Gregg Popovich's handling of young players explains why the Spurs won't hit bottom like the Pistons did

Henry Abbott at TrueHoop has a great piece on Gregg Popovich that everyone who loves basketball should read in its entirety. As anything Spurs-related tends to do though, it made me reminisce about the 2000s Pistons, and namely, why those Pistons have become these Pistons while Popovich’s Spurs, though probably not title contenders anymore, are still a good team despite a roster that has dealt with both age and injuries catching up with its stars and hasn’t had the benefit of lottery picks to restock its talent.

This passage, in particular, caught my attention:

In most systems, on most teams, the big minutes in the big games go to those who have already earned them. In San Antonio, Popovich knows those minutes can do a lot to inspire young players to develop. He has long been handing them out to players who would struggle to make a lot of NBA rosters. And he has way more than his fair share of those players evolve into meaningful contributors. Is it just that his front office knows how to find diamonds in the rough? Or maybe Popovich has mastered the art of polishing.

Is Danny Green the kind of guy who nails a buzzer-beater to win a huge game on the road over the defending champs? Most people, maybe even including Green, would have said “no” a day ago. But now he hit just exactly that shot — but for a tenth of a second and video review, the Spurs would have won at the end of regulation. This effect echoes across the lineup. James Anderson drove hard to the left of the lane, looking for all the world like an out-of-control guy not far removed from the D-League. But after drawing a defender, he made a beautiful dish to Splitter. And on and on. The five Spurs who played can all file away memories that prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they can hang.

In the Pistons book I wrote during the lockout (which * ahem * can be purchased in electronic or dead tree form here), I wrote about one of my favorite random memories of the era when the Pistons were yearly title contenders:

I used to sit and gaze in amazement at Amir Johnson’s 2005-2006 NBA D-League stats — 18 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists, 1 steal per game on 62 percent shooting. He was long, fast and athletic. He was young, getting drafted straight out of high school in 2005. Surely, the Pistons would find a use for this kid. Obviously, they never did and Johnson went on to become a solid rotation player elsewhere. But the best moment for Pistons fans obsessed with the team’s youth came in a blowout loss to Milwaukee on April 17, 2006.

The Pistons were resting veterans, preparing for the playoffs late in the season. Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace sat out the game. Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess all played less than 20 minutes each. When the Bucks built a huge lead in the third quarter, it was time for the kids to play.

Bolstered by the young trio of Johnson, Jason Maxiell and Carlos Delfino, the Pistons scored 35 points in the fourth quarter. Johnson made all six shots he attempted, even hitting two 3-pointers, to score 18 points. Maxiell was a wrecking ball, crashing the boards and putting down some ferocious dunks to finish with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Delfino ran, he handled the ball, he defended and he slashed to the basket, filling the stat sheet with 18 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals.

I loved that game. Loved it. Watching those guys get on the court and get an opportunity at extended minutes after rotting on the bench most of the season was really rewarding. Looking back, it was also really depressing, as we all know, because with the exception of Maxiell, Johnson and Delfino didn’t become rotation contributors until Detroit gave them away in trades.

I’ve constantly harped on the player development issue with the Pistons. Detroit has done a great job finding talent in drafts. Teams simply don’t often find players late in the first round or in the second round of drafts that turn into rotation players or better. The Pistons have a long, consistent history of finding value late — Brian Cardinal, Prince, Mehmet Okur, Delfino, Maxiell, Johnson, Rodney Stuckey, Arron Afflalo and Jonas Jerebko have all had solid or better NBA careers and none were lottery picks. Only a few teams can claim that kind of record at finding useful players late over the same time period. It’s impressive. What is unbelievably frustrating is, as we all know, five of those eight players have had their best years in other organizations. It’s maddening. It’s a question that, to my knowledge, Joe Dumars has never been competently asked about. The variations of the question I’ve heard asked — either some form of “How could you let Arron Afflalo go for nothing?!” or “OMG! How could you take Darko over Chris Bosh/’Melo/Wade?!” — don’t get at what the real question is. The question worth asking at this point has nothing to do with the individual players. The players are gone and they aren’t coming back. The question is how has Detroit been so savvy and consistently good at finding value in portions of the draft where most teams struggle to find it and so bad at turning that talent into contributors?

The answer, at least partially, is in that Spurs piece linked above: coaching. Particularly, Flip Saunders. Saunders isn’t a bad coach. In the right situation (read: a veteran, talented, self-motivated team; or, the opposite of Washington), in fact, he’s a pretty solid coach. He won in Detroit. The team’s offense became a fluid machine (at least during the regular season). The defense didn’t fall off much (at least during the regular season). But he failed the team’s young players.

Reading Abbott’s piece on Popovich, I was struck by not only the fact that Popovich, on the surface the last guy you’d expect to be patient with youth, plays his young players. It’s that he plays them with the expectation that they will play at a level nearly as high as his regulars. I’m sure Popovich berates those guys, is hard on them and does all the things that you’d expect a cranky old perfectionist coach like Popovich would do to players behind the scenes. I’m sure that if they get into games and prove to be mistake-prone, he’ll bench them, and if they do it a lot, he’ll probably bury them too. But he also understands something that Saunders and, to a lesser extent, Michael Curry never did. Namely, that although it’s important that young players execute, play defense and play mistake-free basketball, it’s just as important that they know you believe in them.

Did anyone ever get the impression that the coaching staff believed in Darko Milicic, for example? There were rumors that the coaching staff was openly hostile to the thought of playing Johnson, disagreeing with the front office’s belief that he could become a capable player. Saunders was never sure Delfino was a better option than Maurice Evans. Basically, with the exception of Stuckey late in the Saunders era (and Maxiell a little bit), no young player got enough playing time to do enough things right to build any kind of confidence. Instead, they fought for scraps, the got occasional minutes in games that meant little to the team and were just being used to rest starters for the playoffs. Compare that to Popovich, playing all bench players in the fourth quarter and overtime against the defending champion (and in-state and division rival) Mavericks. The Spurs and Mavs are only a game apart in the standings. San Antonio at 12-9 actually wouldn’t even have a playoff spot if they started right now. And Popovich sent a lineup of largely untested guys out to close that game? Imagine the impact that would have on your bench guys vs. only playing them extended minutes when a game is out of reach or when your playoff position is already secure.

Most frustrating in all of this is the Pistons actually had a roster set up similarly to the Spurs. Popovich can experiment with his bench like that because he has stars, particularly Tim Duncan, who are not stats-obsessed and who care about winning and going deep into the playoffs. The Pistons had those things, even if they didn’t have an individual player as good as Duncan. I firmly believe that Saunders could’ve gone to his bench much more often. I firmly believe the veteran players would’ve understood it was in their best interest to rest more. I firmly believe that Delfino, Afflalo, Maxiell and Johnson would’ve played well had they been given more minutes. This probably would’ve cost the Pistons some regular season wins, maybe they would’ve been a slightly lower seed in the playoffs, but it also might have gained them some wins in stalled playoff runs.

Saunders’ experience before and after Detroit actually showed he was ill-equipped to handle youth. His most successful Minnesota team came when they added veteran All-Star level players in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. When the team went with younger (albeit worse) players around Kevin Garnett, Saunders didn’t last long. It’s also impossible to categorize his tenure with a very young Washington team as anything but a mismatched failure. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that he wasn’t comfortable with Detroit’s youth.

During Monday’s game against Milwaukee, a clip aired of Dumars talking about the need to rebuild the talent base and the fact that that doesn’t happen overnight. I hope he also realizes that another run as a contender will involve more than simply finding the talent.

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Tags: Ben Wallace Jason Maxiell Richard Hamilton Tayshaun Prince

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