Patience, Thick Skin Secrets to Success of Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterMay 20, 2014

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

It's a common refrain among almost every fanbase outside of San Antonio: Why can't our coach be more like Gregg Popovich?

Answer: Because you won't let him.

The four head coaches left battling for this year's NBA title include three of the four longest-tenured onesled by Popovich, of course, who started way back in December 1996.

He is followed by the Miami Heat's Erik Spoelstra (April 2008) and Scott Brooks (November 2008), who started his run five months before No. 3 on the list, the Dallas Mavericks' Rick Carlisle.

You know what else those four have in common? All wereand, in some cases, continue to beridiculed as not being up to fulfilling the high expectations placed upon them by outside forces.

Second-guessing of the men in charge of first-guessing is as old and widespread as any phenomenon in sports.

If you have a son or daughter who participated in some sort of competition this past weekend, chances are you questioned either something the coach or officialsalso in charge of first-guessingdid at some point.

The difference in professional sports, of course, is that websites, social media and hundreds of TV channels have given a voice to just about anyone who cares to spout an opinion that carries far beyond the immediate vicinity.

The vast majority of those opinions are negative.

It doesn't matter that they're also largely uninformed, half-cocked or misguided. They create a sound, weight and perception that, unless an organization is patient, disciplined and a little hard of hearing, can lead to constant turnover.

This leads to constant starting over, which then leads to a well-worn groove in pretty much the same damn place.

Evolution of 2014 Playoff Coaches
CoachFirst-Year RecordWinning PercentageCareer RecordCareer Winning Percentage
Scott Brooks22-47.319293-170.633
Gregg Popovich17-47.266967-443.686
Erik Spoelstra43-39.524314-162.660
Frank Vogel20-18.526167-100.625
Stats courtesy Basketball-Reference.com

Spoelstra, Brooks, Carlisle and, yes, even Popovich, all have been second-guessed at various points by either the media, fans or both, usually because of results deemed beneath the presumed talent of their rostersa presumption most often built on scoring averages and the like, as if flesh-and-blood teams work the way fantasy teams do.

The reason these coaches have survived is that the ownership and management of their teams have refused to buy into the outside noise, recognizing that wavering in the support of a coach is the surest way to undermine his chances of succeeding.

Remember when rumors were floated about Spoelstra not being able to coach? Those rumors were generated, it appears, largely because LeBron James minions, at that time, didn't feel the King needed to be coached and found a sympathetic voice to air their agenda.

You know what team president Pat Riley did about it? Nothing, other than let everyone in the organization know Spoelstra wasn't going anywhere.

Brooks has benefited from similar support from general manager Sam Presti, particularly when it comes to outside criticism that he should be running more complex offensive sets. That, generally, doesn't come from inside the league.

As one Eastern Conference executive noted of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, "KD is not a system player and Russ is not close to one."

Erik Spoelstra faced fierce criticism in his first season coaching the Heat, but now has Miami one series away from a fourth straight Finals appearance.
Erik Spoelstra faced fierce criticism in his first season coaching the Heat, but now has Miami one series away from a fourth straight Finals appearance.Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The aforementioned teams also have refused to judge their evolution by where they finish in the standings or how far they go in the playoffs.

It's easy to forget now that Popovich won one title his first six years as head coach, and that came in a lockout-shortened season. The closest the Spurs came to returning to the NBA Finals in the subsequent three seasons was getting swept in the conference finals.

All this despite having two Hall of Fame locks in David Robinson and Tim Duncan and winning 53, 58 and 58 regular-season games.

It's easy to forget now, but Popovich was not well liked at all in San Antonio in the early days. He was originally hired as GM and soon after fired the very popular coach he inherited, Bob Hill, installed himself and then promptly presided over a 17-win season, orchestrated in part to improve the team's chances at landing Tim Duncan.

One of his early managerial moves, however, also included dealing Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue, providing the Chicago Bulls with the vital third piece to their second three-peat.

Popovich relinquished the GM title to RC Buford in 2002, but there's never been a division in authority. Whatever Popovich has felt he needed for his team, Buford has sought to provide. Whatever role owner Peter Holt has served in making that happen never has seen the light of day, other than the results.

Credit Holt for, if nothing else, never pushing Popovich and Buford to chase the splashy names for which most fan and media basesand some ownersclamor.

The changes the Spurs make are generally subtle and new stars magically emerge from them. In time.

With GM RC Buford (far left) and owner Peter Holt (far right), Gregg Popovich has built a franchise many NBA teams have tried to emulate.
With GM RC Buford (far left) and owner Peter Holt (far right), Gregg Popovich has built a franchise many NBA teams have tried to emulate.Eric Gay/Associated Press

"That's what everybody misses with the San Antonio teams," says a rival coach. "They've generally kept the same personnel, particularly the same core. It's easy to work in a Kawhi Leonard or a Tiago Splitter because you're only teaching the system to one or two guys."

Splitter is also an example of valuing IQ and intangibles over salary or box-office concerns.

The Phoenix Suns, conversely, dealt veteran Kurt Thomas in 2008 to then-Seattle because, in part, it saved them $4 million on the salary cap. No one in the public or media squawked because Thomas' statistics weren't exactly eye-popping (4.6 points, 5.7 rebounds per game).

The problem was point guard Steve Nash loved playing with him because he was his favorite screen-setter and rock-solid about his assignments and preparation.

Rest assured, dealing Thomas was not coach Mike D'Antoni's idea.

"This is why every coach wants to have personnel control," a former NBA assistant coach said, citing Doc Rivers with the Clippers and now Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons. "Doc can go get his own groceries, because he knows what he wants to cook."

The one member of this year's final four coaching fraternity yet to be mentioned, of course, is Frank Vogel, who is the seventh-longest-tenured coach in the league.

He's also the one who has had the biggest questions swirling about his future; perhaps not coincidentally, his team has looked the shakiest in reaching its current place in the postseason.

The point? There is a way for every team to find the next Popovich.

It simply starts with finding the next Peter Holt, an owner who is a fan but doesn't operate his franchise like one. Finding a Buford, a GM who is constantly seeking outside opinions about how to improve the franchise but doesn't attempt to satisfy any outside it, also would help.

Finally, it's about everyone else who wishes for their success to shut the hell up and let them go to work. Allow that to happen and who knows—you too might just find your team on the doorstep of a championship.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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