Numbers seldom 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 is long past time Popovich got the credit he deserves.
The San Antonio Spurs were never as sexy as the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams 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 merely one of the best NBA coaches of his era, he is among the best in any era and any sport.
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He has 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 from the league, 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 league has 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.
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 favor of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that Popovich finally called him out. Those conversations are why Leonard moved front and center in the series with three straight 20-point-plus performances and went on to become most valuable player of the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
“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 in Game 5 Sunday.
“(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 defense and his rebounding.
“He’s starting to feel his oats offensively, obviously, because I didn’t call a play for him the whole playoff. I did not call his number. Everything he did was just out of the motion and out of offense, and he’s learned it well. In the future, obviously, we’ll use him a lot more on an individual basis.”
Before the clinching game, Popovich was asked how much longer he planned to be around. He has 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 and said, “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 Popovich will be remembered whenever that day comes was apparent from where he sat one more time: at the top of the NBA.