Popovich: The Puzzle Master

Puzzles come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There’s the standard jigsaw puzzle, which can have anywhere from five to 1000 pieces. Word Puzzles, like crosswords or anagrams, test ones knowledge of vocabulary and challenges you to discover new properties of your language. Then there’s the number one selling puzzle of all time, the Rubik’s Cube, which is one of the most mentally challenging puzzles around.

However, not all puzzles can be bought off the shelf at Toys’R'Us. Puzzles are all around us. A mechanic putting together a new transmission, or an architect designing a new sky scraper, are all putting pieces together to construct a finished product. Both are, in one way or another, fitting pieces together to finish their puzzles.

One puzzle you can’t buy in a store, and is definitely harder then a Rubik’s Cube, is the San Antonio Spurs. Thankfully for Spurs fans, it seems like Gregg Popovich has completed a couple Rubik’s Cubes in his day.

The Spurs opened the season with five new players added to their roster. Out were former Spurs staples Bruce Bowen and Fabricio Oberto, as well as Tony Parker’s back up Jacque Vaughn and Kurt Thomas. In were Richard Jefferson, the veterans Theo Ratliff, Antonio McDyess and Keith Bogans, and Pittsburg rookie DeJuan Blair. In comparison to the Spurs roster, your nieces Dora the Explorer jigsaw puzzle seems like a Rubik’s Cube.

Nonetheless, expectations were extremely high at the beginning of the season and rightfully so. On paper, this was and still is one of the most talented squads in the league. But no matter how talented a team may be, without the proper rotation, the chances of competing for a championship are slim to none. Pop had his work cut out for him.

But before the season even started, the injury bug reared its ugly head. Tony Parker, Pop’s on-court voice, sprained his ankle playing over seas for France. Parker was able to play in the first five games, but missed the next three.

The rest of the Spurs roster also fell victim to the injury bug. McDyess missed four games with a variety of injuries. Also, Matt Bonner missed 17 games with a broken hand. Manu Ginobili missed time with a strained groin, and Micheal Finley missed almost two months with an ankle injury. The Spurs have dealt with so many injuries, they seem more like a skateboard team at the X games then an NBA team.

To make matters worse, Pop has had to deal with players demanding trades, and asking for more playing time. Roger Mason asked to be traded before the trade deadline because of lack of playing time, while Micheal Finley basically forced his way out of a Silver and Black jersey and into a Green one.

But through all the early struggles, player complaints, injuries, and with a seemingly ever changing starting line-up, Pop has been able to keep his team focused and well above .500. As of late, the Spurs have hit a nice stride winning 10 out of their last 14. Even though they are still struggling against teams over .500, they are 17-24 versus teams over .500, they seem confident, and can hopefully make a nice run come April.

Pop has taken a lot of criticism this season for the Spurs lackluster performance. But Pop should get more recognition for what he’s been able to accomplish. Every time a player is injured, which seems like all the time, he’s been able to make adjustments that help keep the Spurs in play-off contention. The fact that he’s been able to overcome so many roster changes, and still keep the Spurs on the winning track, makes me believe that Pop could be a candidate for coach of the year.

I know what some of you are saying, “Coach of the Year?!?! You’ve got to be kidding me!” And I understand. I don’t think he’s going to win coach of the year, I believe that award should go to Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the incredible job he’s done with such a young team, but I do think he should get a little more credit for the job he’s been able to do.

This season Pop has been trying to put all the right pieces together to build his championship Rubik’s Cube. But with all the injuries he’s dealt with, and players demanding trades, it’s like someone taking out all the green squares of the cube, and trust me, you can’t finish a Rubik’s Cube without the green squares. Yet Pop still finds new pieces to add to his puzzle by adding players like Malik Hairston to the roster. Hairston, when given enough minutes, has shown he’s able to produce. In 29 minutes against the Warriors, Hairston finished with 16 points, going seven of nine from the field.

Popovich has dealt with an assortment of problems this season. His coaching has been in question all year and many blame him for the Spurs inconsistencies. But if there’s one thing we Spurs purist know, it’s never question Pop. He always finds a way to get the most from his players and come April and May, I have no doubt Pop will succeed in putting this cube together. I just hope this Rubik’s Cube has championship gold as one of its colors.

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