We are at the midway point of the 2022-23 season, and it has been unlike any season many Spurs fans have ever been a part of. They’re rebuilding with the goal of the top NBA Draft pick, but unlike the last two times they were aiming for (and won) the number one pick, the odds are much more stacked against winning the lottery these days thanks to the league’s new anti-tanking measures, not to mention they have plenty of company at the bottom of the standings.
As a result, the uncertain future can sometimes lead to overreactions, with a recent example coming from a recent interview from two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic (which I can’t find the original source for, but a translation was provided on Reddit, so it was presumably with his home country of Serbia). When asked how long it takes him to learn plays, the Denver Nuggets star gave the following answer:
“In a really short time. I think it’s a big advantage I have. In a recent conversation I had with Gregg Popovic I told him I could play for them since I know all their plays, I even know the signs he throws. I think it can really help a player to know what to expect. That stayed with me since Europe where our coaches say: ‘This is where we stop their play with a double or to deny them.’ It really helps me and makes my job easier offensively and defensively.”
For some, this quote has the ability to (and has) triggered some overreactions. Some might see Jokic joking he could play for Pop as meaning he might be interested in joining the Spurs someday, but be at ease, Nuggets fans, and don’t count on it, Spurs fans. It was said in jest, Jokic has a great situation going in Denver, and he recently signed a supermax contract. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
The other part that seems innocuous enough to me but has provoked concern from another Spurs blog is Jokic’s point that he has Pop’s playbook memorized and knows his hand signals. While Air Alamo sees this as meaning his offense has gotten too simple and needs a revamp, I disagree. To me, this quote speaks more to Jokic’s offensive mind, dedication to the learning the game, and being the best he can be, which includes studying the game of one of the greatest coaches ever. (Not to mention, he straight up says that learning the other team’s plays is what they are taught to do in Europe.) If anything, it sounds a lot like Jokic has a Tim Duncan-level work ethic, which is more about him than it is a knock on Pop.
But should anyone still be concerned about the simplified playbook Pop has this year, he’s just adapting to the roster he has, which is a young one that’s developing it’s talent. Part of being in a rebuild with an extremely young roster and lacking a go-to All-Star means things need to be simplified.
As fans have seen, especially during their many fourth quarter meltdowns this season, the current Spurs are not ready for a complex playbook, hence why they tend to get severely out-played down the stretch when good teams turn on the gas. The Spurs are simply out-talented on most nights, and when they try to get creative under pressure, bad things (like turnovers) tend to happen. So while some may see this as Pop having nothing left in his bag of tricks, it’s just him working what he has.
This concept shouldn’t surprise anyone because it’s what Pop has always done. From the running the offense through Duncan and David Robinson in the post early in his career, to changing to a system that took more advantage of the speed and driving abilities of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, to the Beautiful Game that culminated in a championship, and back to a more old fashioned offense to maximize the abilities of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, Pop has a serious knack for adjusting to what he has, and that’s what he’s doing now.
And in case anyone still doubts Pop’s abilities to coach or believe his decision to participate in a rebuild is hurting his legacy, check out this video from Secret Base about how Pop became the G.O.A.T. of basketball coaching — by doing what he’s doing now: building from the bottom up.