SAN ANTONIO – For nearly two decades, there have been many different ways to describe the enduring success of the Spurs.
In the Alamo City, it’s known simply as Pop’s way.
It’s contentious and cranky, irascible and irreverent, insightful and often inventive.
Year after year, more than anything, it’s just winning.
Gregg Popovich was named the 2011-12 NBA Coach of the Year, the second time he has won the honor, once more validating a style and an attitude that permeates the Spurs organization.
“That’s probably overblown I’m sure,” Popovich said. “When you win a lot of things get attributed to you that you shouldn’t get full credit for and when you lose you get a lot of things you shouldn’t be blamed for.
“We’ve just been blessed with people who understand their priorities and are very team and community oriented. Our organization has also been blessed, as I’ve said many times, with incredible good fortune. If you can draft David Robinson and follow that up with Tim Duncan, that’s a couple of decades of very, very possible success unless you just screw it up.
“It’s hard to take credit when the circumstances have gone your way so consistently. There are a lot of people who have been in circumstances that have not been in their favor that would be just as successful in this situation, but just didn’t have the opportunity. So we don’t pay much attention to that.”
However, so many of the players that have passed through the Spurs locker room and organization have paid attention. Just the other day, Stephen Jackson said the Spurs were “the most family team” of any in the league. Whether they are franchise icons such as Robinson or Duncan or Sean Elliott or role players like Steve Kerr and Danny Green or a rookie such as Kawhi Leonard, they note that there is a special attitude that starts at the top.
Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional American sports and holds the best winning percentage of the longest tenured coaches (.679). In addition, his 847 victories with the Spurs ranks second all-time in NBA history for wins with one team, behind only Jerry Sloan in Utah with 1,127.
In his 16th season as coach of the Spurs, Popovich guided San Antonio to a league-tying-best 50-16 (.758) record. The Spurs ranked second in the league in scoring (103.7 ppg) and point-differential (+7.2). In the second half of the season, however, the Spurs were the league’s most dominant team, posting an NBA-best 26-6 (.813) record while averaging league highs in scoring (108.3 ppg) and point-differential (+10.8). In the process, Popovich guided the Spurs to their 15th consecutive postseason berth, which is the longest active streak in the NBA. San Antonio won at least 50 games for the 13th straight season — all during Popovich’s tenure — surpassing the Lakers (1979-80 to 1990-91) for the longest streak in NBA history. The Spurs also set a franchise mark with three double-digit winning streaks.
“Pop has provided this whole organization with a vision and a clarity of purpose, as players, coaches and staff, that has put us in position to be successful,” said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. “Through his hard work he’s taught us the importance of pounding the rock.
“For everybody who has been a part of our team he’s been a mentor and a friend, always stressing that the real rewards of the job come from caring for each other and trusting each other.
“This is a difficult profession, but Pop loves doing it. The challenges are unique for all 30 coaches and their teams. Pop and his staff have done a terrific job molding both the inexperienced and the experienced into a team we’re all proud to be a part of, at the same time developing relationships that will last our players a lifetime.”
For a coach with a resume that already includes four titles, this has been arguably Popovich’s best season ever. Dealing with the added burdens of the post-lockout schedule, he rejuvenated a team with a veteran core around Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, he worked Green and Leonard into the starting lineup and, in the process, transformed the once-plodding Spurs into a high-octane offense. Yet he kept his core principles.
“We haven’t really changed our philosophy in the sense of what we think wins and what we want to emphasize,” Popovich said. “The pace was a little bit different. We probably had to be a little more simple. ‘Less is more’ is a big motto for us this year, because you can’t get in everything you want to get in. We’ve become a little bit more of an offensively-oriented team as we evolved. But other than that, the principles that we live by and things that we think should pay attention to have all remained the same.”
In the 50-year history of the Coach of the Year Award, only five of the past 49 winners have gone on to win the championship in the season in which they won the award —Red Auerbach (1965), Red Holzman (1970), Bill Sharman (1972), Phil Jackson (1996) and Popovich himself (2003).
“The players I’ve had the privilege to coach have been incredible,” Popovich said. “The fact they allow me to coach them the way I coach them surprises me, almost on a daily basis.
“It’s a great group of people who, as I always say, have gotten over themselves. They come to practice; they play the games; we win, we lose, we go home. They do it wonderfully and Timmy is the guy who is in charge of all that. He sets the tone for our players and our success.
“Although all of us have a part of it here, those are the guys who get it done. They are the most important part of what we do and they’ve done it wonderfully. Win or lose, they do it with class. They do it the right way.”
That is, Pop’s way.