Monday, June 16, 2014

Greatness of Duncan-Popovich lost on them, but not us

By Phil Taylor
June 16, 2014

Tim Duncan; Gregg Popovich
Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have won the third-most (five) titles by a player-coach duo in history.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

With just seven words, Gregg Popovich told you all you really need to know about his enduringly successful partnership with Tim Duncan. The Spurs' coach spoke them in a press conference after Game 4 of the Finals, a victory that put San Antonio one win away from the NBA title that they eventually claimed Sunday night with a 104-87 victory over the Heat in Game 5. One questioner made the mistake of trying to get Popovich to stray from analyzing the series at hand and consider matters of history after Game 4, pointing out that Duncan had just achieved two career playoff records -- for most minutes and most double-doubles. He asked for Popovich's thoughts on Duncan's achievements.

Pop's succinct response: "I can assure you he doesn't care."

They don't say much, Duncan and Popovich, and yet if you pay attention they tell you everything. The single sentence reminded everyone that the coach and his star 7-footer are so perfectly in tune that one could speak about the other's thinking with absolute certainty. It also showed that there is no need for the stroking of egos in the Popovich-Duncan dynamic. Most coaches faced with that question would have taken the opportunity to flatter their star, to pump him full of praise for his longevity and accomplishments, but Popovich is not the type to offer that kind of puffery and Duncan is not the type to require it. Pop's terse answer also spoke to their shared lack of regard for such subjective issues as legacy and assessments of greatness. Popovich could assure you that Duncan didn't care about individual records because if he did, they never could have formed such a perfect alliance.

Duncan later confirmed Popovich's assessment, although more diplomatically. "The focus is winning one more, and once that one more is done, I can look back and say, hey, it's truly an honor," Duncan said. In other words, his coach was right. At that moment, while there was work left to be done, Duncan didn't care.

Since it matters so little to them, it is left to us to consider the Duncan-Popovich duo's place in history. After 17 years together they are the longest tenured player-coach tandem the NBA has ever produced, the Law & Order of pro basketball. It is rare enough for a pro athlete to spend his entire career with the same team, but it is almost unheard of for a player to spend that career under the same coach. Even Kobe Bryant, with his five rings, has admitted to being jealous of the Big Fundamental's good fortune in that regard. Duncan, 38, has benefited from playing exclusively for perhaps the greatest coach of his era. And Popovich, 65, has been lucky to coach the lowest-maintenance star of his generation.

There are any number of ways to measure the quality of the work they have done together over those 17 seasons, the most important of which, of course, are the five championship rings Duncan and Popovich have earned. Only two player-coach pairings have had a more decorated run -- the Celtics' Red Auerbach and Bill Russell, who won nine championships in 10 seasons from 1956-66, and the Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson with the Bulls, who won six titles in their nine years together from 1989-96 (including the two seasons Jordan missed all or part of during his baseball experiment.) The Spurs' pair falls in right behind those two as the third greatest such duo in NBA history, according to the numbers.

But in a way the Duncan-Popovich dynasty is as impressive as the Jordan-Jackson reign. The Spurs didn't have a burst of dominance like the Bulls, rather they have had a steady run of excellence (this was their 15th consecutive season of 50 or more wins) punctuated by championships spaced at longer intervals. San Antonio has had to push through more near-misses -- none more devastating than last year's Finals loss to the Heat -- than most dynasties. That the Spurs have been able to overcome those disappointments to win again this year, seven years after their last title, and 15 after their first together, is due in no small part to the steadiness and single-mindedness of their coach and star.

Duncan and Popovich may not have the championship jewelry possessed by Russell-Auerbach or Jordan-Jackson, but then again, their collection may not be complete. Their renaissance performances in these Finals indicated that this isn't necessarily their last title run. But eventually, even Duncan will have to give in to the realities of time. Though Popovich has gone on record saying that when Duncan retires he will follow his friend out the door, you get the feeling that won't be the case, that he has more years left in him than his power forward.

It's not the end yet, but Popovich and Duncan, realists that they are, know it is coming soon. They understand each other so well that they know it will come with little fanfare. Pop can envision how Duncan will call it quits. "It will probably be the third quarter of some game on the road some year," Pop says, "and he'll feel like he's not as significant, and he'll walk into the locker room."

And as Duncan walks past Popovich on his way to retirement, the coach and his star probably won't exchange much more than a glance, just as they have done so often when Duncan would walk to the bench after yet another win had been sealed. Their place in history will always matter less to them than the history they have shared, and for them, that goes without saying. Duncan and Popovich have never needed many words to tell each other everything.

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