A colleague remarked in the morning that the best two days for Gregg Popovich interviews are "first-day Pop and last-day Pop," referencing media day to kick off training camp for a new season and the availability he has after exit meetings with the players. I can't quite recall the particulars of media day seven months ago, and there have been some entertaining pre-game sessions over the season, but I can confirm that Pop was as comfortable today as I've seen him all year.
Naturally, he was disappointed by the premature end of the season, but there was definite relief in his tone and a clearheaded resignation that it wasn't the Spurs' year, for various reasons.
"If you want to be hypothetical I guess you could extrapolate a bit and think about if we had won that game how much longer we could have gone, with the tank being a little bit empty I think, especially mentally," he said.
Pop was clear-eyed and level-headed when asked why the Spurs lost their first-round series to the Clippers. Injuries were an excuse, to a point, and he referenced Tiago Splitter going down late in the season and not recovering until the playoffs specifically as something that hurt the team's chemistry and rotations. He also explained that it might have taken too much energy out of the team to play as hard as they did over the last third of the season in an effort to make up for their relatively poor first four months.
"It was a real difficult year for us in a lot of ways, which injury and schedule coincided to, I think put us behind the 8-ball a little bit," he explained. "We recovered at the end of the year, had to dig down pretty deep to finish as well as we did."
Overall though it came down to individual performance, or lack-there-of, of the players. Just not many played well enough, and it showed.
"During the first round we needed to get some better performances out of three or four people, very frankly," Popovich admitted. "But that happens. When you do, you win championships. The year that we lost to Miami we didn't have more than two people who had real consistent play and Miami had five guys who were really on top of their games. The following year they had a couple and we had four, five guys on top of their games, totally healthy, that's what it takes. I think our guys gave it a great shot and considering the run they've been, both long term for decades and the past three years with conference finals, Finals, Finals, it takes a toll, it's hard to do and followed by a pretty difficult year this year, I don't think we were as sharp mentally and certainly physically as we've been in the past, but given that I was really proud of them, especially in Game 7, the way they came back and really dug down deep."
The questions eventually turned to the future, and while Popovich kept everything in general terms not only because he'd never tip his hand to reporters but also because of league tampering rules, he did seem excited about the future, for various reasons, the excitement of the unknown being among them.
"I wish practice started next week," he joked. "You do this for so long and you know already what kind of film you want to show them the start of September, the things you want to work on, that's just the way a coach's brain works. But it's probably for the best to take a break for a while, so I'll try to do that."
Of course, we asked Pop about the potential retirements of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, and predictably he didn't offer any answers there. In an odd way, they almost seem to be at the periphery of his off-season thoughts, as though whether they return or not is irrelevant to the main work that has to be done. It's plain that the roster needs an injection of youth, energy and athleticism, both up front and on the perimeter, where they need another playmaker and distributor, regardless of whether Ginobili returns or not.
"We've got a pretty good number of free agents so with R.C. [Buford] and the coaches and the group we've talked about what we want to do going forward with the makeup of the team," Popovich said. "But the team will probably look considerably different than it looks this year because we have so many free agents and we want to re-tool a little bit. We want to try to start — not exactly over again — but these last four seasons have been a grind and we put the team together with that in mind, that this year we'd have all the free agents so we can decide what we want to do moving forward, as far as the makeup of the team. So we'll spend a lot of time on that but as far as if guys are retiring or not we haven't touched that."
One thing Popovich made sure to reiterate is that he has no plans on going anywhere.
"I want a job," he chuckled. "I want to work. You can only plant so many tomatoes. Somebody mentioned paycheck, I never said that..."
The funny thing is, Pop might be the main factor in convincing Duncan and/or Ginobili to not hang them up. He was asked about if he reflects on what "The Big Three," have accomplished and his answer was revealing.
"The last couple of years I've thought about it a lot, how much I would miss it when they're all gone. It's like your family, so sure, I reflect on it quite often and think about when they're not here, but I have this strange feeling that when they're not here that I won't be either."
So Pop says he's coming back, but he's also saying that he can't see himself coaching without them, so by the transitive property...
The best part of the session came near the end, and it involved a topic that only tangentially has to do with the Spurs. Someone asked whether he thinks the league will change the "Hack-a-Jordan" rules in the off-season, and Pop's reply was typically brilliant.
"I think there will a lot of discussion about the fouling, as there should be. But principle-wise I feel really strongly that it's a tactic that can be used. If someone can't shoot free-throws, that's their problem. As I've said before, I think that if we're not allowed to do something to take advantage of a team's weakness, then a trade should be made before each game that we won't foul your guy, but you promise not to block any of our shots, or we won't foul your guy and you allow us to shoot all uncontested shots or something. We have to make a trade. So, I think on an intellectual or principle-basis, you're on high ground. Now, visual-wise, it's awful. It couldn't be worse. I tend to side on the principle side, where it's basketball, and if you've got a guy who can't shoot, and it's an important part of the game, I probably better get him off the floor. We'll see how it comes out, but I'm sure the way it looks will be discussed very seriously by the league."
Pop made sure to thank the fans who greeted the team at the airport Sunday afternoon and said he felt disappointed ("I feel like we let them all down,") in that respect. He's probably not too bummed about not having to deal with us for a couple of more months though. It's going to be weird not having Spurs basketball in May, our collective tomato-planting enthusiasm aside.
For more Pop quotes on Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and other topics, here's the full transcript from Dan McCarney of the Express-News.