Gregg Popovich’s patented blend of sarcasm and stoic disbelief places him among the NBA’s most iconic personalities.
Responding to a question about the difficulty of guarding LeBron James last Wednesday, Popovich answered exactly how 99 percent of NBA watchers would expect. “Have you watched LeBron play before?,” Popovich said. “Jesus. He’s LeBron James. That’s what makes him difficult to guard.”
Popovich has been answering these questions for 21 full seasons. Tack on additional time for 21 playoff appearances and you have the basis for someone who loves his job so much that he’d rather suffer through inept questions than quit.
In a way, Popovich is part of the NBA’s favorite game of cat and mouse. If the NBA media represents Tom on the never-ending hunt for Jerry, the players, then Popovich is Mammy Two Shoes, popping up only to chastise Tom while Jerry has his run of the house.
Now, as the NBA fully incorporates the uptempo, 3-point philosophy that the Spurs have largely avoided, Popovich and his coaching style are being phased out as a relic of a bygone era, not unlike Tom and Jerry’s removal of Mammy, a similarly ill-fitting archetype of an antiquated age.
The difference, however, between Popovich and his television counterpart, is that 21 seasons of head coaching experience aren’t so easily brushed aside. Despite not making the NBA Finals since 2014, the 69-year-old Popovich has continued his competition against time and contemporary basketball.
While he’s made remarks about hanging up his clipboard—specifically signaling a retirement timeline that ends after the 2020 Olympics—would it be better if Popovich turned in early? San Antonio’s 12-14 start isn’t indicative of his usual, playoff bound teams.
Still, sticking out these next few seasons might be the most Popovich way of ending an two-decade career, one marked by ardent adherence to his personal belief system through all matters, basketball or otherwise.
The NBA rumor mill works a bit differently for coaches than it does for anyone else. Time and time again, coaches have proved the easiest scapegoats for their organization’s inability to put the ball in the basket. Bench heads are uniquely responsive to the wishes of general managers, owners, players and their teams’ thousands, if not millions of fans.
That’s a lot of pressure.
So, when it comes time for a coach to be dismissed, or he willfully decides to retire, it can usually be pinpointed miles in advance. Sometimes the signs are clear. Despite Byron Scott’s record of success in New Jersey and New Orleans, his retirement announcement in November 2017 was the punctuation for the run-on sentence that was the 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers season.
Scott, a former Laker, was aware of the significance of Kobe Bryant’s final season. He knew that fans would circle the globe twice just to sniff some of the Black Mamba’s remaining venom.
He also knew that there was no chance he’d be coaching the Lakers the following season.
After the confetti cleared and the strobe light-induced nausea subsided, Scott joined the ESPN analyst crew for the third time in his career. Only this time it was permanent.
Then-55 years old, there was no easily configurable way to put Scott back on the sidelines. A frequent guest on ESPN’s programming in the post-season, Scott’s long and successful playing and coaching career need not be besmirched by another coaching job gone wrong. For all the success he got out of players like Chris Paul and Jason Kidd, no coaching position could refurbish his reputation after leading the Lakers’ tank through one of the most televised military parades of all time.
Stan Van Gundy is another such coach who, while not officially retired, is recognizably more comfortable behind an ESPN desk than he ever was in his last season with the Detroit Pistons.
No matter how iconic that Pistons biking photo is, or how significant dethroning LeBron James in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals was, Van Gundy’s last hurrah was an underperforming Detroit team that should be written in point-six font on his resume. As both team president and coach, Van Gundy’s time in Detroit is better characterized by the hope that Stanley Johnson could back up his 2015 playoff comments about LeBron James than any realistic attempt at being successful.
Coaches like Scott and Van Gundy aren’t swallowed up by history as “bad coaches.” Rather, they are swept away in the flowing tides of change while Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “I Tried” plays in the background.
Popovich, however, isn’t content to fade away into obscurity. His curmudgeonly basketball persona is ill-suited to disappearing from the spotlight.
And occasionally, his unflinching attempts to push his style until the bitter end work. Despite a 12-14 record, San Antonio has stayed competitive playing Popovich’s old school brand of ball.
Popovich has even relented at times by letting his team push the pace. Through the first 26 games of the season, the Spurs have scored 100-plus points 20 times, compared to just 13 in the same time frame last season.
Just last night the Spurs, after being outscored by the Lakers 99-89 through three periods, proved capable of taking the victory after beating Los Angeles 44-21 in the fourth quarter. Popovich conceded and let Davis Bertans heave 3s—six in the fourth quarter after he shot just one through the first three.
Bertans’ first triple, which came when the Spurs were down 103-96, was not a typical late game Spurs play. He escaped James’ cover with the help of a Jakob Poeltl screen and eased into the shot like he thought his passport read “Klay Thompson.”
Knowing when to flip the offensive switch might become Popovich’s new calling card. As teams settle into the comfort of San Antonio dragging out the shot clock only to take a contested LaMarcus Aldridge or DeMar DeRozan mid-range 2, boom, here come the Spurs pouring on the offense.
Finding new ways to surprise your coworkers after two decades together is a difficult task. But Popovich continues to prove that he and the Spurs can still innovate on a nightly basis.