BOSTON — Gregg Popovich is having fun.
His words, not mine.
“This is one of the more enjoyable seasons,” Popovich said on Sunday, hours before the Spurs drubbed the Celtics in Boston. “It’s been fun to watch [the team’s] development. It’s satisfying.”
So what’s been fun about this season? The Spurs are good, with 43 wins, a chance to eclipse last season’s 47 and an outside shot at reaching 50. But they are currently in a dogfight in the back half of the Western Conference playoff bracket (No. 7 heading into Tuesday's action), and a first–round exit is more likely than not.
The Spurs are talented, albeit not in the same way San Antonio’s championship teams were. The Spurs have been winning since 1998, when Bill Clinton was president and pagers were cool. They have won with Tim Duncan as the on-court leader, then Tony Parker, then Kawhi Leonard. They have the most consecutive winning seasons in NBA history (22), the longest active playoff streak (21) and the second-best winning percentage among the four major sports.
This was the year, though, it was supposed to begin to unravel. Leonard was traded, Dejounte Murray was lost for the season before it even started. New players, inexperienced players, needed to be incorporated. Stars needed to assume different, bigger roles.
The beginning of the end of the Spurs dynasty was near.
Or maybe not.
There are the old reliables. LaMarcus Aldridge, for one. In his fourth season with the Spurs, Aldridge remains a throwback. He is a bully-ball big, still using superior power to get to the rim and a high release from his 6-foot-11 frame to shoot mid-range jump shots over defenders. “I thought LaMarcus was excellent when he was playing in Portland and his early years with the Spurs,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “You see even more desire to get to the block now. He is running, posting and making it hard to guard.”
DeMar DeRozan has fit. Never a prolific three-point shooter, DeRozan has all but abandoned the shot. He has ratcheted up his playmaking (career-high 6.2 assists) while showcasing the midrange game that made him a four-time All-Star in Toronto. Developing chemistry with Aldridge took time, DeRozan admits, but as the playoffs near the two are on the same page.
“Early on it was kind of up and down,” DeRozan said. “It was a balance that we had to figure out. Probably the last month or so, I went to him and told him, ‘now we got that rhythm’ that we were talking about was going to come. We knew it was going to come, just a matter of time.”
Then there is Popovich. In his 23rd season, Popovich is the longest tenured coach in any of the four major sports. His winning percentage is only bested by Phil Jackson and he's less than 100 wins from becoming the NBA’s all-time winningest coach. And by any account he’s having one of his best coaching seasons.
There has been some outside-the-box thinking, like how Popovich showed the team a documentary on penguins in the preseason to emphasize the importance of teamwork. And there has been his usual blunt criticisms, like when the Spurs surrendered 130 points in a loss to the Knicks in February.
“We’re not mature enough as a group to know that good teams beat teams that they are supposed to beat,” Popovich said. “We haven’t figured that out yet. We’re inconsistent and looking for more habitual play.”
But this has been a softer Popovich. A more patient Popovich. He has had to be. Guys like Bryn Forbes, Davis Bertans and newcomer Jakob Poeltl have been thrust into significant roles. He was forced to play point guard by committee to start the season until second-year guard Derrick White was ready to take on the role. He has had to be creative with his game plans. San Antonio has a starting unit that relies on the individual talents of Aldridge and DeRozan and a bench that, according to Stevens, “plays like the Spurs of 2013-14. They come in, they fly around, they move the ball, they are cutting all over the place.”
Popovich says when it comes to the Spurs culture, it was like “starting all over again.” Patty Mills gets it. In his eighth season in San Antonio, Mills is the longest–tenured Spur. And he has seen a noticeable change in Popovich this season.
“It’s a massive [change],” Mills told The Crossover. “He’s had to adjust the way he has had to coach. He’s definitely held back. He’s been coaching David Robinson and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for all these years. He had players that could handle criticism, whether it’s in person or in front of the team. He isn’t doing as much of that. He’s gotten softer I guess in his old age.”
Mills laughed as he finished that last thought, but this is an undeniably different team made up of very different types of players. The Spurs' culture, Mills says, starts off the court, with players being “knowledgeable, having a curious mindset of what happens outside of this environment and then the basketball comes after that. That’s where the culture starts—learning to trust one another within the locker room by learning about their backgrounds.”
“For guys that have been elsewhere, they come in and they can sense it’s a different environment,” Mills said. “They can notice the difference. It takes some time for players to adjust to how different it is. People have always said you needed to be a certain type of person to be in this environment and to be coached by Pop, and it’s true. The way he coaches his players is a certain way. You’ve seen the way he’s coached Tim and Manu. You see that interaction between coach and player, and everyone else falls in line after that. You know if he yells at you, you can’t say anything back. It’s those little things you have to get guys to understand.”
As the most familiar with Popovich, Mills has taken it upon himself to help his teammates understand that when Popovich goes off, “it’s not personal.”
“It’s a message for everyone to help us get to where we want to be,” Mills said. “There are times when I have had to defuse something by getting to [a teammate] first before him, or be able to take them to the side to help them understand the message he is trying to send. Sometimes the young guys can’t see the big picture. And I’ve been here for a few years. I can see [an angry Popovich] coming.”
The Spurs have made strides this season, though again, they easily could still be first–round fodder. The offense is clicking (No. 6 in efficiency) but while the defense has been better of late, it still ranks in the bottom third of the NBA. White has had a strong season (“I don’t know where we’d be without him,” Popovich said) but expecting a second-year point guard, even one with White’s defensive instincts, to check Stephen Curry, Chris Paul or Jamal Murray in the first round is a lot to ask.
The season could end early.
That has not made it any less enjoyable.
“I’m really happy with the group,” Popovich said. “Some guys have overachieved. New guys are getting used to each other. I’m kind of a task master. I’ve got to understand, and I think I have, that patience was the order of the day for this group. Considering that we have played well, recent wins against good teams, that’s a good sign that they are figuring it out.”