The Popovich System

by

Having swept the Los Angeles Clippers, the San Antonio Spurs return home awaiting the outcome of another Los Angeles series. A quick guess: the Oklahoma City Thunder will find The Popovich System far more troubling next series than they will The Kobe System in this one.

Few can really make sense of what The Kobe System actually is, other than Bryant offering a “you’re welcome” to a throng of successful celebrities wearing faces more confounded than Andrew Bynum’s after Bryant launches a 22-foot jumper despite the seven-footer establishing prime real estate in the post .

After Game 4 there was no Kanye West or Tony Robbins awaiting San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, only a roomful of seasoned beat reporters looking for a quote. And even then, Popovich is never in the most giving mood.

So far as systems go, The Pop System has a long ways to go to match the sheer entertainment value of The Kobe System.

Popovich has never been one to accept credit for success, and that which can be directly attributed to him–bringing a player of Manu Ginobili’s stature off the bench, resting players, intentionally fouling Reggie Evans–he can can be downright apologetic for.

“It’s not pretty. Basically it’s ugly, but it’s part of the game,” Popovich said. “My job is to try to win.”

It is a job Popovich has done very well, currently 18 times in a row in fact, with win no. 18 the toughest in these playoffs to date. This postseason has been rough for those swooning for hero ball antics, but last night Popovich once again showed why he might be the most clutch performer in the NBA.

Despite featuring one of the most feared closers in the game in Chris Paul, the Clippers struggled to generate clean shots down the stretch with their generic pick and roll and 1-4 isolation sets. Finally having to grind out baskets in the fourth quarter, Popovich and the Spurs cued up several backdoor cuts that generated easy layups.

It was an execution by execution, if that makes sense.

“Look how many back doors [the Spurs] got,” Paul said (via Kevin Arnovitz at ESPN). “When it was a close game, they come down and run this little play where they hit Timmy [Duncan] and then just drop it to Tony [Parker] for a layup. It’s tough. They know how to play. They come out after timeouts and they execute.”

In a hypothetical upcoming series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in which the Thunder are pegged to have the superior top heavy talent, this is the advantage the Spurs will press for a few victories. After all, most teams just come out of timeouts and clear out for their best player to create something from nothing.

Kevin Durant will have a little easier time doing this than Chris Paul, if only because he is healthy and Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard won’t enjoy such superior reach over Durant. But Popovich will be sure to adjust to this  as well.

In Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, the Thunder have what many would claim to be a superior Big Three in this stage of their careers. But where that trio is vaguely held together by the versatility of Harden, the Spurs parts are completely interchangeable and integrated by the 2011-12 NBA Coach of the Year.

It’s a system that, in the words of Bryant, has enjoyed “success at success at success.”

And if there’s a weakness to be exploited, whether it be a Durant struggle to move off the ball in clutch situations, Westbrook’s at times over-exuberance, or Ibaka’s penchant for biting on fakes, it’s one that will be exploited. Regardless of the outcome, it will be a series that can only leave Oklahoma City (or the Lakers, should they pull off the improbable) better. Because that’s the type of coach Gregg Popovich is, as he explained in the case of Reggie Evans.

“I said I’m sorry I had to do that to you. I hate it, it’s ugly,” Popovich said when asked what he and Evans discussed after the game. “He was fine, he said ‘that’ll give me something to work on,’, it was great.”

You’re welcome.

  • Aaron

    Great piece, but I thought the win streak was at 18, not 17.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    Typo. I’ll correct. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Cardell

    Jesse – very good writing. Enjoyed your perspective on Pop.

  • Eric C

    Great piece on the Pop System. If we look back at the previous Thunder/Spurs games, some of them have been quite high-scoring, with Parker even going off for 40+ in one game. Superior offensive sets and execution is what separates the Spurs from the Thunder, from the coaching to the personnel – I don’t think Pop is worried about having to keep the Thunder below a certain number of points or playing sterling defense – I think the whole SA coaching staff knows they can out-execute and outsmart the Thunder, and therefore can almost always score more points than Durant and Co. can. The Thunder is playing extremely well but the Spurs is the only team in the playoffs playing better. I think the Spurs top 100 points every game in the WCF, with some in the 110’s.

  • SpurredOn

    Well written, Jesse. Well written. (You’re welcome)

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  • Stijl

    Maybe not the place but this article makes me think. You know…if it wasn’t for Spur enthusiasts like the staff of 48 (and other “Spur” sites)…there are many things Spur fans would not know. Which is a shame for basketball enthusiasts. The Spurs are one of the best teams in nba history yet they get hardly any mention of their accolades and team accomplishments through the NBA itself. I mean just go to nba.com. The Spurs are not featured in hardly ANY of the pieces featured on nba.com. They may be mentioned because of playing against a team that nba.com happens to be mentioning…but seldom are there pieces “about” the Spurs.

    And in video highlights…forget about it…nba.com shows one (maybe two) highlights of the Spurs where as they load many highlights of the opposing team the Spurs just happened to play even though that team just lost.

    Could it be…the NBA doesn’t have a public popular team in the San Antonio Spurs because they don’t “market” the Spurs? Yet the Spurs are the best team to market when exemplifying “team” basketball values. Oh well…basketball enthusiasts (whether a fan of the Spurs or not) have to appreciate what this team manages to accomplish year after year. May the world know one season at a time. My rant is done. Thanks for the time.

  • Destry

    Good post about the “Pop System” and breaking it down in a nut-shell.

    With the Spurs being a small market, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Spurs will find a hard time getting the recognition the team deserves when it comes to the East coast, West coast biased media, writers, etc. David Stern and the NBA are only interested in the huge markets. The bigger markets generate the most revenue and that’s what pays the bills.

    As long as the huge markets are bringing in the money, the Spurs will always be a team that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. It’s only when they reach the WCF or the NBA finals do they ever get the spot light gleaming down on them. Why? It’s obvious; who else do they have to focus on when all the other huge markets have been dismissed in the playoffs? Lakers (huge market) gone, Chicago (huge market) gone, NY (huge market) gone, etc. You get the idea.

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    MVP of this season???? LeBron, no. Durant, no. Greg Popovich. Sure he was Coach of the Year but if Justin Verlander can win MVP of baseball as a pitcher (when pitchers are usually not seriously considered) then Pop can be MVP of the NBA.

    Facts) 1. Pop managed to get home court throughout while resting his players, while developing young players, while figuring out his rotation, while coaching this team to an extremely high level! No other coach was able to do any two of these. The Thunder are just pleased not to be injured. A Thunder player was quoted as saying the don’t practice this year, they are a young team and they just like to “scrimmage.” Let’s see how that works for you in the Western Conference Finals.

    2. With Pop as coach Memphis wins that series, probably in 5 games. The Grizzlies lost game 1 due to the work of Reggie Evans and K-Mart in that HUGE comeback. Did you see what Pop did in the last two games? Sunday night he fouled Evans intentionally and literally DROVE HIM FROM THE GAME! He could not come back until the last 2 minutes and even then the coach did not feel like subbing after he and D. Jordan had sat for so long. Pop would have stopped that Clipper 4th quarter comeback long before it resulted in a win over the Grizzlies.

    3. With Pop as coach D. Rose would still be playing in the Eastern Conference. This is speculation I know, but Pop would not have rushed Rose back and he would have never had him in the last minute of a 12 point game. I know that an ACL is such bad luck, but you need to take care of your star. Great article on ESPN recently about POP holding defending NBA Finals MVP Tim Duncan out of the 2000 playoffs. He valued the man more than he did the wins and he over-ruled Timmy and sat him down.

    4. Pop are RC Buford are the best duo in the NBA. Timmy and Tony are pretty good as are Westbrook and Durant, and LeBron and D. Wade, but Pop and RC have been drivin’ this train for so many years and have done it with such class.

    5. Go Spurs Go!

    6. Spurs fans if you go to OKC be careful, several people were shot last night outside of the Thunder game.

    7. Go Spurs Go!

  • Mark

    A good (albeit selective) breakdown of how the Spurs have handled Westbrook: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0_CeUzud_g

  • Matt

    Vermont Spurs Fan, The violence outside of the Thunder Game were unrelated to the game last I heard. As for Popovich being the MVP, I see your point, but to be fair, Scott Brooks of the Thunder may not have gotten homecourt throughout the playoffs (due to your 10 game winning streak and the Thunder’s sudden mediocrity at the end of the year), but he does have the Thunder playing at an extremely high level right now and has spent the last three years developing young players such as Harden, Durant, Westbrook, and essentially the entire rest of the team. also, he has had the rotation figured out for a while now and has his team well rested, so your claim that no other coach has done even 2 of the things you listed is quite simply false, even if your conclusion that Popovich is a damn good coach who deserves most of the credit for San Antonio being a near unstoppable juggernaut recently is 100% correct.

  • ThatBigGuy

    @ Matt

    To be fair, your Thunder were supposed to be this good. The Spurs were not. Brooks is a good coach, but you can’t say that he’s the architect of OKC’s winning ways. That would be Sam Presti, who, by the way, is a Spurs man.