The first round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs, although it's coming far earlier in the post-season than it should (by all right this should be a semi-final in an NBA-wide format, ignoring not just Divisions but also conferences, but that's just wishful thinking), will be a joy to watch, a showcase of some of the most interesting and entertaining basketball played in this or any other season.
Except that a specter hangs over the series: the inevitability that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will have his team resort to fouling DeAndre Jordan early and often.
My views on this subject are well-known to anyone who has read this blog for more than a few days: I loathe the practice, and believe it to be not just bad strategy but also bad form. I'm fascinated by the people who insist that it "works" based on isolated instances, ignoring mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Still, flying in the face of common sense and grinding to a halt what would otherwise be a free-flowing series, we know that Popovich will employ the strategy in many circumstances: when they're behind, when they're ahead, when it's close -- basically, unless the Spurs are up 20, Bang-the-DJ is on the table as far as Pop is concerned. (When the Spurs were fouling Josh Smith last week, the thought occurred to me that maybe Pop is just doing it to rest his old-as-dirt core group; I mean, he's a pioneer in giving them night's off when they're healthy. Fouling a career 60-plus-percent foul shooter intentionally in the third quarter while protecting a narrow lead is a laughably bad from a metrics standpoint -- but at least Tim Duncan can catch his breath.)
The good news is that if Popovich is doing it, it probably means the Clippers are in a good place. It's Pop admitting that he can't stop them by conventional means (something he essentially said after the last meeting between the teams). Having said that, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has at times been perhaps stubborn in his insistence on leaving Jordan on the floor when the Clippers are in the bonus. The one time that it is a clear threat to the team being fouled is when they have a lead and the opponent is desperate to come back. In that situation, prolonging the game and taking your chances with a bad foul shooter is a viable approach.
Going back to the Vinny Del Negro days when Jordan first emerged as LA's starting center, I've always felt like there was a subtle tweak that would help ameliorate the situation.
Rivers' usual m.o. is to play Jordan the entirety of the first quarter, rest him the first five or so minutes of the second , play him the entirety of the third, and then let the game dictate whether he can afford to rest Jordan again to start the fourth. But getting DJ his rest at the START of periods 2 and 4 makes no sense. Since off-the-ball fouls aren't an option until the team has reached the bonus, the strategy is not invalid at the START of periods -- which happens to be exactly the time when Jordan is resting. Assuming that he is not a superman and he actually needs rest, why not rest him when the team is in the bonus, and worry about one fewer thing?
Teams committed an average of 1658 personal fouls this season. Spread across 82 games and four quarters per game, that's just over five fouls per quarter. Bearing in mind that offensive fouls do not count towards the five foul per quarter limit for entering the bonus, it means that, on average, teams don't even get into the bonus many quarters, and when they do, it's relatively late in the quarter. Conservatively, let's assume that there are usually at least nine minutes of non-bonus basketball in most NBA games: Doc could rest Jordan for three minutes at the end of the first, bring him back to start the second, play the rest of the first half by ear, and then repeat the same pattern in the second half. With the additional penalties for off-the-ball fouls in the final two minutes of a game Jordan could be back on the floor, and the overall opportunity for an opponent inclined to intentionally foul Jordan could be severely curtailed simply by moving his rest minutes to BEFORE the quarter break instead of AFTER the quarter break.
Heck, DJ could still play a good 40 minutes and the only time he'd be a target for fouls might be the end of the first half, and depending on the situation a couple minutes before the game enters the final two minutes.
Rivers has done an incredible job of instilling confidence in Jordan, and it's done wonders for his game almost everywhere -- but his foul-shooting is one area that has not seen a boost. Part of the confidence-building routine has been to tell Jordan "You're important, we want and need you on the floor at crucial moments, so do your best to make your foul shots, but you can expect to stay in the game." Which is all well and good -- but if there are five minutes left and the Clippers are up 10 and in the bonus, leaving Jordan in the game is an invitation to foul. Isn't it better to have a system in place that limits exposure?