If there are any gaps in Gregg Popovich's coaching resume, you'd be hard-pressed to find them.
Now in his 18th season at the helm of the San Antonio Spurs, Pop has amassed four NBA titles, two Coach of the Year awards, the ninth-most regular-season wins of all time and the third-most playoff victories ever, behind only Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. Aside from Jerry Sloan, he's the only coach in NBA history to tally at least 900 wins with a single franchise.
And yet, the challenge before Pop in 2013-14 may be as unique (if not as daunting) as any he's faced since supplanting Bob Hill on the bench during the 1996-97 season.
That challenge may not be evident when looking at the big picture in the Alamo City. As of Feb. 25, the Spurs were 40-16, just two-and-a-half games back of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. According to NBA.com, they're one of four teams—along with the Thunder, the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors—that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, with a point differential (6.5 per 100 possessions) that places them firmly among the league's elite.
This was all the case last year, as well, when the Spurs slithered their way to within a Ray Allen miracle of securing their fifth Larry O'Brien Trophy. So what is it that makes this year's squad any different?
The Alam-Ow City
In a word, injuries...and age.
Okay, two words, then. Three, if you want to get technical about it.
In any case, San Antonio's locker room has been invaded by injury bugs like never before in the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era.
Manu Ginobili missed three weeks between late January and mid-February with a hamstring strain. Tony Parker is on the shelf at the moment with what Pop characterized as "a lot of little things," per Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. Both of those guys, along with Tim Duncan, have been the subjects of regular rest from Pop.
Parker, in particular, has needed special attention from the coaching and training staffs. After hobbling through a grueling seven-game series in the NBA Finals, Parker spent the summer guiding France to its first-ever EuroBasket title. His current stint on the sideline is as much a product of that wear and tear as it is of any particular setback suffered along the way.
“Basically, a lot of basketball the last three years: All season long, all summer long," Popovich said when explaining Parker's absence. "He played for the (French) national team and that’s not a week at a time. It’s the whole summer, so it’s caught up to him.”
The point of Pop's regimen of resting his Big Three all these years, especially since each has crossed into his 30s, has been to keep his ever-more-fragile stars fresh and fit long enough to sustain themselves through long postseason pushes into May and June.
Of the three, Duncan has had the greatest success avoiding injury this season. He's missed five games in 2013-14, all in single-evening spurts, despite being the fifth-oldest active player in the NBA (he turns 38 in late April).
Such luck has been hard to come by for many of his younger counterparts in San Antonio. Kawhi Leonard's presumed breakout season has been derailed by a broken finger since late January. Danny Green had a three-week finger injury of his own that preceded Leonard's. Tiago Splitter battled back from a shoulder sprain in January, only to succumb to calf and shin issues in February.
All told, the Spurs' top six of Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Green and Splitter have combined to miss a whopping 70 games this season—and counting. Per Basketball Reference, Leonard is listed as "probable" for Wednesday's game against the Detroit Pistons, but Parker figures to be out for another couple weeks, at least.
Old Man, Old Hat
In truth, this isn't a new phenomenon for Pop. His top six sat out 78 games in total last season, with Green and Splitter accounting for only three of those absences. Like any coach who's been around the Association as long as he has, Pop has spent plenty of time helping his players battle Father Time and Mother Nature in tandem.
What sets Pop's Spurs apart from the rest of the NBA, though, is the extent to which they've been able to survive and, in some cases, thrive without some of their key constituents. For years, Popovich has been lauded for his ability to craft and implement a "system" predicated on the peculiarities of his stars, and to groom and "plug in" role players around them.
The "system" itself has morphed over time. Back in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, the Spurs were a half-court, tough-minded, defense-oriented squad designed to take advantage of Duncan's all-around excellence while the future Hall of Famer was at the peak of his powers.
Once Duncan started to show signs of decay, Pop tailored his system to take greater advantage of Parker's abilities. Thus, San Antonio became a fast-paced, European-style pick-and-roll machine, with Parker serving as the engine and a fleet of three-point shooters comprising the nuts and bolts.
That approach has allowed the Spurs to maintain their ranking among the top 10 in most of the key offensive indicators, including assist percentage (seventh), assist-to-turnover ratio (sixth), assists per 100 possessions (second), effective field-goal percentage (second) and true shooting percentage (third).
This, despite checking in near the bottom in free-throw rate (29th).
Plug and Play
All this success despite giving starting nods to the likes of Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph and letting Patty Mills shoot to his heart's content, as he has of late. Part of Pop's "secret" lies in his unparalleled ability to empower those players with the skills and the mindset needed to succeed after they'd been scrounged up by the front office's planet-scouring forces.
That affords Pop the leeway and the luxury to sub in one shooting specialist (Belinelli) for another (Green), or one physical center (Aron Baynes) for another (Splitter), or one skilled post player (Diaw) for another (Duncan), or even one pick-and-roll point guard (Mills) for another (Parker), without his team skipping much of a beat.
Those injuries haven't stopped the Spurs from playing at a pace to which they've recently become accustomed. They've slipped from sixth in possessions per game in 2012-13 to 14th this season, though their average has gone up slightly, from 96.4 possessions to 96.5.
They still shoot the three as well as anyone—38.8 percent overall, tops in the NBA, including a fifth-best 40.4 percent from the corners—and check in fourth with 46.4 points in the paint per game. In short, the Spurs are as efficient as ever on offense, despite the ravaging of the roster.
But San Antonio's greatest successes, particularly through highs and lows such as those the team has encountered this season, have come on the defensive end. And it's for those efforts that Pop deserves a hearty pat on the back.
Pop has his principles, sticks to them and makes darn sure that his players do the same.
For one, the Spurs get back on defense, albeit at the expense of second-chance baskets. They score just 11.8 second-chance points per game and rank 24th in offensive rebounding percentage. In return, San Antonio's opponents muster a measly 12.7 fast-break points a night.
When it comes to defending the NBA's "pet play," Pop prefers that his bigs contain the pick-and-roll ball-handler, leaving the rest of the defense to rotate to the roll man, rather than asking his players to switch on screens or trap the action aggressively. In essence, the Spurs opt for sound, positional defense rather than, say, the all-out, turnover-happy (but difficult to sustain) variety that makes the Miami Heat such a roller coaster on that end of the floor.
The key for the Spurs in all facets—offense, defense, the front office and beyond—is consistency. Pop's military background (he played at Air Force) is palpable in the top-down structure he's maintained in the Alamo City since he returned to the Spurs organization as the GM and vice president of basketball operations 20 years ago.
His hand, however heavy, is what keeps this operation humming. This season has been no exception to that rule.
As great a job as Popovich has done with this team, the Spurs still can't be expected to carry this kind of success with them into the playoffs without their full complement of players. Pop's carefully picked benchwarmers may be able to dominate the dregs and hold their own against the elites on a one-off basis, but in a seven-game series, when opposing coaches have ample opportunity to pick apart weaknesses and exploit matchups, San Antonio would need an inordinate amount of luck to advance without its top six intact.
To that end, the Spurs should have their ducks in a row come playoff time. Leonard's due back shortly; Parker will probably be ready by April; and Duncan, Ginobili, Green and Splitter are all active at the moment.
Spur of the Moment
We've seen what Pop can do when his pieces are in place. And now, we can appreciate Pop's pragmatism and planning in the all-too-likely event that his players aren't all able to perform.
Not that any of this should come as a shock. Popovich is the best coach in basketball and has been for some time, at least since Phil Jackson left the profession in 2011.
Frankly, Pop should be thought of among coaches the same way Michael Jordan was once regarded and LeBron James is currently regarded among players: as the de facto front-runner for his profession's most prestigious award every year until he's either retired or clearly been supplanted.
The former scenario would seem far more likely to play out than would the latter in Popovich's case. On the occasion of Duncan's 37th birthday last spring, Pop hinted that he'd retire when Duncan does. "When he doesn’t think he can, he’ll stop," Pop told Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News at the time. "It might be in the middle of a game. I can see him walking off the court saying, ‘Nah, I’m not pulling my weight anymore. I’m gone.’ And he’ll walk. And I’ll be right behind him, like this. No pride, no nothing."
That could come as soon as this summer, if former NBA head coach George Karl's sources have it right.
Pop, though, has suggested that he won't necessarily tie his retirement to Duncan's (per Buck Harvey of the Express-News)—which is terrible news for Spurs detractors and nervous sideline reporters but obviously works in San Antonio's favor.
Even more so this season. Jeff Hornacek and Terry Stotts may be the front-runners for Coach of the Year honors, and rightfully so, but if there's any season in which Gregg Popovich's mastery of his craft deserves such recognition, this is the one.
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