovich even now that his franchise is a joke with dinosaurs like DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge taking tons of midrange jumpers is Ben Cohen:
The MVP of the NBA might very well be the league's worst 3-point shooter. But it doesn't matter because Giannis Antetokounmpo has weaponized the only shot worth more than an open 3. He's the Steph of slam dunks. https://t.co/Qaya68YBMg pic.twitter.com/V9vUszTHD6
— Ben Cohen (@bzcohen) December 6, 2018
Cohen correctly points out that a dunk is the only shot on the court with a better expected value per shot (over two points if you count and-ones) than even an open Rudy Gay, Stephen Curry, or Bojan Bogdanovic have been able to manage from three.
The Milwaukee Bucks—who are 16-7 and in second place in the East—are second in the league in three-point attempts per game and ninth in three-point percentage.
But you know what the Bucks are the best in the league at? Making two-point shots! They’re hitting 58.8 percent, which is best in the entire league, and which actually generates more points for them (a .588 eFG%) than their three-point shooting (.540) does!
Every team, even the most three-point-mad teams, wants to dunk the ball every trip!
Look at the Pacers for another example. Bogdanovic is hitting an unreal 50.5 percent of his three-pointers.
But you know what the most efficient shot on the floor is for Indiana? It’s Domantas Sabonis from three feet and in. He’s hitting 82 percent of them, or an .820 eFG% against Bogey’s .758 on three-pointers.
But one does not simply walk into Mordor!
Antetokounmpo gets his lanes because the Bucks’ spread offense demands that the defense stay spread out, preventing them from collapsing because Giannis will simply find a teammate for a wide-open three-pointer. Why do you think Greekazoid leads the Bucks in assists?
Capela gets his points because he gets entry passes from Chris Paul or James Harden and gets isolated one-on-one close to the basket because the defense can’t risk Capela finding an open three-point shooter.
Granted, the Rockets are 11-12 this year because none of those threes are going in (they’re 23rd in three-point percentage at .342, and does anyone else remember Game 7 of last year’s West finals?), but they’re still third in the league on two-pointers (at 55.2 percent.)
If you want an example of what happens when inside-out ball goes wrong, this year’s Rockets and the 2017 Nets (who run a similar offense, were fourth in the league in three-point attempts per game, but shot 33.8 percent, fifth-worst in the league, only managed to finish 11th in two-point percentage, and went 20-62) are examples.
But that does not prove Popovich’s point! All it proves is if your players can’t shoot, you’re going to lose, and that wasn’t even a revelation in 1946 when the Basketball Association of America laced them up for the first time and launched the professional sport we all love.
While you’re here at Pace and Space, go ahead and click the word “Analysis” at the top of this article, right under the picture of Brad Stevens on the left and above the headline. I have written a LOT about this topic.
And every single time the subject of the role of the three-pointer in the modern game has come up, not once have I ever hinted or suggested in any way that “the team that makes more threes wins”.
If anything, it’s the dunks and free throws that separate the men from the boys! That two-point percentage is indicative of where the two-pointers are coming from.
And guess what. They’re not coming from where Aldridge and DeRozan are shooting them. They’re coming from where Greekazoid and Sabonis and Capela are shooting them.
Gregg Popovich needs to retire, like, right now. Today.
And people who should know better—smart people, like Tom Haberstroh, who isn’t some idiot in his mom’s basement or some Cowherd/Smith national-media talking head, but is a guy who comes from the same smart-blog pedigree to which this site belongs—need to stop cherry-picking counting stats in an attempt to reinforce the words of a washed-up sideline dinosaur.
Because all you’re doing is misinforming casual fans. If I wanted that, I’d turn on “Inside the NBA” where at least we can point at Charles Barkley and laugh when he does it.
And even if we take Pop (and Haberstroh) at face value, I’m a Pacers fan. Please do sign me up for 52-56 wins every year. That was fun when it happened. The team’s only won 52 or more six times in its 42-season NBA lifetime.
Long live the three. Long live the dunk. And down with dinosaurs unless they play in Toronto.
Correction (12/6/18): Tom Haberstroh reached out to me and correctly pointed out that he did in fact mention the Bucks in that article, something the original version of this piece implied that he missed. In addition, it was Popovich, not Haberstroh, who pushed the point about “he who makes me threes wins.” Pace and Space regrets the errors.