Because of "the system," Popovich—who just notched his 900th career victory—can get away with benching most of his starters and still come close to upsetting the defending champion Miami Heat. But more importantly, it also happens to be the reason why the Spurs recently became the first team in NBA history to win at least 50 games in 14 consecutive seasons.
The genesis of "the system" came back in 1996 when Gregg Popovich hired...himself. As San Antonio's general manager and vice president of basketball operations, Popovich assumed the team's bench duties after the Spurs fired head coach Bob Hill early in the 1996-97 season.
Without the services of David Robinson, thanks to a back injury, the Spurs got out to a 3-15 start that year, and the team's dismissal of Hill was a bold change made in an attempt to save the season. "You have to be crazy to be doing what I'm doing today," said Popovich upon replacing Hill.
More than 16 years later, a move that was unpopular at the time proved to be the best decision in the history of the San Antonio Spurs' franchise.
His stint on the Spurs' bench didn't start off on the right foot, however: Popovich went 17-47 in his first year as head coach. In his defense, he was dealing with a roster that was decimated by injuries.
Both Robinson and Sean Elliott missed extended time that season, and by the end of the year, the team was forced to start 32-year-old journeyman Greg "Cadillac" Anderson and 37-year-old Dominique Wilkins.
The dark cloud that hung over the Spurs that season did have a silver lining, however: San Antonio's struggles netted them the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft, and the team used that selection on Wake Forest power forward Tim Duncan.
The tandem of Robinson and Duncan would prove to be too much for the rest of the league to handle, and the Spurs would go on to win the NBA title during the lockout-shortened 1999 season. But even that campaign wasn't all peaches and cream: San Antonio began the year with an 8-6 record, and there were plenty of calls for Popovich's head.
"I also caused El Nino and tripped Mary Decker," joked Popovich at the time when the subject of his job security came up.
That would be the last time that Popovich ever had to worry about his employment status. The Spurs would go on to win 29 of their final 36 games that year before capturing the franchise's first-ever championship.
Popovich's journey to the mountaintop was extraordinarily quick for a man who cut his teeth as a coach during eight seasons at Pomona-Pitzer College. And with three additional titles to his credit (2003, 2005, 2007), Popovich has established himself as the best coach of the modern era not named "Phil Jackson."
While most NBA bench bosses lead a nomadic lifestyle, San Antonio is the only place that Popovich has ever known as a head coach. Thanks to his ability to convince dozens of players to buy into "the system," he is one of just two coaches to win 900 or more games with the same team (former Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan is the other).
Stephen Jackson swears by Popovich. Players who were once thought of as marginal talents—Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Bruce Bowen, Matt Bonner, Avery Johnson—have thrived in San Antonio. If, for some reason, a player doesn't work out with the Spurs, it rarely appears to be Popovich's fault.
But not everyone is a devotee of the "Tao of Pop." Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports wrote earlier this season that NBA commissioner David Stern has had a long-standing dislike of the Spurs and their "uninteresting, unappealing and impossible to market" style of basketball.
So when Popovich decided to send four key players—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green—home prior to the Spurs' Nov. 30 meeting against the Miami Heat, the decision didn't go over so well in the league office, and San Antonio was fined $250,000.
"The Spurs decided to make four of their top players unavailable for an early-season game that was the team's only regular-season visit to Miami," said Stern in a statement issued by the league. "Under these circumstances, I have concluded that the Spurs did a disservice to the league and our fans."
The fact that it was San Antonio's fourth game in five nights (and fifth game in seven nights) was inconsequential to Stern, but it meant everything in the Spurs' head coach. And that's part of the beauty of Popovich: He has no qualms about making unpopular decisions that he feels are in the best interests of his team going forward.
His is a macro view: Winning a single game is far less important than bringing home a championship. And that alone explains why Popovich sits his veteran starters multiple times a year to save their legs for the playoffs.
Why he makes no excuses for using a potential Hall of Fame shooting guard—Manu Ginobili—off of the bench. And why, when things don't quite go as planned, Popovich is not above substituting in five players at one time in order to make a point.
Unlike the schemes employed by most head coaches, "the system" itself has evolved over time: In the early years of the Popovich Era, Stern's alleged description was rather apt: The average fan didn't find San Antonio basketball all that enjoyable to watch. But with Duncan and Robinson patrolling the middle, there was little reason (and/or incentive) to run up and down the court at a breakneck pace.
Things have changed quite a bit over the past couple of years as Duncan is now in the twilight of his career. Defense is still a key tenet of Popovich's philosophy, but the Spurs' offense plays at a much faster tempo than in years past. In each of the past two seasons, San Antonio has been among the top eight teams in the NBA in terms of pace, and most of their scoring now is provided by their wing players.
And those perimeter players are well aware that they need to be ready at a moment's notice. Because of injury (and whatever else may be going on in Popovich's head at the time), 13 different players have started a game for San Antonio this season. That type of instability would wreck most teams, but then again, most teams aren't the Spurs.
And most coaches aren't Gregg Popovich. No doubt, 900 victories later, it's clear that "the system" works. But whether the system can do anything to calm the waters between Popovich and Stern is another matter entirely.
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