How Cooking Stew is Like Coaching a Team

Mar 23, 2012; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich during the first half against the Dallas Mavericks at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE
"Gotta stand and face it
Life is so complicated."
-The Kinks, "Complicated Life"

I've been cooking a stew this morning. I love stew, because it's so simple in concept, execution, and taste: Oh, sure, some ingredients don't go well together, but usually - if you put enough heat and water to a lot of ingredients you like and act carefully and deliberately - you will get something pretty decent. You can't make anything out of anything, but you choose a base of liquids, herbs, broths, and oils, you put in meat and vegetables, and you add enough water so that it covers everything, and you have a good stew.

Writing isn't rocket science. It's not hard, at least in its simplest work-a-day form: You buy and prepare the right ingredients: you read the right pieces, you have conversations. You make a base: you start with what you're good at and what you're knowledgeable in. And you put it all on the slow-cooker: you apply time and thought to what you want to do. But you have to treat it like it's simple and most of all, you have to have the tasty stew in mind - as motivation and direction - when you're doing everything. You can have motivation and direction independently - say, to make people happy, to say something funny, etc. - but if you don't have that tasty thick coriander/cilantro base in your head and how it will fit with the ginger and the pork shoulder and the salt, you're going to have trouble figuring out how to go about adding ingredients. Whoops, kind of a mixed metaphor. Heh.

But in any case, that's where I've been recently. I've been plenty motivated, but as with a recipe with too many moving parts, I've given up on dozens of fragments and half-developed stations and settled for rice and oatmeal -- simple stuff like editing friends' pieces, leaving comments, and reading anything and everything I could get my hands on. My biggest problem hasn't been wavering interest in eating but figuring out exactly how the end result is supposed to taste. Heh.

And - all this in mind - I think it's time for me to get back to cooking a meal from start to finish, and that starts with getting the taste of the stew back. Last night many of us watched the Spurs carve up the Mavericks defense (to get the proper visuals, carving has to refer to crisp passing, right?) for most of the game. There were multiple plays where four separate Spurs touched the ball with less than a second of holding it between them, and there were scarcely any traditional pocket-passes or reverses around the perimeter that existed just to inflate that number. I can play one of them in my head, the one with the two interior passes in one second. All the players responsible have such a mix of patience, unaccountable quickness, and finishing ability that you just never know who will start or end a given play. It's great.

Anyway, I woke up this morning and took a bit of a longer view, and it feels like something y'all would enjoy. I've had some pretty high-falutin' ideas recently, but none of them came to much. This is a simple idea, but I like what I've got here more than any of that stuff. I think last night was the taste I needed. So, without further ado:

• • •

Not long ago, I asked him his most important job as coach. He sat quiet for a moment, his face unfurrowed and blank, thinking, then said simply, "To get the right players on the ice."

Gregg Popovich is legendary for a whole lot of things:

  • Being elite at running effective set plays in a league stuffed with great coaches.
  • Trading up and scouting for "character guys" and "role players" so well and so many times that we forget that it's not the norm at all.
  • Being elite at creating effective matchups in a league stuffed with coaches and match-up nightmares.
  • Managing minutes effectively for a seemingly perpetually aged, crusty group of players.
  • Creating offensive systems with roles that seem to match the skillset of his players perfectly.
  • Having tough, cerebral, gritty defenses.
  • Choosing a fine, humble, reticent public image despite a personality and a situation that usually commands book deals, self-promotion, and credit sought.
  • Emphasizing to new players that he values simple roles and high degrees of focus; doesn't screw around with complex expectations. Playing within yourself, in other words.
  • Having power in a league where most of the power is held (for better or for worse) by players.
  • Doing all of this, combined, for 15+ years.

But - as the Stephen Jackson trade (and the Kawhi Leonard/Boris Diaw acquisitions) has shown us - as important as anything is that Popovich gets the right players on the court: on a moment-by-moment, year-by-year basis.

Tremendous wingspan aside, isn't Kawhi Leonard the type of person you want on the court stopping a defender cold and finding the ball in a scrum? Isn't Stephen Jackson the type of person you want making the other player uncomfortable? Isn't Tim Duncan the guy you want in the middle, or at the elbow, when the Hall-of-Fame-bound guard makes his move or sees a hard hedge on a pick to split to a rolling freak of nature? Aren't Tony and Manu the types of people you want at the top of the key against a physical defense that takes dribble penetration and layups as personal attacks?

Sure - obviously - you can't separate these questions from these players' skillsets, physical attributes, or perceived intelligence: If a player can't do something, or doesn't have the mental or physical speed to live up to a task, then asking them to play beyond themselves for a sequence is kind of asking the absurd and asking for failure. And you especially can't ignore situational factors like fatigue, recent injury, and matchups: Situationally, whatever you think about their on-court characters, Gary Neal has a higher release and a faster release than RJ and Bonner at a similar efficiency. That was the reason he was there - for example - at the end of Game 5, possibly nothing more or less.

But once the skillset and the situational questions are out of the way, who do you turn to? Bruce Bowen talked in his jersey retirement speech about how he tried to make Ginobili uncomfortable in practice, and Ginobili just took the abuse and shrugged as if to say "Is that it?" Popovich himself tried to screen out Tony Parker early on by throwing waves of vicious defenders at him, and yet Tony made the same sort of response. Then Popovich was so harsh and unyielding to a rookie Parker that you might've mistaken him for a college coach. Tony just got better. As for Stephen Jackson, I think we've all seen what kind of teammate he is what lengths he would go to to protect them. Kawhi Leonard? He seems to relish being in the midst of a play on both ends, to play with such singularity of purpose that his "rookie mistakes" and "rookie wall" were never there to lose in the first place.

And as for Tim Duncan - the great anchor - well, I don't expect I'll have to convince you of anything, but here's what his Wake Forest coach Dave Odom had to say in this wonderful 2003 profile of Duncan:

"Everything I do is basic, and that doesn't sell," Duncan says. "I don't have the icing. My icing is, I just want to win." Such simplicity is boring to some, but for those watching closely, "there's a purity there," [Duncan's Wake Forest coach Dave] Odom says, "that's almost surreal."

I think that about sums it up.

In an age of "systems" and "concepts" and fervid self-promotion, his answer may seem a little unsatisfying; but though misleadingly simple, it is how he coaches. No one has ever heard of a "Bowman system" as they have a "Shero system." Fred Shero’s Flyers, a good but limited team, needed a system. To be effective, they needed to play just one way, and to play that way so well they could overcome any team. Bowman’s team is different. Immensely talented, immensely varied, it is a team literally good enough to play, and win, any style of game. For it, a system would be too confining, robbing the team of its unique feature—its flexibility.

-"The Game," by legendary goalie Ken Dryden, on his famous coach Scotty Bowman

Against Dallas we saw Popovich make a bunch of subs fairly quickly in the second half, and I had to ask: Is Popovich switching the players out 30 seconds into the second half because the matchup advantages of the subs are so much better than the starters? Is he subbing the players out to get a different look on the floor, a different style of play? Is he subbing the players out because the ball has been stagnant and Popovich wants them to know that that's unacceptable? Is he subbing the players out because it sends a signal to the rest of the team that this is the time to go for the jugular and not to let Dallas back into the game?

The answer is yes. The questions are not separate, but all speak to one central motivation: getting the right players on the court, not the right skillset or the right character or the right position, but the right players, the player and lineup that best solves for the pattern of the situation and the team. That includes character, that includes skillset, that includes the roles generally expected of them, and luckily we have a coach Popovich who selects preternaturally for all three facets in his players and understands the logic of their combination in lineups.

What gives me hope this season is not the stellar record or the ways the pieces fit or all the neat passing or the great defense we saw last night. No, what gives me hope all the evidence we have that these are the right players on the court for the task before them: to win any game that is set before them, until no games remain to play.

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