Of Woody Allen, Radiohead, and Gregg Popovich
Annie Hall might be the greatest film ever made, and it’s not even Woody Allen’s best movie. Important artists work like that. Their best work is as good or better than anything else of its kind. But those who study their work closely always throw lines like, “Yes, Gatsby is good, but have you read Three Hours Between Planes?” Mention Paranoid Android to Radiohead fans and count the seconds before they urge you to re-consider the genius of There, There.
My assessment of Gregg Popovich’s season is something like this.
Woody Allen’s peculiar burden is that he directed Annie Hall and Manhattan at the end of the 1970s. Everything he’s done since, whether forgettable or masterful, has been placed against the impossible standard of his past work. No matter how good he is, he’ll never be better than himself. Michael Jordan was a good basketball player late in his 30s, and it was painful to watch.
Gregg Popovich is, according to some metrics, the best defensive coach of all time. And, wow, how could he ever top that 2004 Spurs team? That team could have forced a tsunami to gently back away from a shoreline, all shame-faced as it disappeared into the sea.
But what Gregg Popovich has done this season is better. He’s Woody Allen gone Bergman; Dylan gone electric; Radiohead gone electronic. Gregg Popovich is the best offensive coach in basketball. This Spurs team is a legitimate scare to simply run the opposition out of the building. It’s all spacing and pick and roll and execution.
What’s most interesting about this—and unlike the examples of other artist transforming themselves into something different—is that Gregg Popovich didn’t want it this way. At the end of last season, he made a public commitment to do whatever he needed to make sure the Spurs returned to the top of the league’s defensive rankings. Defensive dominance is his medium. It’s in his blood. And all things being equal, that’s what Popovich would prefer to be—a great defensive team.
But midway through this season he candidly admitted those days were done. This Spurs team would never again be a great defensive team. And because of that, Popovich focused his efforts on doing something new. The Spurs would become the best offensive team in basketball.
Put differently, Popovich has said the Spurs like players who have “gotten over themselves”. He will often ask his players to change their games or expectations for the better of the team. This season he asked this of himself. Gregg Popovich got over the defensive dominance thing, and it has added years to the Spurs’ championship window.
Earlier this season, Rick Carlisle said of Popovich, ”I think he’s the greatest coach, really ever in this game…”
I’ll leave that discussion to men like Carlisle. But beyond the Xs and Os, Popovich’s simple willingness to do it differently has made this season the most remarkable coaching performance of his career.