In trusting players, Spurs’ Popovich gets results
CLEVELAND — Sometimes, Gregg Popovich has no answers.
That may sound strange when you’re talking about the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, a coach who possesses four NBA championships, a coach who has coaxed his ancient-artifact of a team into contending yet again.
But it’s true.
"Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times, everybody’s holding the ball. We got no drills to do here. Figure it out,’" Popovich said prior to Tuesday’s 122-101 drubbing of the Cleveland Cavaliers. "Then I’ll get up and I’ll walk away from them."
Most people figured the Spurs were toast about five years ago. Tim Duncan is 37. Manu Ginobili is 36. Tony Parker is 31, and oftentimes, that equates to 57 in point guard years.
Yet they made it to the Finals last year, falling to the Miami Heat in seven games. And through Tuesday, they owned the second-best record (44-16) in all the West.
Seriously. How long can this last?
Well, if the Spurs keep playing like the Spurs, the answer is probably quite a while.
On Tuesday, they assisted on a remarkable 39 of their 43 baskets. That included assists on 29 straight.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is precision.
"I think everybody touched it at least twice in 24 seconds," marveled Cavs guard Dion Waiters. "I don’t know how they do it."
Popovich said it’s not that easy. It takes constant reminding and drilling. It takes lots of work.
"The quest never stops," he said. "You just keep doing it. Even though our core has been together so long, I still have to have an emphasis during a practice or a scrimmage that we’re holding the ball too long, that it’s not moving, that we’re not doing good-to-great with our shots.
"There are lots of good shots. But if you have a good shot, give it up for a great shot. Contested shots are really bad shots. People’s percentages go down almost like 20 (percent) in most cases, almost without exception."
Nor is great ball movement something that happens overnight.
"It takes time to get everybody to buy in that what is good for the group may not necessarily be what’s good for you," Popovich said. "Like, you want to penetrate, not just for yourself, but for a teammate."
In order for that type of mindset to come to life, each player needs to develop his own inner voice of unselfishness.
As Popovich said, players need to convince themselves, "I’m penetrating because I want to make things happen. It could be for me, it could be for a teammate, it could be for the pass after the pass that I make."
The Spurs strive to instill this type of thinking in their players. They perform extensive research on the draft to find prospects who seem open to this organization-wide philosophy. And having the likes of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili (and even younger guys such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green) on the team certainly can’t hurt.
But ultimately, it comes down to each individual.
"A lot of it depends on the competitiveness and character of the player, to be honest," Popovich said. "I can’t make every decision for them. I think the communication thing engenders a feeling they could actually be in charge. I think competitive, character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things on the court as a group."
And that is why Popovich is occasionally willing to walk away. He is willing to leave the huddle, to let the Spurs figure it out — individually, collectively.
"There’s nothing else I can do for them," he said of such instances. "I can give some bulls— and act like I’m a coach or something. They’re out there playing. If they’re holding the ball, they’re holding the ball. I certainly didn’t tell them to hold the ball. Just like if they make five in a row. I didn’t do that. They get great rebounds, I didn’t do that."
Sometimes, it seems, in the case of Popovich and the Spurs, less coaching can be more.
"It’s a players’ game and they gotta perform," Popovich said. "Then you interject here and there. You call a play or make a substitution, or that kind of thing that helps the team win. But (the players) basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain."