Spurs coach Gregg Popovich got some media attention on Sunday for several reasons. One, he made his first public appearance since missing a week because of a minor medical procedure. Two, it was this year's one and only visit to Boston, a major east coast media hub. And finally, Pop was quite patient, expansive and at times even charming in his pregame chat, fielding all manner of philosophical questions. He didn't just answer questions for nearly eight minutes. It was a good eight minutes. I encourage you all to listen for yourselves.
The most revealing part, to me, came 4:23 in, when Popovich was asked, seemingly for the 8,963rd time, what he thought of such-and-such an opponent from his film studies; in this case being Rajon Rondo. Pop, true to form, answered the same way as he has for years, with some variant of "I don't watch other teams."
No matter how many times he answers the same question in the same fashion, it seems to surprise reporters. They assume it's just the usual "C.I.A. Pop" being secretive to a fault, refusing to divulge even the most most trivial of minutiae for paranoia that one crumb would lead to another, and then another, and wouldn't you know it, there's Tim Legler diagramming the sets right out of their playbook during the "A Block" of SportsCenter. Everyone just shrugs and concludes it's another non-answer within the purview of the Spurs "Family Business" mantra.
Except this time Pop expounded on it far more than he usually does. He explained what it is he does, specifically, and why, and if you paid attention and could read between the lines, you figured out that even though Pop isn't the one doing the scouting, the Spurs aren't exactly going into these games flying blind.
Could it be, that all these years that Pop was, technically, telling the truth about not watching other teams? How stupid are we that we never figured out the question all along should've been, "Pop, what does your coaching staff think of so-and-so?"
It seems so obvious and simplistic in retrospect, doesn't it? Ettore Messina, Jim Boylen, Ime Udoka and Becky Hammon all make a very good living, and their jobs consist of considerably more than reminding Popovich during games of how many time outs are left, of how many minutes Tim Duncan's logged and of how many fouls Kawhi Leonard's committed.
Every team divvies up their scouting of other teams among their assistant coaches. I don't know why we would ever think it's been any different with the Spurs. It could just be that Popovich has been at it this so long and earned so many plaudits for what's he's built that it's natural to think of him as some micromanaging control freak, leaving not the smallest stone unturned or the unlikeliest circumstance to chance.
On the contrary, those around the Spurs insist that Pop has always been democratic and egalitarian in his approach, not only welcoming contrary opinions but insisting on them if people are to work for him. Maybe he isn't as receptive of those opinions in the heat of battle, but during the game-planning stage, especially during the regular season when the games just keep coming at you one after the next? Then yes, I'm buying Pop the Delegator.
He's a coach in the purist sense, concerned only about the people he's responsible for and not worried about things he cannot control. He's spent nearly two decades putting this "program" together, and while the Spurs look like a well-oiled machine from the outside, he's the resident mechanic who's forever checking under the hood and running a complete diagnostic. As long as Manu Ginobili is throwing it into the fourth row and Marco Belinelli refuses to close on shooters, there will be work for Pop to do. Besides, if the Spurs play anywhere close to their potential, it's almost impossible to beat them most nights, regardless of what the other team's doing.
What's readily apparent is the Spurs go into games well prepared and with detailed scouting reports, even if it's not Pop leading those film sessions. Recently Ginobili was asked during a shoot-around prior to a game against the Pacers of the challenges of playing a team full of unknowns, since Indiana's entire projected starting five was injured. With zero prompting or clues whatsoever, the Argentine listed off the Pacer's entire roster and their attributes, naming, in order, Donald Sloan, A.J. Price (since waived), Damjan Rudez, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, Ian Mahinmi, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey.
For comparison's sake, let's travel back in time to March 6, 2006, and this story happens to involve Ginobili as well. I was living in San Diego at the time for college, so I had the Lakers feed on television as they hosted the Spurs at STAPLES Center. Both Ginobili and Michael Finley made five three-pointers in the game, which fueled San Antonio's win, and afterward, former Lakers guard Smush Parker was interviewed on the post-game show for Fox Sports Network West. I don't quite remember how question was phrased, but the reporter asked where the it went wrong for the Lakers, and Parker said something along the lines of, "We just couldn't stop their two shooters, Michael Finley and... um... Rick Barry."
Obviously he meant Rick's son Brent Barry, who had a quiet game that night for the Spurs. But that answer went along way towards explaining why Kobe Bryant quickly grew so exasperated with Parker and why Smush had to make a living playing overseas. Forget pregame scouting reports, the man couldn't even pay enough attention to recall who the star was in the game he just played in.
Then there's this story, closer to home, and you'll have to forgive me for being purposefully vague with the specifics. One time during the Popovich Era an assistant coach was tasked with scouting a playoff opponent for a series most experts picked the Spurs to win handily. They had handled the opponent in question easily during their regular season meetings and there wasn't supposed to be any drama. Lo and behold, it didn't turn out that way. The other team did a couple of things that caught the Spurs off-guard, and the series wound up going much differently than we all were expecting.
The next season that assistant coach was no longer on Pop's bench.
Hopefully, Pop won't get asked what he thinks of this guy and that guy on film anymore. I believe him now when he says he doesn't watch and I understand why. He holds his players accountable for their mistakes and he hold himself accountable for how they play. As to how the other team's play? The assistants are held accountable for that.