On 'Pop,' Lillard, Nurkic and more
Notes, quotes and observations about our sporting world …
• As the most successful coach in modern NBA history — championships in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 — San Antonio's Gregg Popovich is the perfect one to ask how much analytics have changed the way he coaches the game.
"It hasn't changed it a lot," Popovich told me after the Spurs' 111-110 loss to the Trail Blazers at Moda Center. "Everybody's started shooting 3's and all that sort of stuff, but we've been doing that for a long time. One of the reasons we won championships is we shot 3's better than most (teams). Without those 3's, we wouldn't have won championships. We had a great synergy between Timmy (Duncan) on the post and perimeter people shooting 3's. That was never a big surprise to us."
Before most teams had turned analytics, "we would always look at combinations of players — who were the most productive and that sort of thing," Popovich said.
"A good percentage of analytics confirms what you already seem to know, based on watching your team play and trends in the league and what everybody is doing," he said. "But it's very useful, because it will bring up some things you maybe didn't think about. Like you haven't shot the same number of free throws over a period of time as you used to, or you're fouling too much, or your transition 'D' really hurts.
"The analytics can be used. They don't take the place for the feel of the game or matchups or what's really going on on the court. But it is an aid, for sure."
Popovich does scoff at one thing that could be considered semi-analytical.
"All of a sudden, the league slipped the plus/minus (into the boxscores) without any of us knowing about it," Popovich said of a practice that began last season. "It's the most meaningless thing on the whole sheet. I don't know where (the idea) came from, who pioneered it, who slid it into the NBA, who thought it was cool.
"I've got no clue, but it's the most useless thing there is on the whole stat sheet. It's dangerous. It creates the wrong impressions for players. I hate it."
Plus/minus indicates how much a team outscored the opponents, or was outscored by, during each players's time on the court. If, for instance, the Blazers outscored the Spurs 44-42 with Evan Turner on the court, his plus/minus is a plus-2.
"It's all about who was on the court with you," Popovich. "You have to add that into the equation when figuring combinations that work well. It depends who else was on the court with your guys, and on the other team. Without that, it doesn't tell you anything."
• Video reviews began in the NBA during 2002-03 season, and the the league still doesn't have it right.
I'm all for getting the calls correct, and almost always after replays, that happens.
But a lot of times, the review takes so long, it's almost not worth the bother.
Some of the time, the play call was clearly correct and shouldn't require review.
The last data I could find showed that, at the end of the 2015-16 season, reviews took an average of 31.9 seconds. I've seen it, and I don't believe it. I'd guess the average to be at least twice that, maybe more.
I understand it takes some time to hook things up in the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey. If it really did take only a half-a-minute or so, though, I wouldn't be writing this, nor would fans be complaining about still another obstruction to the flow of the game.
Fans in the arena get a look at the same replay that is shown in Secaucus. Sometimes after one look — and nearly every time after two — the correct play call is clear. Then, it seems it often still takes another 30 or 40 seconds or even another minute for the call to be confirmed, or changed.
The idea of video review is right. Its implementation so far — and it's only been 15 years now — still leaves room for speeding up the process.
• In an interview with Marc Spears of "The Undefeated" website, L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin has a couple of interesting assertions.
On growing up in Oklahoma City: "Both my parents were schoolteachers, so we didn't have a lot growing up. They did whatever they could and needed to do to provide for us."
To be fair, Griffin added: "I had a great childhood."
Compared to the wealth he enjoys today — Griffin is in the first year of a five-year, $173-million contract — Griffin didn't have a lot growing up. But with two schoolteachers' salaries, his family had more means than a whole lot of other NBA players, or a good number of people in any walk of life. "A lot" is relative, and Griffin should have been more careful with his words.
Also asked if making the NBA All-Star Game at Staples Center next month is a big deal: "I wouldn't say it's a big thing in my mind. … (but) my first All-Star Game was in L.A. It was a lot of fun … If it happens, it happens. There are times when I didn't make the All-Star team. There are guys that have been left off the All-Star team to deserve to (make it). Guys like Damian Lillard. Damian has experienced that over and over."
• Normally, I don't worry about the fan vote, which now provides 50 percent of the votes for the five starters in each conference for the All-Star Game (all current NBA players and a panel of basketball media account for the other 50 percent).
Players and media balance out what can be a popularity contest among the fans. Coaches vote for the seven reserves for each team, and they always get it pretty close to right.
When I saw the latest vote tally released by the league, and I cringed.
Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Houston's James Harden and Chris Paul are all ahead of Lillard, who stands eighth among guards in the West. I can live with that.
San Antonio's Manu Ginobili — averaging 9.3 points off the bench — is fifth in the voting. Love Manu, and he could be the best 40-year-old ever, but that's ridiculous.
What's absurd, though, is Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball standing seventh, a spot ahead of Lillard. I could cite the disparity in their stats, but it goes way beyond that. There's no comparison between the two — at least not yet.
I've written for years all of the major professional leagues should eliminate the fan vote and allow either coaches, players or media — or some collection of all three — select the All-Star teams. The leagues want to "include" the fans in the process. That hasn't worked for years, and it never will.
A maximum of six guards can be chosen to the West squad. At least seven are deserving — Curry, Thompson, Harden, Paul, Lillard, Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Minnesota's Jimmy Butler. If all seven remain healthy, I'm not sure who will be the odd man out. But I don't think it will be Lillard, unless the Blazers do a nosedive in the standings.
Popovich was asked about Lillard's chances.
"We think he's a hell of a player, one of the best guards in the league," the Spurs coach said. "You hope everybody who aspires to be on the All-Star team can make it. It's just very difficult to do. There are a lot of good players. He's certainly more than deserved to be talked about in that regard."
• According to an article by FiveThirtyEight website, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic is "the most whacked player in over 20 years." That is, the "Bosnian Beast" has induced the highest share of opposing flagrant fouls.
Through last weekend, there had been 43 in the league — four against him. That's 9.3 percent. Next highest since the 1996-97 season was Griffin in 2010-11, who had 10 of 117 (8.5 percent). Griffin has the five next highest seasons.
Why? Said Nurkic: "People know what I bring to the table and try to slow me down. I'm not saying they always do it on purpose, but it's happened like that before."
Does he wear the battle scars with pride?
"There's nothing to be proud of when you keep getting hit in the face. It hurts. I'm getting a little tired of it, and I feel the league should protect me a little bit more from the hits."
Griffin is probably getting whacked on his may high-rise forays to the basket. Nurkic is getting drilled mostly when he is playing defense or going after a rebound.
Nurk: "Hopefully the referees see it all, because I'm not faking."
That's not the way Charlotte center Dwight Howard looks at it. Howard, while with Atlanta last season, got a flagrant when Nurkic embellished a Howard elbow, flailing backward to the court.
"He did a good job of acting it out," Howard said. "He should find a way to make it to Hollywood."
Something else out of the FiveThirtyEight article: Nurkic's screens have freed up 194 immediate shot opportunities, eighth in the NBA according to a STATS analysis.
• Bill Schonely represented the Blazers and was one of four speakers at a memorial service held for the late Steve "Snapper" Jones in Houston on Dec. 16.
"The Schonz" and broadcaster Bob Costas both memorialized Jones, the former Franklin High and Oregon great who played a season with the Blazers and worked the broadcasting booth in Portland for 25 years.
"It was on the upbeat side," Schonely reported. "It was very nice. There were some great stories told about Steve, and there were a lot of laughs."
• Through Wednesday, how Oregon's four major men's basketball program stood on the NCAA's RPI list: Portland State 102, Oregon 110, Oregon State 189, Portland 249.