Spoelstra vs. Popovich: Grading the NBA Finals Masterminds Through Five Games

Jared Wade@@Jared_WadeContributor IJune 18, 2013

Gregg Popovich has been as intense—and great—as ever during the NBA Finals.
Gregg Popovich has been as intense—and great—as ever during the NBA Finals.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's a player's league. The game of basketball is ultimately a very simple one. So in the NBA, the team with more talent usually wins.

In many ways, however, that is selling short the vast complexity of today's schemes. 

Some fans don't even notice—instead spending the entire 48 minutes of the game watching the player with the ball—but within nearly every possession is a series of screens, cuts and misdirection moves designed to create vulnerabilities in the defense.

It is staggering how choreographed these tactics can be. It may be even more impressive just how many often occur within 24 seconds.

When it is all coordinated and executed perfectly, a play can become indefensible.

In that sense, the 2013 NBA Finals have been a treat.

Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra are two of the most creative minds patrolling the sidelines, and each has done a wonderful job putting his players in position to succeed.

But in every series, there is a winner and a loser, and that includes the coaches. Here, we break down how each has done so far in the finals in a few categories.

Offensive Sets

What the San Antonio Spurs do on offense is, in a word, brilliant. Like virtually every NBA team, they rely heavily on the pick-and-roll, but within that category of attack, they run many variations.

In the video above, see the double screen-and-roll that the Spurs employed in Game 2. It's hard enough to guard Parker in the normal side pick-and-roll, but just when the Miami Heat get used to one look, San Antonio adds another wrinkle to make LeBron James pay for the slightest misstep.

Moreover, the Spurs have continued to blend sensational playmaking with the types of called plays that have become a staple of San Antonio's system.

On the other side of the ball, Spoelstra has maintained a commitment to the pace-and-space offense that made his team so dominant all year. And in Game 5, when his team needed quick points to get back into the game, the Heat ran a series of well-designed screen sets to free Ray Allen for shots.

It ultimately wasn't enough, as the Spurs onslaught couldn't be curtailed, but Allen put up 15 fourth-quarter points as Miami outscored San Antonio 29-27 in the final period.

At other times, Spoelstra has used James as a screener in the pick-and-roll, given Wade carte blanche to create when he had it going and positioned Mike Miller on the wing to make the Spurs pay when they overcommitted on dribble penetration.

The one demerit on Spoelstra may be his inability to put LeBron James into the post more.

Throughout the Big Three era in Miami, this has been a go-to weapon for the Heat and James. But in these NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard—and even Boris Diaw in Game 5—has done a good defensive job on James. 

Spoelstra must find those few extra possessions per game to get his Hall of Famer the ball where he can do damage. He has an advantage down low, and Miami should exploit it more often. If that doesn't happen, it is a failing of Spoelstra as much as James.

Popovich: A
Spoelstra: A-

Defensive Strategy

The Spurs have twice blitzed the Heat defense. In Game 3 and Game 5, respectively, San Antonio scored 130.3 and 122.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. For perspective, the best offense in the NBA during the regular season, the Oklahoma City Thunder, scored 112.4 per 100, via Basketball-Reference

Those are simply not numbers a defense can allow if it wants to win the NBA Finals.

If the Heat can't find some way to keep the Spurs in check, they may as well not even show up for Game 6. In fairness to Spoelstra, some of San Antonio's offensive success has just resulted from incredible shot-making.

Manu Ginobili, for example, was out of his mind in Game 5, hitting off-balance runners and anything else he tossed near the rim. But the number of open three-point looks the Spurs have gotten throughout the series is unacceptable, and this has come while San Antonio has also succeeded in the pick-and-roll.

In the Spurs' three wins, the Heat haven't taken away anything.

But Popovich's defense hasn't been great either. 

The Heat have posted three of the best five scoring games (again, per 100 possessions) in the series (124.1 in Game 2; 116.0 in Game 4; 111.6 in Game 5). And even in victory, the Spurs weren't able to stop Miami in Game 5, either. They just happened to be that much better on offense.

Other than Game 1, it's been a series of blowouts. Neither team can take much pride in its D. 

Credit the Spurs for holding the Heat in check for Games 1 and 3, but they have also gotten laughed out of the gym twice themselves. 

Stopping either one of these teams from scoring is much easier said than done, but there hasn't been much championship-caliber defense, at least based on outcomes, so far in this series.

Popovich: B
Spoelstra: C+


The fact that Danny Green hit 19 three-pointers in the first four games of the NBA Finals should have come as a shock to everyone. But him hitting six more in Game 5, while a staggering continuation of success, was almost to be expected.

Especially since Erik Spoelstra has not placed a higher priority on stopping Green.

Popovich and the Spurs have found various ways to keep getting Green open looks. He deserves the utmost respect for his ability to knock down shots at an unprecedented rate, but San Antonio keeps putting him in great spots, as Mike Prada of SB Nation broke down. (See all of his three-pointers in the video above.)

But at some point, the Heat need to adjust. That is very difficult to do when Manu Ginobili is also going off and Tony Parker is hitting you with his flashes of MVP-caliber talent.

Spoelstra must do something, however. This is getting laughable.

Danny Green me once, shame on you; Danny Green me twice, shame on me.

Meanwhile, when the Spurs needed a win in their biggest game of the season, Popovich made the adjustment and turned to Ginobili. He inserted his sixth man into the starting lineup for the first time this season. 

Ginobili responded by scoring 24 points on 14 shots in Game 5, making the type of marvelous plays only he can whenever Miami started to show signs of life.

Spoelstra has found some similar success leaning on Mike Miller more in the finals than he has in months. But no adjustment in this series has been bigger than Pop moving Ginobili to the starting lineup.

Popovich: A
Spoelstra: C+


I can't pretend to have any real understanding of this category. I'm not in these locker rooms nor even in these arenas. So my take is going to fall into cliche-ville.

But simply put, Pop has been Pop. 

During Game 5, we saw Popovich pull Danny Green aside after he air-balled his first three-point attempt. The old, crotchety coach told him to concentrate on defense and hustling to loose balls. Who knows what was going through Green's mind? Maybe the pressure to keep up his all-world shooting was inside his head. Maybe not, and it was just a bad shot.

Either way, Popovich intervened and made sure his young role player was focused on the parts of the game he could control.

Green made six of his next nine three-point attempts.

Later in the same game, ABC cameras showed more Pop being Pop: With his team holding a large second-half lead, he was characteristically caught on tape telling his team to "knock the stuffing out of 'em," encouraging his players to not rest on the success they had had so far.

There is no evidence that Spoelstra has been anything less than exemplary as a commander in chief.

But honestly, he is not Pop. 

Spo generally looks the part of an astute, demanding Silicon Valley CEO who wants nothing more than for his coworkers to succeed. He gives them every advantage he can think of and constantly reminds them that they just need to work the game plan to win.

Spoelstra's business-like mentality often seems to be exactly what his players need. There is nothing wrong with that approach, and it has gotten Miami this far. 

It's just that, in this matchup, we're looking at General Patton vs. General Mills. 

Popovich: A+
Spoelstra: B+

Overall Performance

One man's team is up 3-2 and has a role player poised to win the Finals MVP award. The other is Erik Spoelstra.

In evaluating coaching, process must always trump results. After all, the coaches can only tell the players what to do; they can't do it for them.

But sometimes, outcomes can be so one-sided that they have to become the deciding factor.

Gregg Popovich might be one of the top three coaches in NBA history (along with Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson). He has shown that throughout this series.

Whether it is through strategy, leadership or simply telling his players what they need to hear, he has coached as well as he ever has over the past two weeks.  

Now, as almost always, Pop comes out on top. 

Popovich: A
Spoelstra: B


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