Pop led Spurs out of Finals doldrums

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich accepts his third Coach of the Year award

SAN ANTONIO – Last summer was unlike any of the previous 17 in Gregg Popovich‘s career as coach of the San Antonio Spurs. The long days passed, but the doldrums from the Spurs’ heartbreaking Finals defeat to Miami bogged down like a stagnant lake in the Texas heat.

The 2013 championship was right there, 28 seconds from glory for a proud San Antonio franchise, the model of the NBA if not professional sports as a whole. But everybody knows what happened next. Popovich lived with it every day thereafter until he finally could not any longer, when the players returned to begin, somehow, a brand new season.

“The way we lost in the Finals wasn’t an ordinary loss; it was pretty devastating,” Popovich said Tuesday afternoon at the Spurs’ practice facility as he received the Red Auerbach Coach of the Year trophy. “And we decided that we would just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way; don’t blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that. The Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that’s that, and you move on. In all of our lives there are many things more important than winning and losing basketball games and that’s the perspective we had to take. And our team showed great maturity and resilience in being able to do that, so I’m very proud of them for that.”

Their resiliency also came during a period of transition on the bench. Popovich’s longtime aids, Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer, became head coaches.

But nothing seems to phase this group. With Manu Ginobili turning 36 over the summer and Tim Duncan celebrating his 38th birthday on Friday, neither had to return, or return in better shape than they finished the previous season. When this season could finally have been the one that signaled the inevitable descent it seems has been predicted for the past half-dozen seasons, the Spurs won 62 games, the second-most of Popovich’s 18-year career and earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs with the league’s top record.

With the Spurs, everything is a collective effort. They win together, lose together and plan how to win again together.

“We’re fortunate,” Popovich said. “These guys don’t care about stats, they only care about winning basketball games. You might get a championship, you might not, but you give it your best effort. But these guys could all have better stats. I play them for 29 or 30 minutes a game in their careers and their stats suffer because of it, but that sacrifice helps our entire team. and this year, whatever adversity we had — every team has adversity — but our bench really helped us through that. We would not have had the same success without what our bench did. I think that and the leadership that our older players showed helped us get through the hard times.”

In accepting his third Coach of the Year trophy, joining only Pat Riley and Don Nelson as three-time winners, Popovich spoke sincerely. He praised owner Peter Holt for granting he and general manager R.C. Buford, who sat next to his friend of more than two decades at the table during the news conference, the freedom to do their jobs, and said he was humbled to be singled out among the many worthy candidates this season that included first-year coaches Jeff Hornacek at Phoenix and Steve Clifford at Charlotte, plus Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, Portland’s Terry Stotts and others.

None faced quite the unpredictable psychological hurdle that Popovich did with his heartbroken team.

“I think his steadfast attention to detail and facing the realities of last season’s end and immediately getting it behind us was really important,” Spurs general manager Buford said. “And his approach with his staff was different because it was a different staff, but the energy and the leadership we’ve seen has been consistent throughout his time as a coach.”

But of course it wouldn’t be a Popovich press conference without a measure of snark, and Pop didn’t disappoint.

When asked about losing his two longtime assistants, he interrupted the questioner:  “Thank God.”

Asked where he displays his Coach of the Year trophies, Popovich said: “They’re on the hood of my car. … I’ve got three of those right on the hood.”

As a younger man, Popovich dreamed of a playing career in the NBA before turning to coaching, getting his start as an assistant at the Air Force Academy. Asked if he knew he wanted to coach in the NBA once he didn’t make it as a player, Pop responded: “Larry Brown screwed me as a player. He had the unmitigated gall to pick David Thompson over me back when he was the Nuggets coach.”

Brown, of course, is one of Popovich’s mentors and who helped him get to the NBA, a place Popovich said was never truly a goal. He said he would have been happy to live out his days where he spent his early coaching days at Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in California.

“For me, the NBA was watching on TV back when they had the long nets and watching the ball go through the long nets; I really enjoyed that,” Popovich said. “I was fat, dumb and happy as a Division III coach. I could do it the rest of my life, it was fantastic, I loved it. But all of us take a different road here and there. The NBA was never a dream or thought of, ‘I’m going to go to the NBA and be a coach and do this.’ I had no clue.

“We run a lot of the same drills to be honest with you, pivoting drills and sitting on chairs, silly things like that, but all fundamental basketball stuff. After that, let the players play. They know how to get it done.”

So, too, does Pop.

36 Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    You know this is just the same in any other field.
    You would think experience showes us at least anything, but alas.
    Disagree if you will but the world changes rapidly, and we have no control whatsoever over it.
    E.g., imagine Barack had enough balls to put Vladimir to his place, but it seems like it’s never happening, welcome third world war.
    A truly inspiring post, thanks!

  2. Charles says:

    I don’t really understand why he wont this, to be honest. Obviously he’s a good coach, everyone knows that, maybe one of the greatest. But this team wasn’t on the cusp of something terrible where he had to pull them up and make them better. He wasn’t given a bunch of young guys that he had to mold and improve. He’s done a great job over the years, but this year, he’s just worked with the team that made the least changes in the league (If not the least, than close to that), and was already situated as one of the best teams. They’ve played together, they’ve played for him, what was his coaching challenge that set him above the other coaches? Telling them to do what they have been doing?

    I’m sorry, but with all due respect to his accomplishments, I don’t agree with him winning this.

    • bunbury says:

      popovich is arguably the best nba coach of all-time. the spurs had the best record this year and he doesn’t deserve it??

  3. Rob says:

    One of the greatest ever basketball coaches no doubt and to think he never played professionally.

  4. Ced says:

    Pop is one of the great. I just hope they can win that ring this year. Get Tim Duncan more help down low for next year. Go Spurs Go !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Get it done

  5. Shad says:

    Congratulation to the greatest to ever coach!

    Well deserved! Keep up the good work Coach.

    Hope you get your 5th this year.

  6. eastbrook russell says:

    @Kalbo I like the Spurs as much as you do right now, but they haven’t exactly been pulled down by the system. Look back in those Spurs-Suns series back in the day, a few crimes were committed in back to back years ((not that the Suns, as good as they were, would win it all under D’Antoni’s inexistence anyway). Great teams won’t be stopped by the market need, with the one exception of the Lakers-Kings Conference finals 14 years or so ago. It has otherwise been the team that deserved it the most, year after year. Pop is great and will always be, but the burden of that game 6 loss rests with his last minute choices. The Spurs were the better team by that point, but given those decisions and a few missed free throws, Miami suddenly showed they deserved it more. Unfortunately for us basketball fans, Miami won and deserved so, because Pop 1. Made the deadly mistake to render the game over 2. Frowns upon the call to foul when you’re up by 3 in Europe. Rather strange since his team dominates the game playing the European way. It took me months to actually understand that Miami won and it should have happened that way, no miracle no nothing, as much as it hurt.

  7. Nuno says:

    I´m a heat fan but I love this guy, he is a gentleman, last year in the finalls he lose the championship but never lose his composure.

    I Think the Spurs are one of the best times in the league and the main reason for that is Popovich!!

  8. Google007 says:

    Great JOB coach POP! Keep it up! Hope to see you guys in the Finals against the HEAT!

  9. NBA rocks says:

    Pop deserves it

  10. chadie n says:

    he doesnt need that, he want the larry o’brien

  11. Suriken says:

    Congrats to Pop from the ukrainian Spurs community! Go Spurs Go! SAS only SAS!

  12. gunner says:

    What is the criteria for the selection of coach of the year? Is it base on team performance?

  13. Mike says:

    I love this game. I love that guy.

  14. GoSpursGO says:

    Congrats Coach pop! well deserve award to you

  15. Heat_fan says:

    You deserve this award Gregg! As a heat-fan I must admit that you made the Heat perform the way they did last season, because of the way you lead over the Spurs. Thank you for making me looking even more forward to watch an eventual rematch between these two great teams that The Heat and the Spurs are. But unfortunately for you OKC gonna kick you out before you reach to the finals this time…

  16. Kalbo!! says:

    I personally don’t really give so much damn whether they win the championship again or not.

    Of course i would be be delighted for they deserve it. But it’s not about the ring. Their 17 years says it all. Rings are now just for the business. Manipulations happen to influence and help the market-favorite team to win.

    Imagine the Spurs being that consistent and even winning 4 titles with the whole NBA organization pulling them down.

    Enough said. Even if heat makes their 3peat this season (although it seems unlikely) they can’t be compared to the Spurs! Not even close. It’s like comparing kobe to MJ.

    • lumenpierce says:

      I feel the same thing. I would love the Spurs to win it all, but I don’t expect them to. Just the fact that with their big 3 nearing retirement and they’re still on top? Man it’s incredible!

  17. heimdall says:

    I PERSONALLY DO NOT LIKE THE COACH OF THE SPURS BUT WHAT HE TOLD GINOBLI AFTER THE BIRTH OF HIS CHILD WAS COMPLETELY UNCALLED FOR BUT MAYBE HE WAS JUST BEING THE JERK HE ALWAYS IS

    • Kalbo!! says:

      What a bitter hater!?

      A jerk that has way more sense in the world than you do who probably knows only to put up uneducated comments like that.

      • Mike says:

        Popovich has a relationship with his players that every other sporting coach and business manager could only dream of having. He can say what he likes to his players, because they know how much he cares for them.

  18. Latigo Spurs Rapper says:

    Congratulations Coach Pop! From your fans here in Cebu City, Philippines. :-)

  19. Lalhbir Chatrath says:

    Well deserved. Go Spurs GO.

  20. LPack says:

    So proud to be a Spurs fan. Well deserved Coach Pop!

  21. Bryan Watson says:

    Two things I miss about San Antonio,,, My church, My Spurs and the food… Okay so 3 things I miss about San Antonio. Up here in Dallas proudly wearing my Spurs shirts. Go Spurs Go!!!

  22. Willy Spurd says:

    Nice to hear him speak more than 3 words. Go Spurs!

  23. george torres says:

    bounce back? from what? they’ve been floating up there for like… forever? great job coach, you deserve all that… amazing team, amazing organization and most of all amazing coach.

  24. Greatest coach ever! He is the genius of basketball.

  25. Realist2014 says:

    Greatest coach ever in my book. Everyone gives it to Phil Jackson but he’s always had teams of ringers. Pop takes a bunch of guys you never even heard of and makes you say who the Hell is that. Players trust him, never hear about them in the news, They sacrifice for each other and it pays off as they’ve consistently been a solid team. Much deserved

    • Common Sense says:

      I agree and disagree. I agree with your reasoning for him being the best ever but not for being better than Phil Jackson. It is absolutely an art what Coach Pop does. Making average players work their butts off and sacrificing personal goals for a team effort is nothing short of remarkable, and his uncanny ability to avoid the press and allow his team to go for a 20 game streak while getting almost no attention in the NBA is beyond me. But Phil has an amazing ability to manage hyper, gigantic egos! This too is a talent. There are many coaches that landed the talent he did, but the teams break up, and move on. He had the ability to manage the super ego, and keep the team together. No one can do it like Phil! Therefore I think they are tied because it’s almost apples and oranges.

      • Marco29 says:

        Agreed. Not sure Phil would have been as successful in SA or Pop as good to manage the gigantic egos of MJ, Pip, Kobe or Shaq even though the second is more likely. Almost 2 different jobs.
        Pop is arguably in the Top3 or 4 on the all-time lsit with Auerbach and Jackson and maybe Riley.
        Hope the Spurs win the title this year after Pop let it slip through his finger last year.

  26. Jan Peten says:

    Pop and the Spurs are amazing!! Im a Lakers fan but I must give them a lot of credit because they’re the most consistent franchise not only in the West, but in the whole NBA. I hope they win it all this year, they deserve it!

  27. BlackDove- says:

    Legendary. What a coach, what an organisation.

  28. Kevin Wright says:

    Great for Popovich!

  29. Kevin Wright says:

    Spurs is a very very strong team, beast coach ever and team.