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What Gregg Popovich's contract extension implies about the Spurs' future

With Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all under contract only through the 2014-15 season, the coach they call "Pop" signed on to the Spurs for multiple years. This says a lot about the man, and where his team is going.

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So Pop has signed a multi-year extension. It says a lot about the Spurs and the man himself that I didn't know how many years he had left under contract. I know the Cavs are on the hook for Mike Brown's contract for two more seasons. I know Derek Fisher and Steve Kerr signed gigantic deals despite being first time coaches. And I know Jason Kidd made a power play that might have been an elaborate ruse to escape the Nets and land with the Bucks in the first place. But I never thought about Pop as a Spurs employee .

At one point, Pop's future was surely questioned, but it's been years since that point. I looked for a press release about Pop's last extension but I couldn't find one. Even this Marc Stein article chronicling Pop's career is missing that data point; that's how much a foregone conclusion his return must have been. This two sentence press release the Spurs posted to announce his extension is really not exciting or surprising and would have come and gone without comment from me, except for a compound word that I can't get out of my head:


Duncan's decision to come back for at least one more season was a big deal. Despite constantly mentioning he was going to keep playing for as long as he felt effective, there were understandable doubts about Timmy's return. Going out on top, just like The Admiral did, had to be tempting. And an uncharacteristic scheduled appearance on a talk show on the day that he was reportedly going to let the Spurs' know his decision -- well, that only heightened some fans' paranoia.

But Duncan came back. He opted in and will be a free agent after this season. He looks spry and said he plans to hold on for as long as possible on "Kawhi Leonard's team," but he will be 39 when his contract expires. A possible retirement after 2014/15 is not inevitable but it wouldn't be shocking either. And yet  Pop -- the man who joked for years that he was going to follow Timmy out the door 15 minutes after Duncan decided to hang them up -- has signed a multi-year contract extension anyway.

There are two ways to interpret that. First, it's possible Pop and Duncan spoke and Timmy assured him that he was sticking around past this upcoming season. It's hard to imagine that happening, but it's tempting to consider. Assurance that Duncan is playing for a few more years is among the best things, possibly the best thing, Spurs fans can imagine. As intriguing as that option is, the second interpretation is even more fascinating: Pop is willing to commit to the post-Duncan future. And that could have serious implications on how the franchise moves forward.

After this upcoming season, the Spurs will have some very tough decisions to make. Is Kawhi Leonard worth the max? What's Tony Parker's next contract going to look like? Is Green's value largely predicated on his low cost to production ratio or is he the type of player you commit big money to? If Duncan and/or Ginobili come back, can the team still compete with that core or do they need one more big piece?

While Pop's presence doesn't make those decisions less important, it could make them easier. For the franchise, Popovich's presence would signal a mandate to keep  trying to win it all. It's hard to see the 65-year-old Pop being as willing to commit to a rebuild as the 48-year-old version of himself was when he took over for Bob Hill. As for the free agents, it might be the deciding factor between coming back or leaving, between prioritizing money or loyalty.

Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have pretty much only been coached by Pop as pros. Their decision of potentially giving the Spurs a hometown discount might be linked to his presence. Tony Parker has mentioned that he has signed for less in the past because he knows "Pop will take care of [him] until the end of his career." If Pop's continued presence makes Tony feel safe about one more contract past this upcoming one, he might be amenable to coming back for a reasonable salary that still gives the Spurs room to bring in reinforcements.

Spurs fans have been waiting for that star player that Duncan could pass the torch to-- the heir apparent that could span two eras of Spurs' basketball. A once-in-a-generation talent to ease Timmy's burden, help the team remain not only relevant but essential to the fabric of the NBA and give us a glimpse into the future. Kawhi Leonard's performance over the past two post-seasons is an encouraging sign that they could finally have that guy. Could Pop's presence, along with the potential for ample cap space, help recruit another key piece?

Nothing can assure anyone that those rare transcendent players will choose or fall to the Spurs, or that Leonard will reach those heights. Then, if they intend to remain in the limelight, the Spurs would have to go an unorthodox route and achieve a continuity of greatness through their coach and his system instead of a splashy free agent signing or lucky bounce of the ping pong balls.

Pop's commitment wouldn't just mean a lot for the Spurs' free agents; it could mean a lot for any player deciding where to sign now and in the next off-season. The core is aging and the role players seem to come out of nowhere -- yet the Spurs keep destroying teams. The idea of Pop's system as some sort of magical concoction that extends careers and maximizes talent might not be exactly accurate but it's hard to shake. The Spurs don't have the flashy up-and-coming stars or the allure of the big markets but they have Pop and that might count for something, now more than ever, after that fantastic performance in the finals.

It wasn't always like that.

Gregg Popovich signed a four-year contract extension Tuesday, 11 days after coaching the San Antonio Spurs to their first NBA title.
Popovich had one year remaining on a three-year deal. The new contract keeps him on as both coach and general manager.

"He has really proven his ability to put together successful offensive and defensive schemes, as well as build a team that thinks and plays as a team," Spurs chairman Peter Holt said.

July 6, 1999.

Those words Peter Holt said after the 99' extension are as true today as they were back then. But at that point Pop wasn't a household name. He was a young coach who looked like he'd gotten lucky in the lottery. 15 years later, Pop is arguably as big a star as any other leader to ever roam the sideline, potentially even eclipsing his own players without trying to. His acerbic style with the press is as famous as his ability to adapt to the talent of his players. The Spurs are the modern team to imitate because of Duncan, Robinson, Ginobili, Parker and yes, Gregg Popovich.