NBA: Finals-San Antonio Spurs-Practice

Reflections on Gregg Popovich and the Coach of the Year Award

On Tuesday afternoon, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich accepted his third NBA Coach of the Year Award, said a few words, and likely, promptly tossed the trophy in an unlabeled box and went back to work.

After all, the switch-heavy defensive schemes the Dallas Mavericks employed in Game 1 demand attention, and the headache that is Dirk Nowitzki figures to persist for at least three more games. Perhaps someday there will be time for reflection, and when that day arrives, this award should make an interesting footnote in a growing list of accomplishments.

For now, Popovich works because time is short. Sooner than any of us care to admit, the jerseys of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker will hang from the rafters of the AT&T Center, monuments by which to remember these glory days. But with coaches lacking numbers to retire, where will San Antonio hang its tribute to Popovich’s legacy?

Framed and hanging along the walls leading to the players’ locker room are copies of Jacob Riis’ famous stonecutter quote, translated into every language represented on the team.

“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The frames should remain for as long as the AT&T Center is standing, testaments to Popovich, but not for public display. And perhaps this is the way it should be for a coach who has preferred to deflect credit everywhere else and revealed so little of himself. We are privy to so few glimpses of the real Popovich, like his in-game interview with the son of the cancer-stricken Craig Sager on Easter Sunday. But hang around the Spurs organization long enough and you hear enough off the record stories to realize Popovich plays a significant role in San Antonio’s reputation as a class organization.

Ultimately, no matter how we eventually choose to honor Popovich, the lesson from these words and the fingerprints he’s left on this organization will remain far more visible for years to come.

It’s been some years since anyone has emphasized Riis’ quotes, but those words have helped to make this season possible. Delving into team psychology, especially with an organization as tight-lipped as the Spurs, is guesswork at best. What we can say is that San Antonio suffered one of the most devastating Finals losses in NBA history, and that lesser defeats have laid waste to teams as equally talented. Some hangover from that loss was expected, based on NBA history, only whatever trauma the loss inflicted, it never seeped onto the court.

There are a number of factors that might explain the Spurs’ resiliency this season, from the character of its players to their sheer talent. But on some level, returning to the stonecutter hammering away at his rock had to have helped when nothing else would.

“I thought it embodied anyone’s effort in any endeavor, really,” Popovich once said. “It doesn’t have to be about basketball. You just keep looking, you keep trying, and you keep going.”

Popovich’s strategic acumen holds up against anyone in NBA history, but it is this ability to grasp and instill the big picture perspective that separates him from his peers and has garnered him this award.

Coach of the Year is a fickle award for a fickle profession. On a year-to-year basis, coaches rarely make significant leaps or regressions, only our opinion of them swings wildly–George Karl’s ability to lead a team did not deteriorate significantly between winning coach of the year and getting fired–relative to team performance and expectations.

Those expectations help frame a narrative by which the media selects the winner, more than an honest look at actual ability.

On any given year there are a number of deserving coaches, and half the people who eventually win won’t be long for their job, something Popovich acknowledged when he thanked owner Peter Holt for providing stability after accepting the award.

This year was no different in that the field of candidates ran deep again. Phoenix Suns rookie coach Jeff Hornacek finished second, filling the slot for “coach whose team wildly exceeded preseason expectation,” and Tom Thibodeau placed third for duct taping an injury and trade depleted Chicago Bulls team around Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah. There were other coaches who should be applauded for a season of commendable work, like the Charlotte Bobcats’ Steve Clifford, or the Portland Trail Blazers’ Terry Stotts.

But Popovich was the obvious choice if the criterion is simply seeking the best coach in the same way that LeBron James had been the obvious MVP choice as the best player year-after-year until Kevin Durant turned in this season-long performance in a year James was noticeably conserving energy.

The NBA is, and always will be, a players’ league first and foremost. But after James and Durant, is there a more impactful presence in the NBA to build a team around than Popovich?

“The way he’s adapted, he’s been one of the guys responsible for a lot of the changes to the league,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “[The Spurs] were playing faster and shooting more threes before most teams were doing it, so he’s always been ahead of the curve and the results speak for themselves.”

The string of consecutive 50-win seasons and multiple NBA championships speak volumes, but this year may have been Popovich’s masterpiece. The Spurs led the NBA with 62 wins without making a concerted effort to do so. Popovich’s penchant for resting players hit remarkably absurd levels this season, as no player hit the 30 minutes per game average. The team’s lone All-Star, Tony Parker, spent chunks of the season out, ostensibly injured, but likely just coasting. That the team has been so successful without leaning heavily on any one individual has confounded those burdened with award ballots, who feel an obligation to represent the Spurs’ excellence but have never seen anything quite like this.

This season might mark the year that the Spurs’ system became completely self-sustaining, like the Terminator or Matrix gaining sentience and wondering why the hell it had to cater to the whims of such flawed individuals. This makes sense, considering Popovich and Buford have long referred to their work as building the program, rather than building a team.

Adaptability is the word Carlisle used to describe the reason behind Popovich’s success. Evolution doesn’t necessarily favor the biggest, the fastest, or even the most intelligent. Natural selection favors those who can adapt to changing circumstances.

Originally designed around the dominant inside work of Duncan, Popovich’s system has evolved to accommodate new players, new rules, and even new realities. That Duncan, and to a lesser extent, Ginobili, have seen few hits to their per minute production is due to Popovich figuring out how to keep them at peak production in new and different ways.

But even as the program has grown, it’s never lost sight of the core values that took hold nearly two decades ago. Popovich refers to those values and the continuity they’ve allowed as corporate knowledge, and it’s a strength not seen from a coach since Red Auerbach roamed the Boston sidelines; and an opportunity most coaches never get given how much turnover the profession brings.

Every lesson given is built on one that has come before, which has allowed the Spurs to build such a complex and adaptable system. Popovich then empowers all participants, from player to assistant coaches, to take ownership of that system—which helps to perpetuate it further.

Following the Spurs’ Game 1 victory, Duncan acknowledged that his career is nearing its conclusion, and Popovich has promised to quickly follow Duncan out the door. A prevailing thought is that Duncan and Ginobili have this playoff run and the next, with the tail end of Parker’s prime bridging the gap between the Duncan and Kawhi Leonard eras.

Soon all that will remain of this era are the jerseys in the rafters and the writings on the wall. But on the court, long after all of this is over with, Popovich’s influence will prevail.