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Pop star

Without Duncan, Spurs getting by on Popovich's guile

Posted: Thursday April 7, 2005 12:46PM; Updated: Sunday April 10, 2005 12:00PM
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Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker
Gregg Popovich on- and off-the-court wisdom has guided the Spurs to a pair of NBA titles.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

For most teams, the loss of their star player would spell almost certain doom. The focal point of the offense, the leader of the defense and the heart and soul of the locker room goes down for the rest of the season? How many teams could bounce back from that?

The T'wolves without Kevin Garnett? They're battling the Hawks for the top pick. The Lakers without Kobe Bryant? We've seen how bad they have been with King Kobe; without him they're the equivalent of a top-shelf CBA team.

So how has San Antonio, which lost MVP Tim Duncan for the rest of the regular season, managed to stay afloat? For the Spurs, it starts at the top with coach and vice president Gregg Popovich, who for the last decade has transformed the Spurs from perennial playoff failures into annual title contenders.

Not much attention has been paid to the job Popovich has done over the years, but consider this: Since 1991, only four coaches have won NBA championships: Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Larry Brown and Popovich. While Jackson and Tomjanovich have been, for one reason or another, a constant presence on the newspaper headlines, Popovich has flown under the radar while building the Spurs into a potential dynasty for the next decade.

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Popovich didn't have many credentials when he came to San Antonio. His previous head-coaching experience was at Division III Pomona-Pitzer, where he spent eight seasons before accepting a position on Brown's staff at Kansas (the unassuming Popovich even spent one year at Pomona living in the dorm in Pomona, Calif., with his family -- funny, I just can't picture Jackson ordering from his meal card).

After only one season with the Jayhawks, Brown was so impressed with Popovich's intelligence and work ethic that he brought the erstwhile coach with him to San Antonio in 1988. After four years working under Brown, Popovich left for Golden State, where he studied the unconventional ways of Warriors head coach Don Nelson. Only two years later Popovich was named the executive vice president of the Spurs, and in 1996 he added head coach to his list of duties.

Part of what makes Popovich so effective is that his players know that when it comes to the organization, the buck stops with him. Yes, San Antonio has a general manager (R.C. Buford), but all discipline and personnel decisions go through Popovich. If a player has a problem with the coach, he might want to think twice before taking his complaint to the front office.