He has coached the San Antonio Spurs for more than two decades, led them to five NBA championships, preached defense, ball movement, shooting and unselfishness so relentlessly, his former players can still recite his lines.
Like a fine wine – his off-the-court passion – Gregg Popovich has aged well, becoming more outspoken and daring, and even more collaborative in recent years.
But this season is unlike anything he has experienced. His best player is estranged from the team and receiving medical treatment for a lingering quad injury in New York. His roster is ancient by NBA standards. His withering criticism of President Donald Trump has endeared him to those on the left, but inflamed many on the right, including a contingent of Spurs fans who are boycotting games and hiding their gear in the closet.
Oh. And his Spurs trail the Golden State Warriors 0-2 in the opening round of the NBA playoffs, with the series moving to San Antonio for the next two games, where he hopes the rims will be kinder and the defense will remain stout—at least long enough to avert the first opening round sweep since he became head coach in 1996.
“For Pop to even bring this team to the playoffs is something else,” said Sean Elliott, the former Spur and current team TV analyst. “I think this is by far his best coaching job because he has had to deal with so much stuff. We haven’t had the horses. We haven’t shot the 3-ball well most of the year. We have a lot of young guys, and we rely on an aging Tony (Parker), Manu (Ginobili), Pau (Gasol), Rudy (Gay). And it’s hard to play when you are always wondering if your best player (Kawhi Leonard) is going to come back. With Kawhi gone, everyone else is exposed. You see who they are.”
The book on the Spurs for years has read something like this: minimal drama. Exceptional NBA drafts. Dominant international presence. Superb coaching and leadership. A tight-lipped front office. Unbreakable bonds between the franchise and superstars David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and between the ownership and the head coach/front office.
Other than some theatrics involving Stephen Jackson and two tumultuous years (1993-95) with Dennis Rodman, who played for John Lucas and Bob Hill, with Popovich the general manager at the time, the Spurs almost shockingly have been spared the nasty breakups, the locker room flareups, the public spats between players and coaches that routinely cripple other franchises.
But that narrative already is a thing of the past. Leonard’s bizarre situation threatens to burn down the house. The new coach of the U.S. national team, who smoothed over his relationship last summer with a disgruntled LaMarcus Aldridge, who rarely is challenged by his players or even his owners, has no ready answers. He often resorts to wisecracks and subtle asides, probably to change the subject.
What does Popovich really think? Has he exceeded his patience quota? His lavish praise of Aldridge following Monday’s loss raised eyebrows and further fueled speculation that he was taking a dig at his small forward. “He (Aldridge) doesn’t complain about anything on the court,” Popovich said. “He just plays through everything. He’s been fantastic.”
No one can speak for Popovich, but some of his closest confidants suspect that if the relationship remains strained and the lack of communication persists, he will pursue a blockbuster trade during the offseason and commit to a parting of the ways. Already, according to multiple reports, several teams are assembling packages that might appeal to the Spurs.
When healthy, of course, Leonard is the league’s best two-way player – an active, suffocating defender and a versatile scorer who commands double teams, creates spacing and finds open teammates. Yet for all his gifts, teams intrigued by the veteran small forward figure to proceed with some degree of caution because of his curious recent history and the Spurs’ much deeper pedigree.
Leonard, 26, labored during last year’s playoffs with the thigh injury and appeared in only nine games this season because of lingering discomfort. Though cleared to play by the Spurs medical staff, he sought additional opinions and opted to continue rehabilitating in New York.
The Spurs could probably swallow hard and work with that. One stethoscope does not fit all. But the Southern California native, who earns $20 million next season and is eligible for a supermax contract extension, has gone rogue, morphed from soft-spoken to silent. He occasionally texts with some of his teammates, but according to Gasol leaves others in the dark. And the fact he has been absent from San Antonio for weeks and is not expected to sit on the bench for Game 3?
That’s a really bad optic, made even more jarring by the contrasting image of his injured colleague in Oakland. Warriors guard Stephen Curry, out indefinitely with a sprained knee, joined his teammates for pregame shooting drills, took part in huddles and led cheers during the past two games. The Spurs, meanwhile, more fragile and vulnerable than in recent memory, are repeatedly asked about Leonard’s absence. For the most part, they reply in weary, if tempered tones.
“We have been trying to adjust,” Ginobili said as he walked toward the bus Monday night, “but it’s really hard in this league when you have post-up guys like L.A. (Aldridge), but we don’t have a go-to guy on the outside. So we have to make Rudy a go-to guy out there. We shot what, 4 for 28 from 3? You can’t win like that. It has just been a really, really tough season.”
Earth to the Spurs. The times might be a-changin’.