Popovich Has Already Set the Bar for Spurs Season: Championship
In the dog days of summer, every NBA team is filled with championship dreams.
OK, that's a crock of Jerome James-flavored gumbo. Most teams are well aware that the only gold at the end of an NBA season's rainbow is named Jose. And I'm not talking about just the Clippers or Kings here. I'm also talking about the Hawks and Sixers and Hornets and Jazz. There are only a handful of teams that are genuinely in the hunt. And most champions will tell you it takes a precious combination of talent, obscenely hard work, and lots and lots of luck to cash in the ticket to immortality. Some teams expect to contend for a championship. Rarely does any team expect to win a championship, if it's not currently holding the ring (or waiting for it to arrive in the mail).
The San Antonio Spurs, of course, are a pretty rare team. And they have been for the last decade. And much of their success is due to their equally rare head coach.
A little over a week ago, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told NBA.com this nugget in the brutally honest way only he can.
"If we don't win it, I should probably be fired, (w)ithout a doubt."
Popovich is no stranger to dagger quips that do a pirouette on the line of funny and brutally honest. I mean, the guy hacked-the-Shaq seconds into a nationally televised game just to spite the big guy, then gave him a cheesy grin and two thumbs up. He often talks about how the Spurs' success has hinged almost entirely upon drafting Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. He rarely if ever gives interviews and declines all speaking engagements.
In short, he's an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle disguised as a winemaker.
Popovich may be keen on whimsy, but behind his statement, there's a clear message that has been sent to this team and the league. The Spurs aren't just planning to contend for a championship this season, they're expecting to win the championship this season. Not "we feel good about our chances" but "we damn well better win."
The Spurs have been slowly dwindling the last few years, as their star of relevance began to fade. They managed to chew on the brains of the NBA in 2007 like the living dead after blasting through a "just happy to have played the Warriors be there" Jazz team in the Western Conference Finals, and a severely outgunned Cavs team in the finals. Then everyone said they needed to reload, but the Spurs decided to give the championship nucleus another go without a major upgrade. Rinse, repeat, and ... get wiped out in the playoffs (finally), as the Western Conference let out the battle cry that comes with vanquishing the cruel overlords, only to discover that the Lakers have now installed a dictatorship government in the chaos (martial law has been declared!) The assumption was that the Spurs would then go quietly into that dark night.
But as usual, Popovich is a man of surprises. His life spans: working in intelligence circles after graduating from the Air Force Academy, to championship gold, to a small winery outside of Portland. Knowing that, did you expect him to go quietly? And so Pop, alongside General Manager R.C. Buford, arranged the trade for Richard Jefferson, instantly covering multiple holes in the Spurs at once. A combo-forward who provides immediate scoring impact and can play multiple positions to improve depth is pretty much just what the doctor ordered. There was no question the Spurs had improved, but surely the trading of Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas would mean that their frontcourt was effectively decimated (or pentimated, I suppose). Then the Spurs acquired Antonio McDyess and Theo Ratliff, adding the same high level of quality veterans with playoff experience for manageable contracts.
So now the Spurs enter the season with the same core of Duncan, Parker, and a (hopefully) healthy Manu Ginobili, but bolstered by Jefferson and high-upside sophomore George Hill, to go along with key role players Roger Mason Jr., McDyess, Ratliff, and whatever developing talent they decide to pull from their D-League affiliate in Austin. There has obviously been a come-to-Jesus (figuratively) moment for the Spurs following their loss to the Mavericks in the first round. The window was almost shut, and it's still in the process of closing, but by making significant upgrades at multiple positions and giving themselves the sweet relief of time off (as opposed to playing into early June year after year after year), they've wedged it back open. Now's the time to make a break for the gap. Once more unto the breach, dear friends. And by breach, I mean grinding opponents into mulch with phenomenal, disciplined defense and knocking them off their feet with smart, efficient basketball artillery.
Popovich embodies this season's "last ride" mentality more than anyone. Popovich is set apart from most NBA champion coaches in that you never get the feeling that basketball is "everything" to him. He has a drive to win, no question. But he's on record as saying the "most meaningful" recognition he's gotten was when the Air Force Academy honored him as a "distinguished graduate." There's a perception, one of the few that manages to escape the Spurs' notorious iron-clad media lockdown, that while Popovich enjoys his job and works hard, basketball isn't everything to him.
He's been amazingly successful over the past decade, fielding a winner year after year, never leaving contention. There have been no trade demands from Tim Duncan. They've had solid production from each position. Smush Parker has never suited up for him at point guard, which of course is hugely attributable to the work of R.C. Buford. But there's no question that Popovich has directed the lead of this team. And still, there's always been a sense that because of his background, he has a decent sense of perspective. He's an avid wine enthusiast. In fact, the winery that he in part owns, helps bottle his own special Pinot Noir, "Rock and Hammer" named after the famous quote in the Spurs locker room. (By the way, the A to Z Pinot Noir is pretty awesome. Surprising like Manu Ginobili, yet not brutish like Robert Horry.) Winning, basketball, the game, the job is not everything to Popovich.
This is just speculation, of course, driven off of the obscure references from outside sources. The only thing Popovich may hate more than the words ".04 seconds" is the bane of his existence, the media. It's not that Pop follows the oh-so-predictable route of blaming the media for its agendas or claiming it messes with the integrity of the game. He just has no tolerance for it. I literally cringe at the words "I'm here with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich" after a quarter has just ended. It's like watching your friend strike out at the bar. Over. And over. At this point I'm ready to set ESPN up with some chick from MySpace. (In this analogy, MySpace chick will be played by Vinny Del Negro.)
But there are definite signs that Popovich has more on his mind most times than just Xs and Os, the mid-level exception, and Hack-A-Shaq. He eschews all opportunities for speaking engagements or instructional videos. You'll find no books detailing the dirt on his "last" season with the Spurs. And his charity work is notably absent of promotion or acknowledgment. There's a certain dignity to Popovich that makes even those that must hate him (like, for instance, every Suns fan on the face of the planet) respect him. There can be no doubt about his integrity, his accumen, his quality of character in the public eye. Not that he gives a damn. From all appearances, karma seems to agree with his choices and have rewarded him thusly. You don't see Tim Duncan falling into whatever coach the Grizzlies have schlocked on board.
Everything has come together so well for Popovich, in part because of the incredibly hard work he's put in. So part of him must want to walk off on top, with nothing left to prove. One more ride with Duncan and the gang before riding off into the sunset to a quiet life of novels and wine.
To do so, this is the attitude he has to take. There's no "hope to compete" when you're up against the competition he is. The Blazers improve every season, the Mavericks have upgraded after ousting his team in the first round, the Nuggets all of a sudden seem like a contender with stability, and if you get through all that, the gigantic dark mountain of the Lakers is still there. Like I said, some teams enter with championship hopes. Others have plans to contend over several years and pray for that lucky break. But if Popovich wants to win one for the thumb, he has to enter with no option of retreat. They've covered for the possibility of injury by bolstering their depth. And they have managed to cover every hole they had last year.
Offense was a concern with Parker, Duncan and Ginobili having to share so much of the load. With Jefferson on board, they have an immediate offensive upgrade, which means role players like Mason can focus on just knocking down shots instead of creating them. Hill has another year on him, meaning Parker won't have as much wear and tear. And instead of Matt Bonner and Kurt Thomas, they have Ratliff and McDyess, serious big men with size and a mean streak to bolster their frontcourt. They're able to do what they've always done, only do it better. And this is all before we start to examine the foreign players they have available, or their minor league development system in Austin, which is light years beyond what anyone else is doing.
The Austin Toros of the D-League don't just share the same colors as the Spurs. Their head coach Quinn Snyder regularly coaches with the Spurs, like in Summer League. Buford attends games and their front office is run by Spurs personnel. The star of that squad, French center Ian Mahinmi, will find difficulty in adjusting to the size and speed of the NBA, but not the offense. That's because the Toros run the same offensive system, albeit stripped down for security, as the Spurs do. There are plays right out of the Popovich book. It's these kinds of innovations that have helped the Spurs, and Popovich not only succeed, but succeed consistently.
If you're in the spotlight long enough, eventually the harsh light of criticism will fall on you. It's only natural. No one's perfect, after all. And Popovich has been with the Spurs so long, there are some that have questioned whether he's still the best man for the job. After all, he endorses youth movements about as often as he opens up about his "feelings" to the press.
For Popovich, his rigidness has been considered a weakness by some. The way he adheres to certain edicts without fail, such as his reticence to play Hill in the playoffs last year. But the roster has been adjusted to give him nothing but options, without having to sacrifice any of his strategy. Ginobili feeling run down? No worries, Malik Hairston fresh off a D-League stint can fill in a few minutes while Jefferson fills up the slack. Bigger players giving Duncan fits? Sick any one of their nastier frontcourt players on them, see how they like 'Dyess taking their legs out every other play. Need a rebounder who knows his role? Hey there, DeJuan Blair! Even with no picks in the first round, the Spurs still managed to nab an absolute steal that can't be considered risky, since they're loaded enough to not have to play him at all. They're playing with house money, and they have the dealer on the ropes.
Popovich has already cemented his legacy, and has to at least be discussed as one of the best coaches in NBA history. Now he's essentially called his shot in his own self-deprecating way. If you're a fan of any other Western Conference Team, including LA, be warned. The Spurs have dug themselves out of the grave again, and look hungrier than ever.
Don't poke the zombie.