Even after San Antonio’s Game 7 loss, putting Gregg Popovich’s place in history, in perspective, is as difficult as identifying Keyser Söze. Only four coaches have more titles than Popovich, but Popovich’s legacy is inseparable from Tim Duncan’s.
In a league of quirky personalities, Pop exudes a dull disposition. But once you peel back the layers, you’ll catch a glimpse of a sly con man that nearly became a government spook in Moscow after graduating from the Naval Academy. The master of deception is arguably the most interesting head coach in the league, and is as adept at deflecting attention as he is at formulating a championship blueprint.
Duncan is banging on the all-time top 10, but he’s not the mastermind of the Spurs operation. Tim Duncan is the face of Pop's reign in San Antonio. Like Söze, Pop would rather remain invisible, but when he speaks more than two syllables at a time, people listen.
He’s a chameleon with a mysterious past, but prior to Game 7, Popovich benched his grumpy persona and brought levity to the tense pre-Game 7 atmosphere.
While we were looking elsewhere, Pop’s Spurs snuck up on the league and nearly toppled the Heatles manifest dynasty. In Kevin Spacey’s chilling words, Söze is “a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. ‘Rat on your pop, and Keyser Söze will get you.’”
“Pop sure makes it look easy,” Pop’s mentor Larry Brown told NBC Sports in April. “He’s the most underrated coach in the history of sports.”
Despite falling short of his fifth title, Pop’s scowl should be immortalized atop the NBA’s all-time coaching hierarchy alongside Pat Riley’s slicked-back hair, on the NBA’s coaching Mount Rushmore. He’s just below Phil Jackson’s silver soul patch and a cigar-smoking Red Auerbach.
His first Finals loss hurt, but in two decades, Pop has hit all the right keys Fats Domino-style. It shouldn’t be too much of a knock on his legacy. Neither Riley nor Jackson have perfect Finals records. Against Miami, his strategic decisions to unglue Boris Diaw from the bench and stick him on LeBron James, increase Gary Neal’s minutes, start Manu Ginobili in the midst of his worst career slump, and force the four-time MVP to shoot (rather than allowing him an opportunity to drive to the basket) deserves unadulterated praise.
However, in Game 7, James adjusted to the Spurs sagging defenders, found a rhythm and the Spurs had no answer. Meanwhile, Ginobili had an outbreak of Turnover SARS and out of loyalty and necessity, Pop stuck with him while Tony Parker sat with an empty gas meter.
There comes a time when every coach has to realize one of his key contributors has become a liability. After watching Ginobili stumble around the second half of Game 7, it may be time to ruthlessly cut bait with him.
The most impressive footnote on Pop’s résumé, aside from his ring count or 900 wins, is the “Pop culture” he’s been able to establish in culturally-irrelevant San Antonio.
Excluding Pop’s Spurs, every title in the past 30 years has been won by a franchise based in a top-10 media market. Elite free agents avoid San Antonio like a graveyard – until they’re down to their last contract (see: Finley, T-Mac, Horry, Kerr, McDyess, Steve Smith, etc.). However, the city off the beaten path fits Pop’s clandestine personality like a memory foam mattress, which is probably why he’s spent 24 of his 25 NBA seasons there.
During the Spurs run, Pop’s malleability has been on display. San Antonio’s transition, from a halfcourt plodding offense anchored by the Twin Towers to the up-tempo attack directed by Tony Parker, hasn’t been as transformative as Riley’s shift from Showtime to Rileyball, but the results have been fruitful.
Ultimately, the secret to the Spurs' sustainable success has been the most meticulous, detail-oriented coach in league history. Popovich’s greatest fear is randomness and he realized it in Game 6, but San Antonio’s process is immaculate.
“It’s not that the Spurs do anything magical. It’s just that they do whatever they do consistently, from game to game, year to year, and decade to decade. “The first thing I think about with them is that they’re well drilled,” Kings assistant Jim Eyen told Sports Illustrated. “You know you have college teams, Kansas and Duke, that play a certain way? The NBA version is the Spurs. They are as close to a program as you have in the league.”
Before Jay-Z anointed 30 the new 20, Pop’s decision to micromanage his starters’ minutes allowed Tim Duncan to stretch his competitive prime out another four to five years. Conversely, his frustrating decision to sit Duncan during Miami’s final two offensive possessions of their heartbreaking Game 6 loss has been criticized as a rare drawback of the Spurs' mechanical execution and aversion to spontaneity.
Additionally, Pop’s autocratic influence extends beyond the bench. While most coaches do the day-to-day cooking as the general manager goes shopping, Pop is one of the few successful dual coaches/GMs to have wielded unlimited powers within an organization. R.C. Buford inherited the title from Pop, but they’re a tandem. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is Pop’s scouting axiom. As a result, he has spent his career dumpster-diving into the depths of the D-League, wading in foreign talent pools and scraping the bottom of the draft barrel to assemble specialized skills that would fit into his system.
Before their breakout seasons with the Spurs, Gary Neal and Danny Green couldn’t get picked out of a lineup by most coaches. Two-thirds of their Big Three, Parker and Ginobili, were selected at the bottom of the first and second rounds, respectively. Of their 30 draft picks since the 1997 NBA Draft, San Antonio has spent 16 of those picks on international prospects and an NBA-record nine out of the 15 current players on the Spurs roster were groomed abroad.
As a result, they’ve struggled to maintain a strong foothold in the average American sports fans’ zeitgeist, and the national apathy for the Spurs outside of San Antonio has extended to their head coach.
When asked what his legacy was before Game 7, Pop replied with his usual blend of quick wit and harsh truth.
“What’s my legacy? Food and wine. This is just a job,” Popovich divulged to TNT’s David Aldridge.
If Pop won’t do it, I’ll acknowledge Popovich’s legendary status. However, enhancing his legacy moving forward may depend on how the Spurs rebound from their Finals loss.
It could be subterfuge, but Pop has recently promised to align his retirement with Duncan’s. Hopefully, the emergence of the emotionally-reserved Kawhi Leonard, whom Pop refers to as the future face of the franchise, compels him to stick around for a new era in San Antonio.
The League should have learned over these last two months not to sleep on the Spurs. Instead of chip-walking in Miami, they’re limping out of the Finals in defeat – but not on canes. Pop’s crew has defied expectations before; under his watch, they’ll be back in stride and driving for five in November.