The NBA's recently unveiled GM survey had all the unintentional comedy we've come to expect and enjoy: someone nominated Carmelo Anthony as a likely MVP, someone claimed Kevin Durant was the best shooting guard in the league, and one misguided individual suggested that the Celtics signing Darko Milicic was an underrated move. Every year there are nuggets like these and it's not hard to understand why. General Managers probably fill those out in a hurry or pawn it off to an underling who may or may not understand basketball.
But there was one thing that was consistent in the survey: Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the league and it's not even close. Pop got 80% of the votes on "who is the best coach?", 60% in "who is the best manager/motivator of people?" and 40% in "who makes the best in-game adjustments?" Pop even got some credit for his defensive and offensive schemes and Mike Budenholzer was barely edged by Brian Shaw as the best assistant coach by a 3% margin. Simply put, GMs think the Spurs have the best coaching staff in the league.
Now, contrast that with recent claims from angry Spurs fans that Pop got out-coached by Scott Brooks in the West Finals last season and was the reason the Spurs lost. It seems that something is amiss. So, are the GMs and reporters that claim Pop is the best in the game overrating him? Has he really led his team to overachieve based on his schemes and motivation? To find answers, we first have to look at the Spurs' roster. Fans have a tendency to overrate their own players, so it's entirely possible that we don't value Pop as much because we value the players too much.
The Spurs certainly are deep; a fact they use that to their advantage. Without counting Richard Jefferson, for a multitude of reasons, San Antonio had 10 guys playing between 32 and 19 minutes a game last year. Aside from Parker, no one averaged more than 30 minutes for Pop. This is far from the norm for NBA teams. Even a deep team like the Nuggets had at least 3 players with playing over 30 per game. The Spurs' two most used lineups were the starters and a bench-only unit, meaning that Pop often used two completely different 5 man units and managed to make each of them balanced and productive. The starters played better defense and the bench better offense but both had positive numbers. So the question remains: is that Pop's doing or are the players good? The answer, as far as I can tell is both.
Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw are not stars by any means, but they are competent role players. Green is the one that might have benefited from good coaching the most after being waived twice (once by the Spurs) but Diaw and Leonard came in with their God-given talent already apparent. Parker and Duncan are kind of good, as you might have noticed. That takes care of the starters. The bench features Manu freaking Ginobili and Stephen Jackson, two veterans that would start for most teams. Tiago Splitter was a star in Europe and is arguably the best back up center in the league, and a case could be made that Pop has trouble figuring out how to use him. Where Pop's hand comes in is with the other two members of that offensively great bench unit: Matt Bonner and Gary Neal. When T.J. Ford was injured, Pop transmogrified Neal into a PG, to mixed reviews, but undoubtedly having Gary and Bonner on the floor made the Spurs' offense much more potent. So as far as system players, we can credit Pop with unearthing the talents of Green, Neal and Bonner and using them in the best possible way.
As far as motivation goes, Pop usually says something to the tune of "these are grown men. They don't need me to say anything to be motivated" but he clearly does something right. Diaw and Jackson bounced around the league for years but then adjusted to the Spurs culture almost instantly and performed better than expected. Tony Parker responded to Pop's challenge to lead with arguably his best season as a pro. Even the much maligned RJ transformed his game for Popovich. He can't get through to everyone but he consistently gets players to buy into his system and play cohesively with one another. And yet his request for nasty went largely unanswered last post-season by guys like Green, Splitter and Bonner. Does anyone think he was asking Stephen Jackson to get fired up? It was Tiago, Tony and the rest that he was trying to rally. They did not respond.
That leaves in-game adjustments. Facing an 0-2 series deficit, the Thunder made their changes. Pop cut Splitter's minutes, he benched Green and started Manu and went small often with Jackson at PF. He even released Blair, who had been glued to the bench, but kept the rotation shorter than before. As you all know, it didn't work. At the same time, weren't those the right moves? Many have pointed out that the starting lineup was doing great at the start of games and the collapses usually started late in the second and early in the third quarter, but going with players that were responding like Jackson and Ginobili instead of sticking with Green, Splitter and Bonner is hardly a bad call.*
But aren't those the players Pop gets credit for using? Green, Bonner and Neal were the guys that best showcased Pop's penchant for finding unlikely contributors. If they don't come through when it counts, are they really great findings, or are they fundamental flaws in the Spurs system? The Spurs rely on players that might struggle to have a positive impact in the playoffs because they are valuable in the regular season (instead of vice versa, like Robert Horry). Is it a good thing that Pop is able to mask the team's deficiencies so well during the season if they are exposed in the playoffs? Like LasEspuelas recently said in a comment, in just a couple of games, the Spurs went from a rotation of 10 to 7. If Pop gets credit for using his deep bench and making unremarkable role players mainstays on the team but then both those aspects of his approach backfire, shouldn't he also shoulder the blame? And considering his adjustments were pretty conventional and didn't change the momentum of the series, was the Spurs inability to respond for four straight games Pop's fault?
Even the most rabid of Spurs fans will acknowledge that there are other teams with younger or more talented stars. At this point, it should be understood that last season's team overachieved; even Pop said so. But overachieving is not enough if it's done by ways that are not conductive to ultimate success. Finishing with a great record and destroying inferior teams with your depth and your offense is certainly a great thing, but only if you can adjust to better defensive teams later on and come out on top. Relevance is great and harder to achieve than most of us realize but ultimately the goal is a championship.
I'm certain Gregg Popovich knows this, of course. And the way he has handled the team is very likely the Spurs' best shot at achieving that goal; after all, the team was two games away from the NBA finals. But willingly ignoring that maybe his approach was as responsible for the team's fall as it was for its greatest moments is convenient but simplistic. I still want Pop roaming the AT&T Center's sidelines over any other coach and I truly appreciate his genius, but let's leave the idealizations for people that are long gone from the game. There will be time to build the shrine of Pop when he's sipping malbec in Argentina. For now, let's keep in mind that yes, those GMs are right and he is the best coach out there but he's not without weaknesses. Neither is he immune to mistakes, nor the criticism those errors elicit.
I caved in and am on Twitter now, so you can follow me for some bite-sized pearls of wisdom @JejeGomez_PtR
*If you disagree, imagine the firestorm Pop would have walked through if the Spurs had been eliminated as he stuck with the rotation from the first four games even Green was neck deep in his slump, and Bonner was being targeted and victimized every moment he spent on the floor.