Why Gregg Popovich Is the NBA's Ultimate Anomaly

David MurphyFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2013

Jun 11, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich reacts during the third quarter of game three of the 2013 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at the AT&T Center.  Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Entering his 18th season with the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich enjoys the longest tenure of any head coach in the NBA—and by a Texas country mile.

Just how impressive is that? Next on the list are Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat and Rick Carlisle for the Mavericks. They've been at their current gigs for five years each.

Coach Popovich's run is uncommonly long in a league notorious for short leashes and the capricious whims of ownership. Fourteen—14!—head coaches careened off the NBA's carousel last season. Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated's Point Forward charts the path to oblivion:

An attempt to categorize the causes of the coaching changes looks something like this: failing to make the playoffs, failing to produce progress on a lottery team, failing to advance to the playoffs, failing to see eye-to-eye with management on roster management, failing to see eye-to-eye with management on compensation, failing to have the stomach for a rebuilding effort, failing to reach self-imposed expectations, failing to properly develop young players, failing to keep the house in order, and failing to connect with superstar player(s).

In other words, the failure checklist is long, and the off-ramps come up way too fast. So what's the secret to Coach Popovich's success, and that of the team itself?


Communication's the key to any good relationship

From the outside looking in, this may seem like a contradiction in terms. Popovich is notoriously tight-lipped and surly with the press. He's the consummate inside man, fiercely loyal to those around him and cherished in return. Supported by owner Peter Holt and longtime general manager R.C. Buford, Pop's built a basketball program that is admired throughout the league. It's about trust, airing differences in private and presenting a unified front.

Sometimes of course, Pop's voice comes through loud and clear for all to hear, exhorting his players to play with physicality and to give opponents some adversity. His “I want some nasty” moment in the 2012 Western Conference Finals was communication in the most succinct sense of the word.

Dance with the one you came with

Popovich and Tim Duncan have been together all the way, through good, bad and great. It's one of the league's enduring marriages, and their success and work ethics are as intertwined as any in sports. You won't get a typical backpatting sound bite from them, either.

Ask Pop about his relationship with the Big Fundamental, and he's apt to give a typically sarcastic answer, as quoted in a USA Today article by Sam Amick: “Timmy's a pain in the ass, and I'm tired of coaching him. Anybody else (have questions)? Good. Have a good day.”

Get Popovich in a more thoughtful moment, however, and he'll talk about Duncan's responsibility and high standards of character, and the fact that he doesn't play for personal accolades. It shows just how much in sync these longtime partners are. In truth, these are the same words that most would use to describe the coach himself. He's all about the work, and about the moments in the game.


And when all else fails, keep them guessing

Popovich is famous for his contrarian ways. He won't hesitate to sit his stars in order to preserve their legs for when it counts. His refusal to bring Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green to Miami for the final game of a road trip last season resulted in a fine from a sanctimonious David Stern. 

Pop's known for surprising in-game adjustments as well. He pioneered the "Hack-a-Shaq." It's not just about fouling a bad shooter; it's a way to gain an extra possession at the end of a quarter.

The adjustments don't always work. In the crucial Game 6 of last season's NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, the Spurs were ahead in the final seconds when Pop decided to substitute Boris Diaw for Tim Duncan, not once but twice. The idea was to bring in a quicker player to switch off picks and defend the perimeter. Two Heat three-pointers forced overtime and an ultimate Miami win.

Two nights later, the Heat prevailed again in an epic Game 7, nabbing their second straight title.

It was a crushing loss for a team that had battled so magnificently only to go home empty-handed once again. They're back at it this season, however, with the same key players, hoping to show that the sun hasn't yet set in San Antonio.

Pop isn't always so solemn, of course. His conversations with the sartorially resplendent Craig Sager never fail to entertain. Poor Sager, just a man in blended synthetics, trying to do his job.


Pop's still pounding the rock

Coach Popovich's long-running mantra is “pounding the rock,” an expression from the late Danish-American photo-journalist Jacob Riis. The idea is that if a stonecutter keeps hammering, it may be the 101st blow that cracks the boulder—not just a singular strike but the summation of all that came before it. It's the idea of being relentless, of doing something with purpose and commitment. It's about a dedicated life. 

It's this steadfast determination that has defined the man and his longevity. Steadfast shouldn't be confused with being simple, although the simplicity of getting easy buckets is one of Pop's guiding principles. 

Ultimately, Gregg Popovich is a complex man who makes complexity utterly irrelevant to his job. He may have an ego, but you won't see it exposed. Dealing with him is a no-risk proposition; if you disagree, he's not going to take the fight to the media. What happens with Pop stays with Pop.

The Odometer's turned over once again. The long and winding road of Pop's 18th season lies ahead. You'll never seen a run like this again—count on it.