The last time the San Antonio Spurs won less than 50 games, they won the NBA title. Thirty-eight was the count in the team’s win column during the shortened 1998-99 season.
The last time the Spurs endured a losing season was two years prior, when the team went 20-62. That was also the last time they didn’t begin a season with Gregg Popovich as their head coach.
Each year when the NBA season tips off, nothing is more certain than Popovich leading his team to the playoffs, something he’s accomplished for the past two decades. Popovich has coached the likes of David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard, to name a few, fitting them all perfectly into the system he so feverishly outlines.
Spurs culture. There’s nothing like it in professional basketball. Or perhaps in professional sports at all.
When Popovich passed George Karl Tuesday night for fifth place on the all-time wins list, securing his 1,176th victory over the New York Knicks, a moment for reflection of San Antonio and Popovich’s dominance that surely gets taken for granted nowadays was in order. Year in and year out the NBA landscape changes before our eyes, but Popovich patrolling the sidelines and dismissing media members stays evergreen.
Ahead of his team’s matchup the with the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday night — a meeting between Popovich and former assistant Brett Brown — the legendary head coach was questioned about how he was able to construct such a long-lasting culture of excellence. In contrast to the Sixers current situation, a young team comprised of more promise than results, Popovich explained how his way became the only way in San Antonio, in the most “Pop” way he could.
“It was all me,” Popovich said with a smile. “None of them had character. They were selfish people, and I absolutely lobotomized all of them and turned them into a winner.
“At this age, I can be silly I think,” Popovich added.
After leapfrogging Karl on the wins list, only four names stand between Popovich and the title of all-time wins leader, an accolade he most assuredly does not care about. Those four coaches — Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan, Lenny Wilkens, and Don Nelson — stand between Popovich, armed with five championships and counting, and the title of the most accomplished winner the sport of basketball has ever seen.
To reach the heights Popovich has, of course, the coach needed talented players, despite what he may say in jest about performing brain procedures on his guys. But what has made the Air Force graduate so successful for so long has been his ability to look past the measurables, and focus in on the individuals.
“Ok, I don’t know if this will surprise you or not, to me, everything is more about who people are, rather than what you think they might be,” Popovich said. “Because I’m not a big believer in players changing a whole lot. I think players add skills here and there, you know everybody always talks about, ‘This 6-10 kid, just wait three, four years from now, he’s gonna really be something.’
“He’s the same player three, four years later, Hakeem was Hakeem to start, and he was Hakeem in the end. And Timmy. A lot of those guys, but you see a lot of big guys who don’t change because they’re the same player as they were before, just not as talented as those examples.”
Even though Popovich is notorious for not cracking a smile, or entertaining the mundane questions from a sideline reporter in the middle of a game, when it comes to finding players that are best suited for his culture, the most serious man in the NBA is looking for a sense of humor.
“One of the first things we look for is a sense of humor,” Popovich said. “If somebody has a sense of humor, they can handle criticism, they can understand what self-deprecation is, they can handle embarrassment, they can handle losses, and when you understand what the NBA season is like, a little humor goes a long way. All that time on the planes and the buses and the practices and the shootarounds and everything, so we look for that.”
Just 160 wins separate Popovich and the all-time wins mark. With the Spurs currently 26-12, coupled with the fact that the head coach has never in his career finished with less than 50 wins in a season he began as San Antonio’s head coach, Popovich should need just about three more seasons after this one to forever etch his name in the record books.
Since he’s signed on to lead USA Men’s Basketball in the 2020 Olympics, it’s a safe bet that Popovich has three more NBA seasons in him at this point.
While the world of basketball continues to change around him — Popovich won his first NBA championship with the “twin towers” of Duncan and Robinson, a far cry from the three-point heavy league in the present — all of the analytics have their particular place, according to the coach. But what should never be overlooked, and what is a staple of his continued success, is looking past the numbers to find the right person — not just the right player.
“So there’s a place for the analytics for sure,” Popovich said. “But you can never forget about the feel and that these guys are people, and they have emotions, and they came to work happy or sad, and that all rolls into the decisions you make.”
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