Gregg Popovich: Pope of the NBA's Coaching Church - Rolling Stone
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Gregg Popovich: In Pop We Trust

After guiding the Spurs back to the NBA Finals, is Popovich infallible?

Gregg Popovich San Antonio Spurs

Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Being an NBA head coach is a thankless job.

Their decisions are continually second-guessed by the talking heads and the NBA Hive Mind. Their tenures are short, their dismissals abrupt and unceremonious; at the moment, only three coaches in the entire league have been the job longer than four years. Above all else, their fate is sealed from the moment they take the job; they’re either fall guys for an incompetent GM, or mere pawns, subject to the whims of owners who are either blues enthusiasts or racists. Sometimes both.

Peter Matthew Bauer on the Popovich Plan

As a result, most coaches seem to spend very little time actually coaching. Instead, they act like low-level politicians, praising their players, pressing the flesh and attempting to placate the man behind the curtain (usually by giving minutes to dudes like Andrea Bargnani). Though their stated goal is to win championships, the implied goal is less glorified: a coach must survive.

There is, of course, one glaring exception to this obsequious approach to coaching, and if you’ve watched basketball over the past 18 years, you already know who we’re referring to: San Antonio’s gruff genius Gregg Popovich, four-time NBA champion and three-time Coach of the Year, the man who, on Thursday, will lead his Spurs into an NBA Finals rematch with the Miami Heat.

In an industry marked by continuous turnover and constant timidity, “Pop” is an anomaly of the highest order: He’s not only the longest-tenured coach in major American sports, he’s also one of the surliest. He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and, for some reason, we continue to love him because of it. Maybe we are all gluttons for punishment, or perhaps we’re searching for a bracing alternative to the Upworthy era of positivity, but whatever the reason, through sheer will power and miles of sneers, Popovich has become something more than just a coach: He has become infallible.

Let us bear witness to his brilliance.

Media-Relations Mandriarch

Popovich famously tortures reporters whenever possible, using dry humor and a deadpan face to illustrate the empty vacuity of most of their questions.

His post-game press conference following the Spurs’ Game 5 win over Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals was a classic example of Pop at his media-baiting best. He opened the proceedings by chastising a reporter for having food in his mouth (“I can’t understand a word you’re saying” was the exact quote to the poor, full-mouthed soul). He then followed that up by curtly responding “I have no idea what you’re talking about” to a reporter innocently asking about an on-the-court exchange involving Tim Duncan.

He capped it all off by mocking a reporter’s question with “Are you serious? They pay you?”

Amazingly, that exchange generated laughter from the entire media room, including the reporter on the receiving end of Pop’s barbs. And that’s what is so fascinating about the Pop-Media dynamic: despite his incessant mockery of their inquiries, he is seemingly beloved by every media member who has ever lived. Did they have terrible relationships with their fathers? Can you imagine Randy Wittman from the Wizards pulling this stunt off without being eviscerated?

The Player-Relations Pentateuch 

Popovich yells, cajoles and screams at his players during the game, willing them into the positions and dynamics he desires, and he doesn’t discriminate while doing it: superstars like Duncan and Tony Parker receive as much criticism from Pop as his end-of-the-bench players. And they accept it willingly. Parker has stated that “when he screams at me sometimes it’s tough, but at the end of the day I know it’s for the team. He always thinks about team. Nobody is bigger than the team. So if he screams at me and Timmy [Duncan] like that, then everybody will listen.”

He’s prone to public assessments of his players that border on cringe-worthy, but are graciously accepted as tough love. When asked about why point guard Patty Mills was playing better this season than last, Popovich explained: “He was a little fat ass (last year). He had too much junk in the trunk.Mills’ response? “I took that as a compliment, if anything.”

Most NBA players want more minutes, craving the opportunity to play as close to 48 as possible. Some of that is born of old-fashioned, competitive natures; more is about wanting the spotlight and gaudier statistics. Yet Popovich has developed a minute-allocation strategy that limits every player’s service time dramatically, essentially suppressing individual stats. The player on the Spurs who averaged the most minutes this season was Parker, at a paltry 29.4 per game, good for 110th in the league.

And yet no one complains, and everyone accepts their diminished minutes happily. In Pop they trust.

The Christophany of the Coaching Genius

Pop can get away with all of this because his results speak for themselves. The Spurs run of dominance over the last two decades is startling, not just for the consistency of their success but the degree to which it’s hinged on Pop’s preternatural talent for turning spare parts into elite contributors.

Boris Diaw? The slightly doughy Frenchman who never played hard and was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats in March 2012? He’s now a critical big man off the bench, and played a key role in shutting down the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Marco Belinelli? The non-descript Italian jump shooter playing minor minutes for a variety of unmemorable teams? He’s now an assassin, drilling open threes at a prodigious clip and stealing the hearts of countless female fans.

Danny Green? A cast-off from the Cavs with no future in the league? Now the starting 2-guard and an essential piece in the Spurs’ beautiful offense.

The common link is Popovich, who has repeatedly demonstrated a unique ability to emphasize the strengths of his players while minimizing their weaknesses, putting them in positions to succeed. It’s how the Spurs have continued to chug along towards greatness, inexorably, every single season. Much like the man himself.

And the longer Popovich spins gold, the more infallible he becomes. Surely, a lesser coach would have run himself out of the league at this point, yet, after 18 seasons, the Pop endures. He’s either the Pope Francis of the Association, or the NBA’s Distant Dad, the man we yearn to please. Probably both. Either way, we dare not disappoint him. And you can bet the Spurs won’t either.

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