By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
If you took a poll of their peers and asked them to name, year in and year out, the best coach in the NBA, the same name usually would show up.
That’s what happens when you spend 18 years establishing roots and a philosophy in a Spurs franchise that produces four NBA titles, 15 consecutive seasons of at least 50 victories and the best record in the Western Conference three of the past four seasons.
“I think for everybody in the league, you hope to get to that point where the established players, Hall of Fame type players, play in a system together for a long time,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “They know each other, know the amount of effort that it takes, know how to get ready for games and how to get ready for series and how to get ready to win championships. All those things come from some time. It’s been a phenomenal run. In my career in the NBA, it’s been the most sustained long run. It’s just amazing that Pop gets them to play the same way every year.”
But especially this year, when the pages on the calendar cry out that Tim Duncan is soon-to-be 38, Manu Ginobili is 36 and Tony Parker is 31. Especially this year when the Spurs have worn the scars of their devastating loss of a fifth championship that was in their grasp until the last 28 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Especially this year when Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Parker and Ginobili all spent stretches of time on the shelf with injuries or assorted aches and pains.
“Even if you have talent in this league, it isn’t as easy as people think,” Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman said. “You have to get guys to come together and get them to buy in and find a way that they can play as a team.”
Popovich, the longest-tenured coach in any professional sport, has won Coach of the Year honors twice before in 2003 and 2012. But the work he’s done this season just might be his finest.
He is the first to tell you that the Spurs keep winning year after year because they have the talent, professionalism and unselfish nature of their Big Three to be committed to common team goals. But they continue to succeed again and again because Popovich has ingrained a system where the ball moves to find the open man and the best shot on offense and the defenders’ feet move to cut off open shots by their opponents.
The cast of supporting characters changes frequently, but what doesn’t is the requirement to stick to the same basic, demanding understanding of how the game is played. He won’t lower his own expectations, but will constantly raise your own.
This season Popovich has coaxed and nurtured the Spurs to 62 wins in the powerful Western Conference, all while carefully managing the minutes of his stars. Not a single player on the roster plays an average of 30 minutes per game. Parker is at 29.6, Duncan and Leonard at 29.2, Ginobili 22.8. Parker is the team’s leading scorer at only 16.7 per game, but the Spurs have nine different players averaging at least 9.1.
The Spurs are strong. They are deep. They are resilient and healthy going into the playoffs and ready again to drill into opponents what has been drilled into them — the sheer simplicity and brutal efficiency of playing one way.
Pop’s way. Which proved to be the best way. Again.
Doc Rivers, Clippers — The veteran coach made the cross country hop and immediately changed the culture and the attitude of the franchise. He demanded and got more out of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and made a good team into a real playoff threat.
Jeff Hornacek, Suns — Getting his first chance as head coach, the last thing Hornacek wanted to hear was lottery talk. He took a disparate group of players and got them to share the ball and make the most of their ability. Nearly winning 50 games in the West is not to be undervalued.
Tom Thibodeau, Bulls — When Derrick Rose went down in the 10th game, he could have cursed the fates. When Luol Deng was given away to Cleveland, he could have thrown up his hands. Instead Thibodeau keeps grinding and now the Bulls are a fearsome matchup for anyone in the playoffs.
Steve Clifford, Bobcats — Another rookie head coach who gave the Bobcats what they’d been lacking for so long — an identity and a plan. He turned the worst defense in the league into one of the best (No. 6), made Al Jefferson the calling card of his offense and lifted Charlotte into the playoffs.