Gregg Popovich gave USA Today's Sam Amick all sorts of juicy tidbits the other day, among them details like the exact length of the extension he signed last summer (five years), the revelation that he really doesn't expect to coach the full term of that deal and also that there is a calculated method to his madness for the way he conducts himself in those sideline interviews during nationally-televised games. Basically, it's a form of protest. I would argue that Pop is being a bit revisionist by choosing not to remember how he acts with the press at times after losses, but it's an interesting little quote from him nonetheless.
The money quote, however, was an opinion Pop shared about Tim Duncan, which was surprising on several fronts.
"No matter how (the season) ends, I think Timmy is going to look at (retirement) again," Popovich told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. "And if you ask me, my guess is that he'll go for another one because he has been so consistent this season.
"It's just consistent stuff: another double-double, over and over and over again. Because of that, I think in his mind that if it continues through the rest of the year, I think he'll say, 'I'm going to go another year and see what happens.' Because what he has told me is that the minute he feels like he's a hindrance to his team or he's not on the positive end or helping him, he's going to walk right off the court. It might be during the third quarter of a game.
"He's not going to hang on to finish a contract or make the money or have the notoriety that you know he doesn't give a (expletive) about. So the way he's playing now, he's going to look in the mirror and say, 'Hey, I'm doing all right.'"
Here's why the story surprised me. First, I would never expect Pop to ever guess at Duncan's intentions on a subject like retirement on the record with a reporter, no matter how good the relationship between Popovich and said reporter is, especially considering how emphatic Duncan has been about not wanting to discuss this particular subject in public. I'd say outside of discussing his private life, the will you/won't you retire questions are Duncan's second-biggest turn-off. And Popovich certainly knows this.
Secondly, Pop is not the type idly speculate about anything. He's a big advocate of not worrying about things you can't control. So my educated guess is that fairly recently, despite Duncan's oft-stated position of not even thinking about the decision until the off-season, is that either he or someone in his camp gave PATFO some strong indications that he's leaning toward coming back, or at the least that retirement isn't a definite "yes."
Finally, Pop subtly called out a number of Spurs including Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tiago Splitter in the story, while praising Duncan's play. This had been an issue earlier in the year, when Duncan made it plain that he disliked being lumped with the others when Pop called out the team's effort in losses, especially in games where Duncan had played well. It is Duncan's one and only point of vanity. Pop can curse him out in practice, away from prying eyes all he wants, and he can even suggest that Duncan played poorly when the occasion fits, but do not ever question his effort publicly. It really upsets him. Ever since that incident (I want to say it was after the home overtime loss to the Lakers) Pop has made sure to clarify that Duncan is the exception when it comes to critiquing the team's effort.
Though Duncan doesn't pay attention to media, word always trickles in one way or another. My theory is that Pop wants Duncan to hear as many flattering things as possible. It's why he gives flowery interviews about him to national reporters. I also believe he's subtly putting pressure on Duncan to keep playing. He's making it clear that he doesn't want to coach a mediocre team led by Kawhi Leonard and Parker on his last legs. Heck, if he can convince Duncan to stay on for one more, that might pull in Ginobili for another year too. These are Pop's guys. They're all he's known for the past 13 years or more. He doesn't want to work with new people. He's too old to learn new tricks. Even Leonard's already in his fourth season and it's more like five years if you add in all the playoff wars. I think Pop meant it when he said, for years now, that he was intent on following Duncan out the door.
There's also this tidbit, again from another extended interview Pop granted, this time to Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen, about Leonard. Though he can't name names because of the league's tampering rules, Popovich implies pretty clearly that he doesn't expect at all to be able to land a big star in free agency (such as LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol) even if the Spurs have the cap room. So, just for the sake of the 2015-16 Spurs, Duncan or Ginobili might be their best --or even only-- chance to even be a fringe contender. If they don't come back, then the next best plan, really, is to make up an injury to Leonard and tell him to spend the year relaxing on a beach somewhere, maybe pretend to be Larry O'Brien trophy and visit Ginobili in Argentina, Duncan in St. Croix and Bonner in New Hampshire.
In closing, I'd just like to add (with help from Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney) that Tim Duncan is a Golden God and I never want him to leave.