I was listening to J.R. Wilco and Phil Naessens debate whether Gregg Popovich is the best coach in NBA history, and it got me thinking about Pop's strengths and weaknesses. Popovich is fond of joking that his biggest strength is his ability to win draft lotteries for a once-in-a-generation big-man in Tim Duncan and that all he's done is "not screw it up."
Besides their endless displays of humility and self-deprecation, one of the most popular tropes through the two-decade Popovich/Duncan Era has been that the Spurs all-for-one, one-for-all mentality is fostered by the democratic and even-handed way Pop treats every one of his players, from Duncan to the last man on the roster.
We've read in hundreds of columns about the Spurs and heard it in countless interviews. For example, here's Tony Massenburg dishing to Ric Bucher, then of ESPN: The Magazine, back in 2005...
"This is the first team I've been on where everybody is treated the same," says reserve Tony Massenburg, who has been with a record-tying 12 NBA teams. (His Christmas present was a book on how to survive after 40; he's 37.) "Usually a coach will yell at the man next to The Man to make his point," he continues. "Pop gets in Tim's face and Tim takes it. That lets everyone know when Pop chews you out, it's strictly about what you need to do to get better. He can do that because of Tim- the most laid-back superstar I've ever known."
and here's Kurt Thomas, giving the goods to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, for an excellent Duncan-Pop story that wound earning Stein the 2014 PBWA (Pro Basketball Writers Association) Award for best feature...
"If you see the way he talks to Tim Duncan, you don't have a problem with him getting on your ass. If Tim can take it, you can take it. From the top guy all the way to the bottom of the totem pole, he treats them all the same."
But right below that was this quote from Manu Ginobili:
"He's very honest and straightforward," Ginobili says. "He says what he thinks, but usually what he thinks is not out of nowhere. If he unloads on you, it's because there's a reason. He knows who to unload on, too.
It's that last sentence that struck me -- "He knows who to unload on, too." It could've just been one of Ginobili's trademark affectations (English is his third language after all, and while his vocabulary would put many journalists' to shame, Manu is known for using malapropisms from time to time). But I think Ginobili meant, "He knows who is psychologically wired to respond to being unloaded on." The inference being that Pop also understands who can't be yelled at, either.
When we think of frequent victims for Mt. Popovich explosions, two names immediately spring to mind: Tony Parker, and more recently, Danny Green. We read and see the quotes about Duncan, but over the past 17 years, we've seen Pop blow up fairly infrequently. It happens, like in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals last year, but it's rare. With Green, we see it nearly every other game. And it makes me wonder: why Green all the time? Why not Boris Diaw or Kawhi Leonard or Patty Mills? Have you ever seen Pop go nuclear at any of them on the bench the past four years?
I don't think anyone is lying or being purposefully misleading about Pop being egalitarian in his blistering critiques of his players. I think he is democratic, in a way, but it has more to do with what the individual's mental makeup is than their status within the team. I don't think Pop treats Duncan and Ginobili the same as Parker and Green, but it's not because Pop likes them more or thinks they're more valuable to the team. I think it's just because he's found that Parker and Green will respond to be cajoled, constantly -- whereas with the others, negative reinforcement doesn't work the same.
Pop often uses the example of him yelling and screaming at Ginobili during his first couple of seasons because of the Argentine's unorthodox risk-taking and cavalier attitude toward turnovers. Then one day he decided to shut up and trust him. During the excellent Champions Revealed show Pop and The Big Three filmed after winning the championship last June, Pop offered this anecdote:
"One time in his rookie season, I asked Manu 'Why do you do that, what are you?' and he said 'I am Manu. This is what I do.' And from that day on, we pretty much let him do what he does."
It went beyond realizing that Ginobili's improvisations provide far more positive results than negative ones on the court. I think Pop also came to the conclusion that yelling at him and chastising him simply didn't work. When he makes a bad decision, no one gets angrier at Ginobili than Ginobili himself. You see it on the floor; the gesticulations, the swearing to himself. It's like a one-man opera of emotion. The last thing Ginobili needs to be told in these moments of anguish is how he screwed up. He knows. He sees the floor better than anybody and has a photographic memory.
Then there's Duncan. I believe he likes to be coached hard, like everyone says. But one thing I've seen, especially as the years have worn on, is that Duncan's had less and less patience for being chastised publicly. Pop can get on him all he wants in practice, but not during games and definitely not with the press afterward. Seems like nothing bothers Duncan more than Popovich questioning his effort --even if it's in the collective sense-- after a loss. It visibly annoys him, when almost any other type of question gets the famous Duncan poker face. From everything I've read and heard behind the scenes, whenever Pop and Duncan have their annual two-week divorce, it stems from Pop accusing him of not playing hard enough. Maybe it's how to push the big man's button to ramp him up for the stretch run.
Popovich has always been lauded for his ability to quickly judge people's character and find out what makes them tick. He speaks of players needing to "get over themselves" to fit on the Spurs and to be coachable, But he understands different people need to be told things in different ways.
In the end Pop does coach everyone the same ... even though he doesn't.