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NBA Sunday: The Best Head Coach Opens Up

Why are teams looking to poach the San Antonio Spurs’ talent? Gregg Popovich opens up … Carmelo Anthony must evolve

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The Best Head Coach Opens Up

The San Antonio Spurs don’t have flashy players who inspire highlight reels and their players don’t seek the spotlight by doing endless endorsements for everything from fast food to underwear. In fact, Tim Duncan, arguably the best power forward to ever play the game, would just as soon be left alone by everyone, including (especially) the media. Because of this, the team often goes overlooked.

How, then, do the Spurs manage to be one of the NBA’s best teams every season? Why are teams across the league looking to poach their talent, both from the front office and from Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff?

The answer is simple, and it’s just one word: Culture.

“A lot depends on the competitiveness and the character of the player,” Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News recently. “Often times, I’ll appeal to that. Like, I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on on the court.”

That’s why it’s not unusual to see Popovich and his staff standing to one side during a timeout while Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or one of their teammates does all of the yelling and finger-pointing in the player huddle.

“Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out,’ ” said Popovich. “And I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them.”

When Popovich took the helm of the Spurs back in 1996-97, it heralded the start of a new era for the franchise. It wasn’t just the subsequent drafting of Duncan, but also the championship culture that began to form under the leadership of Popovich. Since he took over as head coach, the Spurs have never missed the playoffs.

They have drafted well, developed their young talent and established an environment in which the team comes first. Most importantly, players have learned that they must take responsibility for what happens on the court.

“If they’re holding the ball, they’re holding the ball,” explained Popovich. “I certainly didn’t tell them to hold the ball. Just like, if they make five (turnovers) in a row, I didn’t do that. If they get a great rebound, I didn’t do that. It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform. The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs.

“Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.”

Despite the perception that the Spurs are “boring,” they have spent more time at or near the top of the mountain than any other team over the last 17 seasons, including five trips to the NBA Finals and four NBA championships.

There are few teams in the league that can boast that kind of sustained success, and none has been better over the course of the Popovich era in San Antonio. Boring or not, there is no better model for how to build a successful NBA franchise than the San Antonio Spurs.

Carmelo Anthony’s Biggest Challenge Ahead?

One of the persistent stories running around the NBA is the idea that the Chicago Bulls could chase free-agent-to-be Carmelo Anthony this summer.

The connection is an easy one to make, as the Bulls have to prepare for the eventuality that Derrick Rose might not come back, or might not be able to play at an all-world level when he returns. And if he does come back, the Bulls will want to put another star alongside him to compete for a championship.

Enter Anthony, who has said that he will seriously consider staying in New York with the Knicks, but has plenty of reason to at least entertain other offers, as well. The Knicks are mired in one of the worst seasons in franchise history due in large part to a number of inept moves made by the team’s front office crew, and they are not in a position to be major players in free agency this summer. Their path to improvement is not clear-cut, by any means.

If Carmelo remains in New York and the Knicks have a new head coach and a couple of new pieces in place, anything less than contention will be viewed as a colossal failure by the media and fans, and Carmelo will bear the brunt of the resulting criticism. If he leaves, the expectations created by his arrival in a new NBA city will be almost as impossible to live up to.

Whichever choice he makes, to stay or to leave, Carmelo is about to face the biggest challenge of his career. For him to live up to the expectations that seem to follow him around, he’s going to have to do something few players with more than a decade of experience have been able to do. He’s going to have to evolve into more than a one-dimensional player.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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