The Inbounds: Outside the gates af the Church of Popovichtology

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Gregg Popovich is 63 years old. He is able to play, convincingly, the part of the crusty old basketball coach, barking at players coming off the floor for a timeout (no matter how many All-Star appearances they have), grousing at reporters, and generally being a mean sonofagun in most of his appearances to the public. That could be who he is. He could be a snuggly-wuggly teddy bear, but I’ll let you ask him if that’s his true identity.

When talks begin in roughly a month about the NBA season as training camp opens, when the initial rush of football descends from a fever-pitched roar to… well, OK, it’s pretty much a softer fever-pitched roar, there will be talk about the Heat and Lakers. LeBron James and Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and his Thunder, even some mentions of what Jason Terry does for the Celtics. The Spurs will be mentioned, but only in passing. Spurs fans will go apoplectic over this and then dismiss the national media, all the while tuning in the next time to once again go through the process. And the Spurs really shouldn’t be considered title contenders this season. They will almost assuredly win enough games to land in the top three of the West, and then will be defeated by a better defensive team because, well, God is apparently not without a sense of humor.

But what will also pass quietly is that we could very well be looking at the second-to-last season for Popovich in the NBA. There have been jokes and comments about Popovich retiring the second that Tim Duncan walks away. Duncan just re-signed for two more years with a player option for a third. If Duncan walks away when he can ditch the player option to get it off the Spurs’ books, something he would do because he’s that kind of guy, this could be Popovich’s second-to-last camp. That’s not a big deal. It could be his second-to-last. So there will be no huge arching narratives. Even when it is, there likely won’t be.

Popovich doesn’t take laps. He’s never given access to an author for a book, he’s never authored a book. He’s not doing lecture tours or commercials. And in the press there’s little-to-no self-aggrandizement wrapped in philosophies or shots at his competitors. He’s complimentary to his opponents, he’s complimentary to his players, he’s short with the press. There has been no indication given in his career that any of this is about anything but basketball for Popovich.

And yet:

Popovich  manages to be able to brutalize the press and be revered for it because he wins. The process works. Bear in mind that both Popovich and George Karl, a very different breed of the same species, are trying to win a title with an offense-first approach which historically runs counter to the most basic concepts (and cliches) about playoff basketball. But Popovich has not only managed to have a good team with this approach, despite not having a roster traditionally thought of in such terms, but has put together the team with the best record in the West the past two seasons. Those same concepts (an cliches) are what have been their downfall, but consider how difficult it must have been to get players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Many Ginobili, and Stephen Jackson to adjust and go from a defense-first approach to an offense-first approach.

Popovich does this by being a coach that his players not only respect as his own man, but genuinely like. Consider this from a recent Spurs.com interview:

Ryan

Location: Los Angeles

Question: Who are some of your favorite musical artists, and any amazing live shows you’ve seen come to mind?

GP: The last live show I’ve seen was Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And they’re still one of my favorites, you know the old stand-bys. I was a big Motown guy for a long time, being from that part of the country, and that sort of morphed into Jimmy Hendrix, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Led Zepplin, those kind of guys. And being here in Texas you can’t help but hear country music here and there. Everybody takes a different path in life and about three years ago I started listening to a Patsy Cline album and it just blew me away. I just am still amazed by her voice, and the guys and my family say “jeez, are we going to listen to that again?” So that’s the newest one, and another one: Terri Clark. Somebody gave me a CD by her, a country gal, and I love it. It’s really great. So I listen to that, and everything else is sort of foreign. It’s Egyptian, Usef, he’s an Egyptian guy, or Turkish music. That kind of thing. So pretty strange, a lot of different things.

What about any of Stephen Jackson’s?

Jack used to try to give me some of his tapes, but, first of all I couldn’t even understand what was going on, and some of them you could even dance to, but once I started hearing what they were saying and everything I just gave them back.

via Coach Pop Mailbag: 8/30/12 (Page 2) | THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS.

That’s actually a pretty revealing answer. Popovich is open to a lot of things. That kind of contradicts his crusty nature, but it’s representative of what we know about him from his background. A guy who has spent years overseas as an intelligence officer is probably going to be open to more than one way of looking at the world, or a problem. And he’s the kind of coach who Stephen Jackson gives his mixtape to. The fact that he can’t even understand, let alone enjoy, what Jackson’s rapping about is irrelevant. This is Stephen Jackson, and he’s giving his coach his album.

Something tells me the same will not be happening with Tom Thibodeau.

(Note: I don’t think Thibodeau listens to any music. When he’s done watching film I would think he either sleeps or sits in a dark room with the sound of a practice playing.)

Popovich has managed to contradict everything. He’s one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, and he’s one of the least famous. He’s a fervent stickler for defensive intensity who is now reliant upon his team scoring. He’s got an extremely imposing background, and little time for nonsense, yet has connected with modern NBA players and gotten them to not only commit but look up to him, because of the respect he gives them. He gives journalists little to no respect, and receives the same adoration.

Nothing about the Church of Popovichtology makes sense, and when his day is through, there will be no expose. No one will walk through the gates and explore all it secrets. He’ll simply lock the gate, turn, and walk home to his vineyard with a good book and without a look back.

76ers take 1 big step (and a couple smaller ones, too)

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Even the NBA’s worst team has only a 25% chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery.

The 76ers made their own luck.

Philadelphia finished with the league’s fourth-worst record, fell to No. 5 in the lottery, swapped picks with the Kings to move up to No. 3 thanks to a two-year-old trade then traded up to No. 1 by enticing the Celtics with a future draft pick (another pick acquired in that heist of Sacramento, a Lakers pick or one of the 76ers’ own).

Whew, that’s some Process.

No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz is the latest prize in the 76ers’ reverse engineering of the NBA’s system, joining Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That’s an exciting young core that might be ready to lift Philadelphia from years of tanking to playoff contention.

To that end, the 76ers signed J.J. Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract. The 33-year-old has already shown signs of decline, but he’s an upgrade over any shooting guard on the roster. If their other young players are ready to make the leap, the 76ers didn’t want to learn the hard way they were a starting shooting guard short of reaching the postseason. In securing an immediate boost, Philadelphia essentially paid extra for flexibility. Redick’s salary will almost certainly outpace his production, the 76ers ensured no lasting negative effects beyond this season.

The same logic could apply to Amir Johnson, who signed a one-year, $11 million contract. But Philadelphia’s frontcourt depth and the dreary market for bigs make that deal less defensible – especially if Johnson’s salary could have been reappropriated for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who surprisingly became an unrestricted free agent) or paying Robert Covington more up front (as opposed to in future seasons, when the savings might matter more) in a renegotiation-and-extension.

With about $15 million in cap space remaining, the 76ers will likely still renegotiate-and-extend Covington once they can in November. He fits well into a deep crop of solid assets beyond the big three: Dario Saric, Richaun Holmes, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Jahlil Okafor, Justin Anderson, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas, Furkan Korkmaz (the No. 26 pick last year who signed this year), all Philadelphia’s own future first-rounders plus one extra (from either the Kings or Lakers – or both, if if Philadelphia’s own pick is conveyed to Boston). The 76ers even added to the pool this summer with a couple draft-and-stash selections – No. 25 pick Anzejs Pasecniks and No. 36 pick Jonah Bolden (who I’m personally quite high on).

That grouping alone would be envy of many teams. And then there are still Embiid, Simmons and Fultz – the trio that will determine how quickly the brighter days ahead arrive in Philadelphia.

The 76ers’ revival is built on Embiid’s back – and feet and knees. He could be a generational player, but injuries have already cost him 215 games in three years and limited him to just 25 minutes per game in the 31 he has played.

Though it’s the one that looms far beyond, Embiid’s health isn’t the only potential pitfall this season. Rookie point guards – whether it be Fultz or Simmons – rarely lead good teams. It’s a position that typically requires fine-tuning.

Still, this is just the start in Philadelphia. Making the playoffs this season would be nice, but bigger goals down the road appear attainable either way.

The 76ers were in great shape entering the summer. They’re in even better shape now.

Offseason grade: B

Report: Wizards signing Donald Sloan

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The Wizards look like they solved their backup-point-guard problems with Tim Frazier.

But they also looked like they solved their backup-point-guard problems with Trey Burke and then Brandon Jennings last year – and look how that turned out.

So, even after trading for Frazier, Washington is still trying to increase stability behind John Wall.
CSN Mid-Atlantic:

The Wizards added some depth to their backcourt on Thursday by signing veteran guard Donald Sloan to a one-year deal, CSN’s Chris Miller confirmed on Thursday night.

The 29-year-old Sloan has played for the Hawks, New Orleans Hornets, Cavaliers, Pacers and Nets in a five-year NBA career. He spent last season in China.

Sloan isn’t much of a scorer, and he’s only a decent distributor. But he makes up for it with all-around adequacy, highlighted by his rebounding for his position.

The veteran will compete with second-year Sheldon Mac, whose salary is just $50,000 guaranteed, to be Washington’s third point guard.

Report: Knicks sign Nigel Hayes to partially guaranteed deal

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Nigel Hayes became a cult hero at Wisconsin for bringing a “BROKE COLLEGE ATHLETE ANYTHING HELPS” sign to GameDay and soliciting Venmo donations, challenging the stenographer in a press conference and “accidentally” calling a stenographer beautiful in front of a hot mic.

After going undrafted, Hayes and his colorful personality are headed to New York, where Knicks fans are starving for fun.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Could Hayes stick into the regular season? The Knicks have just 14 players with guaranteed salaries, leaving one more spot for a player on an standard contract. Chasson Randle has an unguaranteed salary that becomes partially guaranteed around the time training camp opens. The Knicks could also sign other players, though they’re down to just minimum exceptions.

Hayes – a 6-foot-8 forward – has a chance, but he’s most likely ticketed to New York’s minor-league affiliate after being waived by the parent club.

Who is betting favorite to win Rookie of the Year? Lonzo Ball? Ben Simmons? Depends.

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The Rookie of the Year race is wide open heading into next season.

It’s that way every year — if you had predicted Malcolm Brogdon was going to win a year ago, you would have been laughed out of the room — but this coming season has a deep pool of elite talent who will be in position to put up numbers, the usual formula for winning the award. Lonzo Ball, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum all have a real shot — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Who is the betting favorite? Depends on where you do your betting.

The William Hill’s Nevada sportsbook (which works with a number of Las Vegas casinos, such as the SLS), has these odds (hat tip ESPN):

Lonzo Ball 9-5
Ben Simmons 5-2
Dennis Smith Jr. 4-1
Markelle Fultz 13-2
De'Aaron Fox 8-1
Jayson Tatum 8-1

The Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas has Simmons as the betting line favorite at 9-4

The online betting site Bovda.lv has this line

Lonzo Ball 9-4
Dennis Smith 3-1
Ben Simmons 5-1
Jayson Tatum 5-1
Markelle Fultz 8-1

Traditionally, Rookie of the Year goes to a guy who has the ball in his hands, is aggressive, and puts up raw numbers. It celebrates scorers. All of the guys on that list can do that, although Ball will be judged more on his passing and how he helps turn the Lakers into an up-tempo team. In addition to the guys on that list, Josh Jackon in Phoenix will get numbers, as might John Collins in a rebuilding Atlanta. There are sleepers down the board with a chance.

This year a whole lot of guys fit the traditional mold of a guy who can win the award, more than are mentioned here. It’s going to be a wild ride.