I originally titled this "A Look at Gregg Popovich: The Good, Bad and Ugly and the punchline was going to be that he's the ugly, only I was going to lead off with the ugly thing in the intro because I needed to write some words before the jump and I couldn't think of anything, so there you go.
This is actually going to be
mostly halfway non-complimentary, I swear.
You don't trust me? Well you'll have to read for yourself then... GO! gogogogogogo.
As most of you may know, I've had my issues with The Superfluous G over the years. I think his mantra of "getting over yourself," is ironic, because I have yet to see any evidence that he ever has, judging by his dealings with the press, the ultra-paranoid (and, let's call a spade a spade, quite possibly fascist) way the Spurs operate with the fourth estate in general per his commands, and the stubborn refusal he's shown over the years to either never embrace certain players (Udrih, Barry, Splitter) or to never stop embracing others (Van Exel, Finley, Blair).
Man, that was a long run-on sentence. And we're not off to a very complimentary start, are we? I'm such a shitty writer.
I had a few concerns about the 2011-12 Spurs before the year started. Some that were justified as it turned out and some not so much. I'd love to claim I'm some expert or novel thinker when it comes to basketball in general or the Spurs in particular, but the truth is there are thousands of folks out there who work harder and think deeper about this stuff, taking the time to crunch all sorts of numbers for formulas I can't hope to understand. That leaves me to use only my ignorant biases, random generalizations, and my ample gut to theorize and provide explanations for things I can't possibly know.
All of the following is probably complete utter bullshit you don't need to read. But the "truthiness" quotient won't be too off.
Okay, so after taking the time to sit down and really think about it, if you were to break down the season so far into categories of "Good Pop," "Bad Pop," and "Lucky as hell Pop," a fair breakdown would be 40-20-40.This may come off as some unjustified insult, but it's not. All pro sports teams need an unimaginable amount of luck to win big. True difference-making superstars are so few, especially in basketball, and the variables for what can go right or wrong are incalculable.
Take the Jordan-era Bulls for example. First they had to have the ridiculous good fortune that the team drafting ahead of them in the 1984 draft had Clyde Drexler on the roster already, so they valued Sam Bowie more. Oops. Before you feel too bad for the Blazers, just remember that they learned from their mistake and it all worked out well for them 25 years later.
Where was I? Right, the Bulls. Anyway, even Jordan alone couldn't win it all. He needed a sidekick. Now I know former Bulls GM Jerry Krause said the first time he saw film of Central Arkansas prospect Scottie Pippen that he had an orgasm (that's not me being vulgar, he actually said that), but still, Krause had no idea that Pippen would ever become the player he'd become, just like the guy before Krause who made the no-brainer Jordan pick had no idea he'd go on to be the greatest ever.
Even then, these guys needed the right coach. No NBA team in 1990 would've ever hired Phil Jackson, who had no NBA head coaching experience previously. He was too much of a hippie wild man. But the guy who preceded Jackson, Doug Collins, was such a tightly-wound micromanaging spaz that the Bulls had to go with the complete opposite of that. Jackson happened to meat Tex Winter in his coaching journey, he introduced the triple-post offense to the Bulls and blah blah blah, six championships.
Still, that doesn't even factor in that in all those years, all the games, both regular season and playoffs, all the countless practices, neither Jordan nor Pippen nor anyone of consequence really suffer any kind of serious playoff series altering injury. That's pretty lucky.
Now Pop has never had any problem admitting his good fortune in landing with a team that won draft lotteries a decade apart to land two of the best big men of all time. I've long contended that the Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker drafts were almost equally as lucky, because while the Spurs did their leg work on both, they never projected either to be anything more than rotation guys. Hell, they liked Gordan Giricek more than Ginobili initially, and Parker bombed his first workout for the Spurs so badly that R.C. Buford had to beg Pop to give the French teenager another shot.
We don't need to go into a long term paper about all the ways luck factored in the Spurs four championships. I trust you all are objective enough and have good enough memories to think of some examples.
Where I think luck helped the 2012 Spurs is in three major ways, two of which Pop couldn't have possibly seen coming.
1) Manu breaks his hand.
The story of Pop traveling to the Olympic qualifying tournament to talk trash to Parker and inform him that that level of intensity and leadership is what he'd have to bring to the Spurs sounds all wonderful in theory, but the fact of the matter is that for the past two seasons the Spurs were, essentially, Manu Ginobili's team. Parker even said as much. Ginobili was off to another fast start in this campaign (even though he had no training camp and was in the worst shape of anyone on the team by his own estimation) while Parker started off poorly. It took Ginobili's injury to really transfer that responsibility to Parker, and to his credit he took that opportunity and ran with it.
Manu's injury has been a mixed blessing for various reasons. It forced Pop to give Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green more playing time (and hastened those players' development) and it reduced two frantic months of wear-and-tear from Ginobili's legs. Hell, even after he came back Pop was afraid to play him over 24 minutes. Somehow I doubt Ginobili would have 2.8 dunks in him on April 29 had he played the whole year.
2) Cap'n Jack comes home.
Sure, it all seems like a terrible nightmare now, but that wasn't a dream, ladies and germs. Richard Jefferson, that brainless, soft, unmotivated pile of crap, with literally one of the lamest tattoos on the planet (and I know a thing or two about having lame tattoos, ask Manoli) was actually our starting small forward for two-and-a-half seasons. With him still here we're probably a third seed right now, maybe worse, and no kind of contender unless Pop pulls him from the rotation completely and either Green or Leonard show remarkable poise in the playoffs for a youngster.
Just do me a favor: Picture all the minutes Stephen Jackson played for the Spurs these past two months. Now picture those minutes being taken up by Jefferson. You had to force down some vomit right then, didn't you? Anyway, looking back on it, clearly the Spurs should've amnestied RJ, because he blew ass this season. But they didn't, and got away with it because my local "professional" basketball team is run by idiots. The 30th overall pick for $22 million the next two years? Sure, why not?
Anyway, Pop was gonna keep running Jefferson out there as long as he was on the roster. Holt doesn't believe in sunk cost. It really worked out quite well that the Spurs were the only NBA team who'd take a flyer on Jackson at this point and also the only one where he could get along with the coach.
3) Boris loves Tony.
On this one I'm willing to give Pop some credit. I have a feeling this move was in the works for a while. Maybe Pop didn't know in the off-season that Diaw would be a Spur, but I have no doubt he knew well in advance before it actually happened. Parker's his de-facto assistant GM for all the French guys, just as Manu is for the South Americans.
Now here is where Pop gets credit for being good.
1) Offense is less tiring than defense.
I think I wrote about this last year. I think Pop and Buford made the conscious decision a few years ago to change their philosophy to go from defensive-inclined role players to offensive ones. Not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
For all of Pop's ranting and raving about defense, I think the dirty secret is he actually doesn't want the big three to expend much energy at all on that end of the floor during the regular season. Defense is tiring. Defense requires maximum effort. Defense leads to injuries. Pop just wants his guys to stay healthy. Brilliant offensive execution is a cheap and easy way to win a shit ton of regular season games against crappy teams that don't happen to have three of the top 25 players in the league on their roster.
The media idiots will swear that the Spurs aren't one of the most talented teams in the league, because for most people "talent" equals running, jumping, 360-degree dunks and alley-oops instead of basic basketball fundamentals and being able to understand and execute 5-on-5 offensive and defensive concepts. As counter-intuitive an opinion as this may be, I don't think Pop does too much coaching during regular season games. I think most of his work gets done in between, during practices, shoot-arounds and video sessions. As arrogant as it sounds, I think the Spurs actually "out-talent" most of the teams they play, by virtue of the brilliance of not only their big three, but also their overall depth.
2. Sagging inside the paint.
As awful as the Spurs defense has looked at times, the little-known secret about them is that when they've been exploited, it's been hot-shooting perimeter teams, not the interior bullies (with one notable exception). Again, the mediots like to use stereotype that the Spurs are soft and undersized up front, and while there is some truth to the latter, the fact of the matter is they just don't give up very much scoring inside the paint, even though they don't have any elite shot blockers.
Pop made the decision in the off-season to have his wings sag in the paint. We don't throw hard doubles at the bigs (mostly because so few in this league are worth the trouble), but we pester them just enough to make them think. Our wings stick their arms in there, they hedge, they do a lot of half-way things. It works well particularly with Green and Leonard because they have can swipe the ball and cause havoc.
Where it backfires is we leave shooters open from 18-23 feet more than anybody. I mean, wide open. Not just the role players too, a lot of the good ones. Sometimes guys get hot and hit five, six in a row. Sometimes, like that Miami game, or the Chicago one, no one ever seems to miss.
Pop's gamble is that Tony and Manu (and Tim, sometimes) will create more wide open looks than the opponent. Our guys will share the ball and be more patient, not settling for just a good look but he best look. Pop's betting our shooters are better than the opponent's shooters, and that during the course of a 48 minute game, if both teams play the same way, we'll make fewer mistakes (offensive rebounds, needless fouls, unforced turnovers, transition points) and make more open shots. Pop always says basketball is as game of mistakes and when the Spurs lose he usually says the other team made a lot of shots and the Spurs didn't make enough. Obviously he's speaking in cliches, but Pop doesn't speak much, if ever, about defense these days. He speaks about effort, aggression, ball-handling, passing and shot making, but not defense.
It doesn't have to be dominant to work. Just do enough things write to outscore the other team by a basket or two each quarter, and it comes out to a deceptively easy 8-16 point win in the end. I like to think of facing the Spurs the way batters talked about facing Greg Maddux, "a very comfortable 0-for-4," because he didn't strike too many guys out or feature 101 mph pitches to worry about. He just moved the ball in and out, changed speeds, and got people to hit the ball off the sweet spot of the bat for easy ground balls and pop flies.
Similarly, the Spurs won't throw down all these fancy dunks or swat your shots into the fifth row. They won't talk trash or preen for the cameras and embarrass you. They'll just play their game, let you have your share of the highlight plays, both teams will have open outside shots galore and when it's over and you've lost by 15, you'll wonder "How did that happen? We were playing well."
3. Big Three Bench-warmers
Obviously the team needed to rest their stars in this compacted 66-game four month sprint, but the lengths that Pop went to, pretty much refusing to play Ginobili more than half the game even though he was begging for more minutes or limiting Duncan to 28 a night, looked to be extreme. On two occasions he outright tanked games that seemed important at the time, and in others he rested Duncan or Manu separately. At the time it seemed he was being overly cautious with Gino, especially after his return from the oblique injury. Now, it looks as though Manu had to sit out some games, as he revealed it was taking him forever to regain fitness and that he was dealing with a lot of muscular issues (cramps, pulls or tendonitis, I'm guessing).
I thought his decision to rest one of the big three in each of the first back-to-back-to-back was brilliant and couldn't understand why he didn't adopt that strategy in that ridiculous April schedule, resting one of the big three in each of the non-playoff teams we'd play, so we never tank a game but still reduce fatigue on those guys.
Pop's way worked out better than I could've dreamed. They only tanked the one Utah game, lost another to LA, but played it mostly serious every other night and were so dominant that they hardly ever needed to play anyone over 15 minutes anyway. I often marveled at his rotations, the way he'd get 13 different guys to play between 10 and 20 minutes. That takes a lot of choreography from the staff.
No matter what anybody tells me about the importance of health, even if I hear it straight from Tim or Manu's mouth, I refuse to believe the team didn't care at all about record and having home court over Oklahoma City and Miami. Sorry, the way they played Tony and Manu all three nights of the second b2b2b, played the big three against Cleveland after that last Lakers game and played Tony and Manu the next night after that against Portland is all the proof I need that they cared. And they damn well should have!
Besides, Pop and the big three did fly to Phoenix. I don't buy that they made that trip because the NBA ordered Pop to play that Suns game straight in case it held playoff ramifications for Utah. I think the big three flew down there just in case Miami beat Boston the night before and the magic number to clinch home court over Miami was still one. Once the Heat lost to the Celtics, then there was no reason to risk playing anyone. It was probably for the best that the Suns lost to the Jazz anyway, just so the Spurs wouldn't have caught too much flak from the league and enraged Utah fans.
I think if you stick truth serum in Pop, he'd tell you he wasn't as worried about Chicago having home court because he still thinks Miami (or Boston) are the favorites to come out of the East anyway, but that he definitely wanted home court in a potential game 7 with Miami or OKC.
Now here are my issues with Bad Pop.
1) Not enough time on the court for Tiago and Tim.
I know they haven't been good at all offensively, and I understand the "stretch four" dynamic that makes this offense so potent, but still, it's another wrinkle to use, another look we can make people have to prepare for and it's a way to play Tiago more minutes. We're still relying more on Diaw than Splitter to beat the Lakers, and that worries me. I want those two guys to be able to play down the stretch of a game where we've got a lead.
2. Too quick a hook for the kids.
Pop pulls Green and Leonard at the first sign of trouble, usually a defensive screw-up. I think it sends a bad message. I've read countless articles stating that players love to play for Pop because he treats Duncan the same as the 12th man. Baloney. Tim, Manu and Tony all make plenty of mistakes, but they're not walking on egg shells. I think Pop needs to trust these guys more. They're a big reason why we got here. In fact, if we cut down to a nine man rotation as we go deeper into the playoffs, I'd drop Neal (terrible defender) before either Green or Leonard. Give Manu the 12 minutes at backup point while Parker is on the bench and that equals about 108 available minutes between him, Leonard, Green and Jackson. Give Ginobili 33 of those and that leaves 75 for the other three, 25 per. Perfect. If either Leonard or Green are really struggling one game, then give the spare minutes to Neal.
3. Won't fight for his team.
I'll get into this more some other time, but sometimes I get sick of Pop's classy bullshit, especially this time of year. The players need to know their coach has their back. It's plain as day that the league and its TV partners do not want the Spurs to do well in the playoffs. I am deathly afraid we won't get a fair shake by the refs, even at home. Phil Jackson was a master at using the manipulating the media to bitch about the refs and get calls for future games. Pop never, ever, ever talks about calls. He leaves his guys out there naked to fight for themselves, and then pisses on their graves, saying the other team was the aggressor, that they were more physical and we were soft, even after games like the recent one at Utah, where it was a complete screw job.
Then thee was that last game against Memphis, where the Spurs won to complete the season sweep and then he said if the teams met 10 times it'd be 5-5. What the fuck was that shit, Pop? Why plant that seed of confidence in the Grizzlies' heads and doubt in our guys' heads? Why not show some pride and confidence? The Lakers always believe they're the best team, even when they're not, and it usually works for them.
To me Pop constantly gives off this air that nobody should ever respect the Spurs, nobody should care about their games, nobody should watch them play and that anyone who spends time thinking about sports is an idiot. I hate it. You make millions of dollars because people care about this. You've got countless fans who live and die with this stuff. It's an entertainment product. You coach one of the most exciting, most offensive teams in the league. Why not puff your chest out, just one time and say, "Our team got screwed because of x,y, and z and if you all watched us play you'd see this, that and the other.
I just feel like the Spurs are always so content to be out of sight and out of mind, and while that works in the regular season, it can have dire consequences against the league's darlings come May. Derek Fisher in '04? Mavs games 3 and 4 in '06? Brent Barry in '08?
This isn't 2005 anymore Pop. Your guys need every edge they can get. You gave them the physical edge with rest. Now give them a mental one when they need it. One catchy sound bite a game, timed right, can work wonders. Get people talking about your team. Make it a conversation topic. Make it interesting to people.
The basketball isn't going to be enough. IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BASKETBALL.
(Okay, that's a preview into next time... I'll just close by saying I think Pop did deserve the Coach of the Year award, but it's not like I would've kicked a puppy if Thibedeau won it)