Gregg Popovich's Dilemma: Why the Spurs Coach Must Take the Risk He Fears

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IMay 8, 2009

DALLAS - APRIL 25:  Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs during play against the Dallas Mavericks in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on April 25, 2009 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Less than two weeks after an unceremonious first round ouster at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, the San Antonio Spurs sit at the intersection before the crossroads.

This tired, old team needs an injection of new life. General Manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich’s work to make that happen begins now.

The Spurs brass can take two things away from a season lost to injury and maladjustment.

Tony Parker played as well as any point guard in the league and deserves an All-NBA nod. Tim Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili can outclass any star trio when healthy.

Popovich and Buford believe the “big three” have at least one more championship run in them, if not several. The three superstars have earned the right to be given a few more shots.

However, with the Mavs, ailments and age rudely sending them home in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2000, this summer means everything to the Spurs.

In 2006, Duncan’s plantar fascitis felt like a painful phase. Duncan’s recent squabble with tendenosis feels like the beginning of goodbye.

Now, Popovich must feign bravery and face his worst nightmare. His franchise star is 33, with a career decline sure to get worse, and his unathletic roster cannot hold double-digit leads in most must-win games.

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Relegated to a jumpshooting bunch of old fogies when defenses collapse in the paint, the Spurs need to spice up the roster.

The stubborn head coach experienced such salsa for 10 games with D-League standout Pops Mensah-Bonsu.

“We have a guy who can dunk now,” Popovich joked. “We’re a real NBA team.”

Mensah-Bonsu was never the answer to Father Time’s riddle, but he did things the Spurs know they need.

He skied over taller defenders for thunderous jams. He flushed putbacks. He caught an alley-oop pass.

What he didn’t do was play adequate defense, and that displeased the coaching staff. His team defense was lackadaisical and his in-game intelligence was questionable.

Popovich has shunned these players for most of the Duncan era in favor of bargain veterans who can score higher on aptitude tests than they can jump.

He values chemistry, unselfishness and help defense more than vertical leap and statistical accomplishments.

To revive this unconscious version of the four-time champions, Popovich must take those cherished beliefs—the ones that made this franchise the best of the decade—and shoot them with a 12-gage in the back of the AT&T Center.

To get the athleticism and scoring help Parker, Duncan and Ginobili crave, he will have to take the risk. Maybe the one the Spurs need cannot help defend. Maybe he’s a head case. Maybe he chucks up selfish shots and doesn’t pass.

Instead of scowling, Popovich and Buford need to rediscover the same persuasion skills they used in 2000 to keep Duncan. If the necessary free agent asks them to get on their knees, they should do it.

They already are.

If the idea of risking it all on a leaky character infuriates Popovich, he should remember why he’s doing it—for Duncan, the selfless leader who has given San Antonio everything it could want in 12 years.

The player for whom he credits every coaching success has a few All-Star years left. Popovich can both repay Duncan and make the most of those years by taking the risk.

Of course, this goes against what defines the Spurs. They don’t take risks. They’re smart, decisive, precise and composed.

Those qualities have a shelf life. They decompose when a player’s ability no longer matches his will.

Popovich need only look at three players still in the playoffs for proof that bad attitudes can also become obsolete given the right environment.

J.R. Smith publicly detested the idea of organized basketball. He once described himself as an “unwilling defender.”

Then, a close friend died in an accident and the mercurial malcontent decided to take the sport seriously. He used his wondrous talents as a reserve to help the Denver Nuggets soar into the second round.

Chris Andersen violated the NBA’s drug policy and served a two-year suspension for it. He cleaned up his dastardly and deadly habits and has become one of the game’s best shot blockers. His enthusiasm energizes one of the best second unit in the league.

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey gambled that Ron Artest would behave and be the tenacious two-way player who can change any game. Artest still goes off the deep end offensively and sometimes blows the defensive scheme, but he played 89 games without a flagrant foul, suspension or fine. He is a major reason the Rockets have a chance to send the Los Angeles Lakers home in the second round.

Is Popovich willing to make these kinds of gambles? For Duncan, he should do anything.

Some offseason pursuits are no-brainers. Buford will have to inquire about Portland’s Nicolas Batum and Lakers free agent Trevor Ariza. Both are in their early 20s and could fill the defensive role Ime Udoka could not secure.

Other moves come with asterisk after asterisk. Rasheed Wallace and Smith, even if the Nuggets have him under contract, are two names the Spurs will debate in private talks.

No longer should there be any question about whether a championship locker room can handle, shall we say, pro basketball’s deep-sea divers.

Popovich made Stephen Jackson work in 2003. There will be someone else this summer, and the Spurs need that someone. Now.

For Duncan.


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