Analyzing the secret genius behind the overwhelming success of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich
When a fresh face takes command of the sidelines, analysts and fans focus on how the players will adjust to that new coach’s particular system. Coaches are expected to install their trademark offensive or defensive scheme regardless of circumstance.
Phil Jackson runs the triangle, Mike D’Antoni runs the spread pick and roll, etc. Gregg Popovich, the quirky, sarcastic head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, is one of the most accomplished coaches of all time but lacks a specialty. Why?
The answer is because Popovich’s coaching philosophy stems from universal principles applicable to all facets of life, not just basketball. Coach Pop values selflessness, honesty, flexibility, and rationality more than the typical NBA staff, and it has created an indisputable yet unquantifiable advantage. Over time, his teams look completely different on the court but the same in the locker room.
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Popovich doesn’t mold the team to fit a certain system; he molds his system to complement the unique talents of the team he has meticulously put together. Pop seeks out players who are highly skilled, adaptable, and capable of handling adversity. They must be ready to both accept lesser roles and step up if need be. They must be willing passers and posses a high basketball IQ.
The emphasis on these qualities is one of the reasons Pop loves international players; men from overseas don’t grow up with the same flashy, egotistical style of play that dominates adolescent basketball in the United States.
When you walk into a Popovich practice, egos are left at the door. Pop has emphasized repeatedly that his program demands selflessness and a willingness to be criticized. This tone holds every single player on the roster accountable and inspires everyone to get better. Over the years, he has given Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker the same treatment as the scrubs on the fringes of the roster that cycle through the organization year after year.
Everyone is subject to the same rules and no one is entitled to anything different. This dynamic creates a trust between player and coach that refuses to deteriorate during periods of great success and crushing defeat.
Pop’s emphasis on flexibility shows both in the players he’s coached and the diverse style of play he’s embraced over the years. He’s won playing fast, he’s won playing slow, he’s one with a top offense, and he’s won with a top defense.
His title teams at the turn of the century were slogging, defensive minded, and primarily consisted of Tim Duncan post-ups on offense. His championship teams today are fast, whip the ball around the perimeter, and feast on outside shots. Popovich is one of the few coaches that refuse to sacrifice results on the court for a singular, dogmatic philosophy.
You find Popovich garnering more titles by pushing the boundaries of traditional style than the coaches who still insist that post-ups and pounding the ball inside are the only ways to win in the NBA
As a result, the San Antonio Spurs always end up as the cutting edge team pushing the newest trend to sweep the NBA.
Gregg Popovich does not live and breath basketball. He is an incredibly smart guy that turned down a career with the CIA to pursue coaching and continues to emphasize how trivial basketball really is, routinely calling it “just a game” and even occasionally “boring.”
This element to Pop’s personality plays a huge role in his success as a coach. One of the main points of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball was that those who look at the sport objectively have a more rational approach and therefore often find more success than the so-called “experts”.
When a coach analyzes basketball empirically and compares it to other endeavors, he isn’t subjected to the same biases and dogmatic principles as the other coaches who grew up hearing flawed sayings like “jump shooting teams can’t win championships”. As a result, you find Popovich garnering more titles by pushing the boundaries of traditional style than the coaches who still insist that post-ups and pounding the ball inside are the only ways to win in the NBA. He operates on one principle: how to maximize the value of the talent he has on his roster. If this means routinely changing strategies or playing ugly basketball, so be it.
In last year’s first round matchup with the Clippers, Coach Pop used ace sharpshooter Matt Bonner in a simple but subtly ingenious manner. DeAndre Jordan is a behemoth of a basketball player that shoots free throws like a blind guy plays darts. Much has been made of pesky teams intentionally fouling poor free throw shooters, and teams choose Jordan willingly and frequently when executing this strategy. This is nothing new.
As a sieve on defense, Bonner is borderline unplayable in some matchups. But intentionally fouling removes defense from the equation entirely. Last postseason, Bonner would come in, foul Jordan five times, spread the floor on offense, and head back to the bench.
Some coaches don’t intentionally foul or even put a one-way player on the floor based purely on principle. But Pop’s tactic sends a 40 percent free-throw shooter to the line and unleashes a typically unplayable 45 percent three-point shooter on the other end. By masking Bonner’s defensive deficiencies, Pop is completely maximizing his value.
That’s a highly desirable trade-off and what Pop does incredibly well: implements a hyper-rational philosophy that squeezes every ounce of potential out of his players. And the culture he has created keeps those players buying into that system year after year.
The rest of the league is starting to catch on. There are several coaches out operating similar to Pop; Steve Kerr, Rick Carlisle, and a few others are already brilliant tacticians and building a similar culture within their organizations. But Pop did it first, and as long as he’s around, the Spurs will be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference.