Hopefully, the folks back in Springfield, Mass., count the seasons. Winter, spring, autumn, summer. Gregg Popovich has been around so long, so ridiculously, consistently, enormously successful, he answers to a single name.
So why isn’t “Pop” in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame? Something is missing here, say, like an induction ceremony.
The San Antonio Spurs continue to shatter myths, defy the odds, change with the times and collect NBA championships in their own inimitable fashion. They just do it differently than most of their counterparts. Instead of establishing street cred by winning back-to-back championships – or back-to-back-to-back titles – they space their five championships over the decades, allowing Pop and his fine wine to breathe: 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and, most impressively, 2014.
This latest title run was a race for the ages, for a million reasons. Tim Duncan is 38. Tony Parker and Boris Diaw are 32. Manu Ginobili turns 37 next month. The series MVP is a soft-spoken 22-year-old who was drafted 15th in 2011.
And since we’re talking about time and place – and age and size – let’s not forget that San Antonio is the fourth-smallest market in the league, that its prize franchise dazzles outside the major market media glare, that the one-team town probably would have lost its only major-league franchise if a ballot measure for a new private-public arena partnership had failed mere months after the Spurs collected their first ring; it’s all so fragile.
“The whole league is proud of what Pop has done,” Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro said Monday from Chicago, where he was meeting with draft prospects Doug McDermott and Nik Stauskas. “He has changed the whole pace of the game. It was just an incredible display of a coach who is flexible and versatile, who uses many of the same players. He provides a model for what we want to be. But what I find most amazing is how his system has evolved. The Spurs averaged 86.5 points in their sweep of the Cavaliers in 2007. They averaged 106 points against the Heat.”
Popovich’s parsing of minutes during the regular season is another interesting slap at conventional thought. While Heat superstars LeBron James (37.7), Dwyane Wade (32.9) and Chris Bosh (32) were relied on for heavy minutes, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker led a deep, balanced roster – and the team with the best regular-season record – with 29 minutes per game. The less-is-more, shared-responsibilities approach led to a rejuvenated defense, a superbly conditioned group of athletes, and fresher legs throughout what many expected to be a much closer series.
More Pop? There is so much more to Pop. A former armed forces officer and basketball savant stationed near the Russian border, he has long been a superstar within the international basketball community. Here at home, his edginess is an acquired taste, but his astute gamesmanship, his ability most recently to nurture players emotionally bruised and badly scarred a year ago after squandering Games 6 and 7 against this same opponent, surely cements his place alongside the masters of NBA mental gymnastics: Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson.
That Hall of Fame? Those other big names? Only coaches with 25 years of experience (as assistant or head coach) are eligible, but guess what? Popovich makes the cut even without counting his seven early seasons at tiny Pomona-Pitzer. So it’s time. It’s overtime.
Ah, but the beauty of it all. He deserves extra points for aesthetic appeal of these Finals, for reminding everyone that basketball is a game of grace, elegance, teamwork, for allowing us to once again witness: The possessions that featured five, six, seven passes. The screening for backdoor layups and open three-pointers. The constant moving and brisk pacing. The unselfishness. The dearth of isolation plays and over-dribbling sequences that plague most NBA teams and cause most audiences to tune out.
This was Pop conducting a world class symphony without a superstar, by blending personalities from France, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Italy, the Virgin Islands. This was a series that tweaked the memory and offered reminders of the spectacular-passing Celtics and Lakers of the 1980s, and of the Kings’ exquisite offense in the early 2000s.
“I emailed Pop last night,” Doug Christie said from his cellphone. “I was so happy for him, thinking how he has a system, how he develops players, evolves through the years. I was smiling to myself, imagining how teams used to feel against us. The ball moves faster than the man. Everyone on their team can shoot and pass. Not everyone on the floor is a great defender, but it’s about team defense. They play better team defense than we did. But we fought, we passed, we moved. Just beautiful. Just basketball. Pop could well be the greatest coach of all time, and if he’s not, he’s right up there.”
Start spreading the news. And counting those ballots. Springfield awaits.