Weidner’s Words: A changing league

Gregg Popovich, considered by many as one of the greatest basketball coaches in NBA history, took a surprising stance on the state of the league in a recent interview before a game in Chicago. Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, told reporters that he believes the recent analytical trend in the NBA — emphasizing shooting 3-pointers above all else — has detracted from the intricacy of the game.

“There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it,” Popovich said in an pregame interview on Dec. 3. “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 D was involved. You don’t even care.” 

This criticism comes as a surprise from a man whose teams have been praised for playing basketball with a degree of artistry rarely seen before. His teams are known for ball movement, stingy defense and a lack of practiced schemes, but in recent years even the Spurs have had to adapt and shoot more threes. This year’s Spurs team attempts over three more 3-point shots per game compared to the championship team from 2014.

Popovich isn’t wrong about the overall trend of the league, either. There have been six consecutive seasons now where the NBA has broken the previous year’s record of 3PA (3-pointers attempted). Franchises are setting records left and right for most 3PA in a season or a game, and players are breaking records for most three-pointers made at just as fast of a pace.

All the math points to the fact that shooting more threes is statistically the best way to win games. Teams are scoring more and the teams with the best 3-point shooters are dominating the rest of the competition (see: Golden State).

It’s easy to dismiss Popovich and say that he is just stuck in the past; a vestige from a different league who is nostalgic for the days when the Spurs were perennially in the title conversation. But Popovich has not always been resistant to change in the game: his teams from the past few years, and the 2014 championship team, especially, would be nearly unrecognizable compared to the ‘twin towers’ team that featured David Robinson and Tim Duncan around the turn of the millennium. 

Has the development of advanced analytics changed the game for the better or the worse? Is it possible that the other aspects of the game, whether defense, rebounding or ball movement, will suffer because of the increased focus on 3-point shooting?

It is tough to say what direction this revolution in the game will lead the league to in the long term. At the same time, we shouldn’t dismiss Popovich’s critiques. The most renowned coach of his generation is known for his reticent nature, but when he does share his thoughts, he has earned the right to be heard.