Recent Jokic-Popovich conversation leads to troubling Spurs' revelation

San Antonio Spurs, Josh Richardson
San Antonio Spurs, Josh Richardson / C. Morgan Engel/GettyImages

The San Antonio Spurs have long been known for excellent ball movement, team-driven offense, and stifling defense. They coined the term “the beautiful game” during their 2014 Finals run, and exemplified team basketball, establishing themselves as the model for the league. 

Gregg Popovich should be given pretty much all the credit in the world for running a picture-perfect offense, and the beauty of the Spurs’ game is one of his more understated achievements. As it looks like he may continue to coach well into his 70s (and beyond), he may need to make some adjustments, according to the reigning two-time MVP.

Nikola Jokic claims that the Spurs are an easy team to read

In a recent interview, Denver Nuggets’ superstar Nikola Jokic revealed that he has the uncanny ability to remember entire playbooks in a remarkably short period of time. 

"“I think it's a big advantage I have. In a recent conversation I had with Gregg Popovich, I told him I could play for them since I know all their plays. I even know the signs he throws. I think it can really help a player to know what to expect. That has stayed with me since Europe, where our coaches say: ‘This is where we stop their play with a double or deny them.’ It really helps me and makes my job easier offensively and defensively.”"

Nikola Jokic

Now, it’s important to note that Jokic’s comments do not mean that he wants to uproot himself in Denver and join the Spurs to play for Popovich. He is just saying that he could because he already knows their entire playbook and wouldn’t have to learn the whole system. This brings up a huge problem: if Jokic knows the Spurs’ playbook, then it’s fair to say that a large swath of NBA talent does as well.

Jokic is one of the smartest players in the league on the court. His flashy playstyle is complimented well by minimal mistakes, but in order to make it into the NBA, everyone has a great basketball IQ. There are not many boneheaded players out there, and the few that exist are short for the league. The numbers also suggest that the Spurs’ playbook is rather mundane and easy to follow.

The Spurs are in dire need of an offensive revamp

The Spurs are 22nd in the league in wide-open shots (defender six feet away) based on overall percentage, with only 18.1% of their overall shots being “wide open.” Conversely, they are third in the league in attempt percentage of “very tight” shots when the defender is within two feet. Defenders know where the ball is going and can anticipate who will shoot even before the ball lands in their hands, and the young Spurs are unable to break away from their man and get open. 

One could argue that Nikola Jokic–a longtime admirer of the Spurs–is an elite player in the league and is one of only a few players who would familiarize himself with San Antonio’s game plans. I would argue that a really solid offensive scheme is near-impossible for even the best players to crack. Sure, Jokic is one of the better defenders in the NBA, but if he readily admits that the Spurs’ signs and plans are not nearly enough to stop him. 

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There’s something to be learned here. Maybe it’s time for Pop and the bench staff to update and upgrade their signs and play calls. Maybe the Spurs need to revamp their offensive plan of attack. Getting called out so causally by an opponent is not a great look for any franchise, especially one that prides itself on historical offensive excellence.