The San Antonio Spurs, the model for stability and sustained success in the modern NBA, were still a shaken team when they showed up for training camp in October, less than four months after a devastating loss to Miami in the NBA Finals.
Some coaches would try to brush off the disappointment of letting a title slip through their fingers and refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Gregg Popovich took it head on, embraced the heartache, and in a career full of masterful coaching performances, delivered perhaps his finest effort in season No. 18.
"The way we lost in the finals wasn’t an ordinary loss, it was pretty devastating," Popovich said on Tuesday after being named NBA coach of the year. "We decided that we needed to just face that right off the bat at the beginning of the season and get it out of the way. Don’t blame it on the basketball gods or bad fortune or anything like that, the Miami Heat beat us and won the championship and that’s that."
Popovich joined Don Nelson and Pat Riley as the only coaches in league history to take home the Red Auerbach trophy three times in their career.
"They’re on the hood of my car," Popovich cracked. "One, two, three, right on the car, the way players do license plates. … I’ve got three of those right on the hood."
He’s never liked the attention, never bought into the proclamations of his genius. When the accolades come his way, Popovich is quick to deflect them, giving the credit to his players, his assistant coaches, owner Peter Holt and general manager R.C. Buford. The humility in his voice on Tuesday was genuine, the challenge of putting the pieces back together after last season’s finish as daunting as ever.
They showed up to training camp still stinging from that defeat, and Popovich had to get to know a new-look coaching staff after losing longtime assistants Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer to head coaching jobs in Philadelphia and Atlanta.
Then he led the Spurs to a league-best 62-20 record, which gives them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. And he did it while deftly navigating a season filled with nagging injuries to several key players. Tim Duncan was the only starter to play in at least 70 games. No Spur averaged 30 minutes per game and Tony Parker led the team with a modest 16.7 points per game.
Despite all of that, the Spurs won at least 50 games for the 15th straight season and topped 60 for the fourth time in that span.
"Day after day, year after year, the energy that Pop provides our organization is truly unique," Buford said.
The Spurs lead the Dallas Mavericks 1-0 in their best-of-seven series, with Game 2 on Wednesday night in San Antonio.
"He’s a gentleman," Spurs swingman Marco Belinelli said. "Everybody knows that he’s the best coach in the league. So to say that is not really important. But maybe some people, they don’t know he’s really a great guy, a great gentleman. He really helps guys, helps each other. He wants to help everybody. Great person."
When Miami topped San Antonio in that classic seven-game series, Popovich’s reaction resonated deeply within some members of the Heat organization.
Instead of showing his disappointment at the final buzzer, Popovich lingered on the court for a few minutes, sharing heartfelt embraces and words with Erik Spoelstra, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, among others — even smiling as he chatted with them and congratulated them on winning the title. And when told of Popovich’s award Tuesday, James offered high praise to the Spurs’ coach.
"Not surprised," James said. "It’s well-awarded. I have the utmost respect for Gregg Popovich, man. Not only what he’s been able to do for that team, but him just being able to always keep those guys motivated and always keep their best interests. … From the outside looking in, it seems that he has their best interests and all he cares about is the team’s success and nothing else matters. That’s big-time."
Behind all his press conference bluster and the orneriness he directs toward the officials, there is a softer side that endears Popovich to those around him. That much was revealed during Game 1 against the Mavericks when he was interviewed by Craig Sager Jr., who was filling in for his father, a longtime sideline reporter who is being treated for leukemia. Popovich’s curt demeanor and one-word answers to the elder Sager’s questions have become appointment viewing, but this time the coach stopped in the middle of tense game, stared right into the camera and delivered a heart-felt message.
"We miss you. You’ve been an important part of all of us for a long time, doing a great job," he said. "We want your fanny back on the court, and I promise I’ll be nice."
Popovich garnered 59 first-place votes and 380 total points in voting conducted by a panel of media members. Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek (37 first-place votes) finished second and Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau (12) finished third in the voting, with Charlotte’s Steve Clifford and Toronto’s Dwane Casey rounding out the top five in a season so strong that Spoelstra did not make the top 10.