For 17 seasons, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has overseen one of the most efficient and effective systems in recent NBA history. It seems that no matter who plugs into various roles, the Spurs continue to chug along and succeed, weathering retirements, injuries, and self-imposed absences to stay relevant past most reasonable expectations. Furthermore, while Popovich's teams once held reputations as collections of role-specific automatons, recent Spurs outfits have proven the ability to adjust the system to their particular strengths. What Pop and his assistants have done is extremely impressive.
So, how does he (or they) do it? Because the Spurs always seem so organized, it might be easy to assume that Popovich lords over his team and drills them incessantly. However, in an excellent back-and-forth with reporters before Tuesday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, transcribed by Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News (via PBT), the coach explained that he often leaves solving certain problems up to his players:
Q. How do you get players to take ownership of the offense? Is it a confidence thing?
Popovich: “That’s a good question. A lot depends on the competitiveness and the character of the player. Often times, I’ll appeal to that. Like, I can’t make every decision for you. I don’t have 14 timeouts. You guys got to get together and talk. You guys might see a mismatch that I don’t see. You guys need to communicate constantly — talk, talk, talk to each other about what’s going on on the court.
“I think that communication thing really helps them. It engenders a feeling that they can 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 as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people …
“Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.’ And I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them.
“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. If they get a great rebound, I didn’t do that. It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform. The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs.
“Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.”
Popovich is known as a pragmatist, which often gets expressed as a penchant for cutting out of the unnecessary and focusing only on what directly leads to a win. In this case, though, that focus on the useful has led him to treat his players like grown men with their own emotional and professional needs, not models to be molded to his particular needs. By realizing that he only has so much control over what happens on the court, Popovich has reached the reasonable conclusion that he must make his players especially confident that they can accomplish their goals without much outside help. He's giving them ownership of the offense effectively by telling them that they are the ones responsible for winning and losing. He's empowering his players, or at least allowing them in a position to grab that power if they want it.
It's a philosophy that has much in common with that of the Zen Master, Phil Jackson. This comparison isn't immediately obvious, in part because Jackson has cultivated an image reliant on hippy-dippy, body-mind spirituality that doesn't jibe with Popovich's image of basketball realpolitik. After examining their specific tactics, though, it becomes clearer that both coaches believe in giving power to the players and letting them take more responsibility for what happens in any one game. They believe in the same general shape of the player-coach relationship, even if they don't explain it in quite the same terms.
This is not to say that Popovich is secretly a big huggable teddy bear — he's still the cantankerous dude who can't be bothered to give substantive answers in between-quarter interviews. As a coach, though, he's not a drill sergeant. The guy understands that he's a leader of men, not children in need of wholesale reshaping, and treats them as such. In a league full of paternalistic tendencies, that makes him worth celebrating.
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