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Learning From Gregg Popovich

Voting for Coach of the Year can be extremely tricky. In the last decade, Mike D’Antoni, Avery Johnson and Mike Brown have been fired twice since winning the award. Since the NBA is ultimately a player’s game, much of a coach’s fate is out of his own hands. At the same time, the media tends to reward the coach of a team that exceeds expectations, even when it’s more the result of a superstar carrying an entire franchise (Brown in Cleveland) or a natural step in the progression of a young team (Scott Brooks with the Oklahoma City Thunder). This season, a number of coaches have done excellent work, but as usual, few can compare with the job Gregg Popovich has done with the San Antonio Spurs.

Popovich, who won the award in 2003 and 2012, is the longest-tenured coach in the NBA. Since taking over the Spurs in 1997, he’s never won fewer than 53 games in a full season. That success starts with Tim Duncan, but it’s not easy to reshuffle a roster around an elite player that many times, especially when you never have the benefit of another high draft pick. As the coach of a small-market team who can’t afford to spend money in free agency, Popovich has learned to play for the present while still keeping an eye on the future. There’s no one better at it, which is why San Antonio has remained a championship contender long after their window should have closed.

The Spurs' gaudy win percentages have remained constant, but the 2013 edition is their best team since 2007. With Duncan aging, San Antonio’s defense slipped steadily in the years following their last championship, culminating in their collapse against the Thunder in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. This season, the emergence of Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard has given them badly needed length and athleticism in their front-court. As a result, their team defensive rating has improved from 10th in 2012 to 3rd in 2013. Their size gives them at least a puncher’s chance against Miami or Oklahoma City in a seven-game playoff series, since both prefer to spread the floor with only one big man.

And while a lot of coaches could integrate Leonard and Splitter into their rotation, few would have had the patience to develop them over such a long period of time. They are the endpoints of a process that began all the way back in 2007. In that year’s draft, San Antonio selected Splitter at No. 28, even though he wouldn’t come over from Europe for another three seasons. Leonard, meanwhile, is exactly the type of skilled and athletic two-way front-court player the Spurs should have been too picking low to acquire. The only reason they could move up to No. 15 in 2011 and select him is that they had done such a good job of developing George Hill, the No. 26 pick in 2008.

San Antonio valued the back end of the draft way before it was the cool thing to do. Even though Hill was somewhat of a project as a 6’2 combo guard coming out of a mid-major school like IUPUI, Popovich thrust him into the fire as a rookie. Over the next three seasons, as his shooting and decision-making improved, Hill became when one of the best backup PG’s in the NBA. So when Indiana was looking for a starting PG to round out their team in in 2011, the Spurs had one ready for them. That’s where Popovich’s ability to see the long-term makes him a great coach: he has a better player in 2013 because he was willing to take the lumps from 2008-2012.

Once he got Leonard, Popovich wasn’t afraid to put him on the floor immediately. That’s an unusual move for a coach in his position. Brooks, in comparison, has stubbornly stuck with Derek Fisher over the last two seasons, even though he hasn’t been a useful NBA player in many years. Logically, a coach willing to roll the dice on a one-dimensional 38-year-old 6’2 shooting guard should be willing to play Jeremy Lamb, the No. 12 pick in 2012. Leonard wasn’t any more ready for the NBA than Lamb; he just had a coach who could identify talent and knew how to get the best out of every player given to him. Leonard was a 25% three-point shooter in college whose become a marksmen (38%) from the deeper NBA line. That rarely happens.

More than any other coach in the NBA, Popovich isn’t wedded to a player’s reputation. Michael Finley, a two-time All-Star, started the 2010 season as the Spurs SG. However, it quickly became clear that he had hit the age-35 wall and Popovich turned to Hill, only in his second season. If Finley had played for the Thunder, Brooks would probably still have him around for his veteran leadership. In contrast, if Popovich coached in Oklahoma City, he would almost certainly play Reggie Jackson a lot more minutes. The same goes for Eric Bledsoe with the Clippers. Not only is it the obvious thing to do from a strategic perspective, it makes them more valuable assets on the trade market.

This season, Popovich has cut the minutes of accomplished veterans like Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw in order to get younger players on the floor. Unlike Vinny Del Negro or Brooks, who often cite “chemistry” as why they can’t make changes to their starting lineup, Popovich is proactively searching for the most effective combinations to put on the floor. You can’t be afraid to hurt guys feelings if you want to win. Popovich started DeJuan Blair for most of two seasons and he’s not even in the rotation anymore. Compare that to how Brooks has leaned on Kendrick Perkins regardless of what the statistics and the eyeball test are telling him.

All of this is possible because Popovich has had the luxury of installing a system over an incredibly long period of time. The Spurs have more continuity than any other team in the NBA, which allows their front office to identify players who could fit specific roles in Popovich’s system. In effect, the great job he’s done coaching from 1997-2012 has made his job in 2013 that much easier. His effect on the roster has compounded over time, which is why it’s nearly impossible for any of his peers to match the job he has done in San Antonio. He’s on the level of a Coach K or a Jim Boeheim in terms of his impact on his franchise, an almost impossible feat for an NBA coach.

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