Anyone who knows Gregg Popovich knows there are probably 347 other places he’d rather be than walking the red carpet at the All-Star Game next month in Los Angeles as coach of the Western Conference team. He doesn’t do extravagant parties, and the over-the-top showmanship of the NBA’s annual entertainment weekend likely doesn’t appeal to him. More than anything, he’d rather just not have the attention.
Popovich has always preached a we-over-me mantra with the San Antonio Spurs, and that comes from his days at the Air Force Academy, where he was a walk-on for the basketball team.
“I’m just guessing, but everybody that goes there has a 3.8 or 4.0 [grade-point average] – valedictorians – and did all kinds of stuff,” Popovich said. “And you go there and everybody is the same. They strip you bare. You start over again, and during the four years you learn it’s not about you. It’s about the group. It’s about the people that are around you and how people come together and how teams are put together and how you have each other’s back and that sort of thing.
“You learn that one person really doesn’t get anything done. In any business, in any endeavor, the people around you have to be good people and have to be able to work together. That’s where the real joy is – when you’re sharing success with somebody.”
Over the last 13-plus seasons, no major U.S. professional sports franchise has enjoyed more sustained success than the Spurs. They’ve won 70.1 percent of their games during that time, a mark that ranks ahead of the NFL’s New England Patriots (68.3 percent) and the Spurs’ own rival, the Los Angeles Lakers (65.9). They’ve also won four NBA championships and seven division titles and may have produced their biggest surprise yet this season: At a time when many thought the Spurs would slip from the ranks of the league’s elite, they’ve surged to their greatest start ever with a league-best 38-7 record.
The Spurs have benefitted from good health: They’re the only team in the league to use the same starting lineup for each of their games. But they’ve also won because of their remarkable balance. They rank fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 104.1 points per game, but don’t have a single player averaging even 19 points. Ginobili is the team-high with 18.6 while Tim Duncan(notes), content now to steady the Spurs with his rebounding and defense, is averaging just 13.6 points.
In short, these Spurs may be as team-oriented as any roster Popovich has ever had. All of the Spurs’ three stars – Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker(notes) – are also averaging fewer than 33 minutes. With nearly everyone on the roster contributing in some form this season, the Spurs have continued to win in their usual understated style.
“Even if we’re up by 30 we’re not going to keep screaming and yelling,” veteran forward Antonio McDyess(notes) said. “That’s why a lot of people call this team boring. Regardless, we get the job done.”
That’s all Popovich has ever asked. Beginning with David Robinson, the Spurs have had a long line of players who have bought into their team-first mentality, including their three current stars. Players who come into the system learn to adapt – or leave.
“We try not to bring people in who we think they are a bit full of themselves and think they invented the dunk or something like that,” Popovich said. “And after that if somebody is in, the players set an example and react appropriately. If one of our young guys was to try to show up the opponent or beat his chest, I might be the fifth guy to him. There will be other players saying, ‘Hey, whoa, you look foolish doing that crap.’
“And if nobody does, I’ll obviously do it.”
“There were a few times where he got on me early about screaming after a dunk and showing that kind of emotion,” Jefferson said. “You do what your coach asks for.”
Parker went through his own growing pains with Popovich. And for McDyess, playing for the Spurs is quite different than his days with the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons often had a stereo blaring music in their locker room before games. That won’t be found in the Spurs’ locker room. After the Spurs’ win over the Golden State Warriors on Monday, the team enjoyed a dinner together in San Francisco.
“When I got there, the Pistons were playing music, rapping and cursing,” McDyess said. “They said that’s what worked for them. And half of them said that if they don’t go out [the night] before a game they don’t play well. On this team you don’t get that. Different things work for different teams.”
In part because of their business-as-usual nature, the Spurs haven’t received much attention for their strong start. They reached the halfway point of their schedule on pace to win 70 games and much of the season’s headlines have been devoted to the exploits of the Lakers and Miami Heat or Carmelo Anthony’s(notes) trade demand. The Spurs could care less.
“Luckily enough I don’t look at the radar so I wouldn’t know what is going on,” Duncan said. “I have better things to do, I guess.”
The Spurs also don’t measure themselves on their success in the regular season. If they keep winning in the playoffs, the acclaim will come.
“We laugh about it and love it,” Popovich said. “The less attention, the more time and focus we have to concentrate on what we’d like to do. Having the success we’ve had with championships, we don’t need anyone to give us credit.”