© AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, left, talks to Tony Parker in the second half against the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals, Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Miami.
Numbers rarely lie, and in Gregg Popovich’s case they finally piled up in a way too compelling to ignore.
Five NBA titles spread over 15 years is a dynasty, even — maybe especially — in this era of short attention spans. It’s long past time Popovich got the credit he deserves.
The San Antonio Spurs were never as sexy as the Bulls and Lakers teams that Phil Jackson rode into the winner’s circle 11 times in 20 years, nor as dominant as the old Boston Celtics that lit Red Auerbach’s ultimate victory cigar nine times in a 10-year span. They don’t fire up the imagination the way Pat Riley’s “Showtime” Lakers did throughout the 1980s.
But make no mistake, just like the coaches above, Popovich is not just one of the best NBA coaches of his era, he’s one of the best in any era and any sport.
He’s always taken the long view on success and isn’t afraid to go against the grain. Instead of chasing stars, the preferred route to building a team since Michael Jordan walked away, his Spurs built patiently through the draft, beginning with Tim Duncan, then made a number of shrewd, complementary acquisitions, and let Popovich blend and maximize their talents.
Duncan never produced highlights the way Jordan or Kobe Bryant did, but after 17 seasons alongside Popovich — the longest tenured player-coach tandem the NBA has ever seen — they won just as much and stayed together a lot longer.
With the low-maintenance Duncan as the centerpiece, the Spurs have been running essentially the same schemes Popovich learned from Larry Brown 25 years ago and still runs today. The offensive sets rely on ball movement, not individual matchups, and they create opportunities for every player on the floor.
That kind of freedom runs counter to the star-system that prevails throughout the league, so much so that when Kawhi Leonard came over to San Antonio in a trade for George Hill, he passed up so many shots in favour of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that Popovich finally called him out. Those conversations are why Leonard moved front and centre in the series with three straight 20-point-plus performances and went on to become Finals MVP.
“I just talked to him about not being in that deferment or that defer sort of stage,” Popovich recalled after the Spurs closed out the Miami Heat.
“(I told him) 'The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man. You’re part of the engine that makes us go.’ But it starts with his defence and his rebounding.
“He’s starting to feel his oats offensively, obviously, because I didn’t call a play for him the whole playoff,” Popovich continued. “I did not call his number. Everything he did was just out of the motion and out of offence, and he’s learned it well. In the future, obviously, we’ll use him a lot more on an individual basis. But it’s not really our style, and he appreciates that.”
Speaking of style, anybody who’s seen Popovich conduct sideline (non)interviews over the years would have been stunned by the way he opened up at the end of these Finals. From the moment the Spurs blew a lead in the closing seconds of last year’s Game 6, and wound up losing the series to the Heat, Popovich has rarely talked about it in public.
But with the trophy sitting close by this time, he finally did.
It began with a question about whether he felt bad for LeBron James, considering the way Miami’s star fought to keep his team close.
“I’m not here to judge the Miami Heat or any of their players,” Popovich began, already in his defensive mode.
“Well,” came the follow-up, “can you talk to what LeBron did against you guys and how much of a challenge it was to go against that?”
“LeBron James is a great player. He’s a great competitor. He’s a class act. And I know he’s feeling what we felt last year, and I don’t wish that on anybody.
“It’s tough,” Popovich said, softly. “Most people never even have that feeling. Either the feeling of elation or the depression that goes with a loss.”
Before the clinching game, Popovich was asked how much longer he planned to be around. He’s often said he planned to call it a career whenever Duncan, 38, did. No word on when that might be, but Popovich let on he was ready for at least one more go-round, then groaned, “I didn’t think I was going to have to answer those kind of questions today.”
Those won’t end for a while. But the answers to the question about how he’ll be remembered whenever that day comes was apparent from where he sat one more time: at the top of the game.
Column by Jim Litke