Gregg Popovich: mundane genius

Gregg Popovich, as far as I can tell, is the only NBA coach who routinely fouls bad foul shooters on the opposing teams to gain a strategic advantage. The reaction to this from fans and media has been to paint Pop as sort of rascal — the kind of guy who will game the system without shame or apology.

But the real mystery isn’t what makes Popovich so brazen and inventive, but why the rest of the NBA hasn’t figured out that it should be doing the very same thing.

It’s instances like these that make me wonder if Popovich is as smart as we make him out to be (and I kind of think that’s the case either way), or if everyone else in the NBA is just being stupid by not following his example.

Here’s what John Hollinger said about the intentional fouling and during the 2008 playoffs:

For years, coaches have tripped all over themselves with how to use the Hack-a-Shaq. In the first-round series against Phoenix, Gregg Popovich became the first to really master how to use this weapon to his advantage. He used it in second quarters, when he had guys like Jacque Vaughn andRobert Horry in the game anyway and didn’t care if they picked up fouls, and used it when he had the lead to eliminate the chance of a 3-pointer.

Most of all, he used it at the end of quarters to get the last shot, and is continuing to use it with Tyson Chandler and Melvin Ely in the New Orleans series. If New Orleans has the ball with 25 seconds or less left, Popovich simply fouls intentionally so he can get the ball back for the Spurs. This should be a Eureka! moment for other coaches, and I expect it will be the league’s most widely copied tactic next year.

Mr. Hollinger, consider your expectations disappointed.

As pointed out above, Popovich has sorted out the three best times to use hack-a-whoever. It’s not, as Mark Jackson mistakenly believed, a tactic to be used any time a bad freethrow shooter is on the court. The risks of excessive fouling are sundry; there’s a reason Popovich’s teams, as a rule, don’t foul. See even a bad freethrow shooter, if he makes 60 percent in one game, is providing a points per possession rate that would be the best in the NBA for a team, not to mention that putting your team in the bonus on purpose is exceedingly problematic.

But, like any implement, when handled precisely by experienced hands, intentional fouling can have great benefits.

It would be defensible for NBA coaches to be wary 5 years ago, but by now Popovich has already done all the R&D on this issue!

He has proven the three times in which it is smart to foul: when you lead by nine or 10 with two minutes left and want prevent the other team’s 3-point shooters from catching fire and leveling the game (which is what he did in Game 3 against the Clippers), to break up the rhythm of a game and force a team to beat you in a way they are unaccustomed to, and to steal an extra possession at the end of the quarter (used throughout the second round).

These first two ways are trickier to pull off, but the third is plain logic.

Possessions are traded back and forth throughout the game except for at the start of the quarter. That’s when one team gets the ball irrespective of who had it last. By fouling to get the ball back at the end of a quarter, then starting the next quarter with the ball, you give your team the chance to have more possessions than the other team. In a way, it’s like wasting a meaningless foul from a non-essential player to get an extra offensive rebound.

Remember, this strategy was sorted out four years ago, when Hollinger thought every coach in the league would start using it.

It’s a no brainer.

And what does that say about everyone else?

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  1. [...] Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak: “He has proven the three times in which it is smart to foul: when you lead by nine or 10 with two minutes left and want prevent the other team’s 3-point shooters from catching fire and leveling the game (which is what he did in Game 3 against the Clippers), to break up the rhythm of a game and force a team to beat you in a way they are unaccustomed to, and to steal an extra possession at the end of the quarter (used throughout the second round).” var switchTo5x=false;stLight.options({publisher:'fc725bbe-0b2c-4ec8-965b-68b8b7119dd5'}); [...]

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