CHICAGO – Gregg Popovich walked onto the court at United Center Tuesday night with a minute to go before the horn that sets everything – anthem, intros, tip-off – in motion. The San Antonio Spurs’ coach headed toward the far end and was met just past mid-court by Tom Thibodeau, his Chicago Bulls counterpart. The two men shared a quick, manly embrace, a few words and a couple of quick smiles before retreating to their respective benches.
There, Popovich huddled up with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, each one ready to go. Thibodeau glanced down the way at Derrick Rose, on the bench in a suit again.
The Spurs and Bulls coaches share a lot: gruff exteriors, no-nonsense expectations for their teams and highly watchable end-of-quarter interviews during network games. But they don’t share championship rings – Popovich leads 4-0 – and they don’t share good fortune in the availability of their best players.
“I was stunned the other day, I didn’t realize – I think it was the Miami game – someone said he had coached more games without Derrick than he had with him,” Popovich said before the Spurs’ breezier-than-the-score 104-96 victory Tuesday. “That just threw me back in my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t imagine coaching more games without Tony and Tim and Manu.”
Yeah, well, he hasn’t had to. No coach in NBA history has had a trio of players for as many games (662) as Popovich has had Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
Three teammates in Boston (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish), in Detroit (Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and Vinnie Johnson) and in Los Angeles (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper) actually have logged more games together – 729, 711 and 663, respectively – but they did so for multiple coaches.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all are shoo-in or likely Hall of Famers, and, in regular-season games in which all three participate, they are 489-173, a .739 winning percentage. Compare that to Popovich’s 463-266, .635 mark when he has to get by with two, one or none of this Big Three. (And frankly, of the relatively few times none of the three has played – just 14 times since they’ve all been teammates – Popovich usually played a role by resting them. They’ve gone 4-10, per NBA.com statsmeister John Schuhmann.)
Just with Duncan alone – the best of the bunch – the numbers are telling. The Spurs’ two-time MVP and two-time Coach of the Year have been lashed together for nearly 17 seasons, with Duncan playing in 1,238 of the 1,391 games Popovich has coached. That’s 89 percent.
Wait, there’s more: Duncan has played in 885 of Popovich’s 952 career victories. That’s 93 percent. Their record together: 885-353, good for a .715 winning percentage. Popovich’s record without Duncan: 67-86, .437. Of course, that includes the 1996-97 season in which Popovich took over for Bob Hill, steered the David Robinson-sidelined Spurs to a 17-47 mark the rest of the way and put them in position to get lottery-lucky for … Duncan. Brilliant!
In the 17 years since Duncan arrived as a ready-made franchise anchor from Wake Forest, he has missed just 89 games. Popovich’s and the Spurs’ record without him: 50-39, .561.
Compare that now to Thibodeau, who took over in Chicago in time for the 2010-11 season. He and Rose clicked immediately and remarkably, producing a 62-19 record for the Bulls and the NBA MVP award for the 22-year-old Rose, its youngest winner ever.
But Rose suffered through a variety of ailments in 2011-12, followed by the torn ACL injury to his left knee that wiped out 2012-13. Followed 10 games into this season by a torn meniscus in his right knee and another season down the tubes.
Bottom line: Thibodeau has had Rose in only 130 of his 294 games as coach. That’s only 44.2 percent. The Bulls’ franchise guy has played in 99 of Thibodeau’s 192 victories. That’s 51.6 percent.
Rose’s and Thibodeau’s record together: 99-31, .762. Thibodeau’s record without him: 93-71, .567.
Thibodeau isn’t one to make excuses, but he did acknowledge some of the benefits of having your best player(s) available. Heck, he, Popovich and the other smart guys in the league understand that’s No. 1 on the list of keys to coaching success.
“There’s no question,” Thibodeau said. “It’s funny – Pop is always tweaking things – but the core of what they do has been the same for a long, long time. You can see, when you have the same players over and over, the different options that they get to. And how they play off plays. A lot of it is a split-second decision where you know what the other guy is doing and you know what he’s good at.”
Popovich said a lot of nice things about Thibodeau, too, in terms of being consistent, even “persistent,” in his approach and setting standards. But the Bulls roster has swirled around its coach in ways San Antonio’s has not, from Rose to Luol Deng to parts such as Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, C.J. Watson and others.
Center Joakim Noah, on board through Thibodeau’s tenure but an evolving player in that time, said after Tuesday’s beating that the Spurs’ experience, stability and continuity remain huge advantages.
“They play for each other,” Noah said. “The way they cut, the way they screen, the way the ball moves. Thibs is right, the way they play the game, you can learn a lot from them.”
And you can win a lot with them.