San Antonio Spurs: A new challenge for Gregg Popovich

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images) /

So much has been said about the impending season for the San Antonio Spurs players, but it’s Gregg Popovich that faces the greatest hurdle of his career: solidarity.

For the first time since 1997, the San Antonio Spurs are without any of their Big Three. Legendary power forward Tim Duncan is two years removed from his retirement and Manu Ginobili has just begun his own. Point guard Tony Parker is now a backup for the Charlotte Hornets, leaving head coach Gregg Popovich without his confidants for the first time as head coach of the Spurs.

Popovich is at the dawn of the next stage of his coaching career. With a motivated roster of eager newcomers and the remnants of past Spurs squads, this year’s team is full of determined players with a range of complimentary abilities. Times have changed and what worked for San Antonio in 2014 has become the norm.

Since Golden State revolutionized basketball with their up-tempo ball movement and three-point shooting, the Spurs and their iconic system have been overlooked. The masses tend to forget that Warriors head coach Steve Kerr studied Popovich and his system for four seasons as a Spur. At the core of what may end up being the greatest dynasty in modern basketball is the teachings of Coach Pop.

The legacy of Popovich as a coach and leader is set in stone, regardless of what comes next for him and the Spurs. What he’s created in San Antonio is more than a style of basketball, but a way of life. Popovich teaches his players to be better thinkers, analysts and members of society. He broadens players horizons to aspects of the world they may have never discovered and encourages them to treat the world with an open mind.

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For the Spurs organization, the quality of someone’s character is equally as important as their playing ability. To truly thrive under Popovich’s style of leadership, players need to buy in to the team and learn to play an unselfish style of basketball that prioritizes camaraderie and winning above all.

Doubters, of which there are many, believe that Popovich won’t be able to keep the team running without his Big Three or Kawhi Leonard. What they’re undervaluing is that he’s now operating with two All-NBA talents and a surrounding cast of both skills players and athletes suited to his liking.

There’ve been plenty of times when Popovich has been wrongly counted out during the course of his career. For roughly a decade, he listened to criticisms of his units. Year-in and year-out, he led those teams to the postseason and beyond. To win five rings spanned over fifteen seasons is a miraculous achievement and yet skeptics still question his ability to coach the Spurs to a winning season.

Popovich’s legacy won’t hurt if the Spurs fail to reach expectations this season, but there’s still opportunity to enhance his coaching resume over the next few seasons. Figuring out how to properly run a modern offense when your two best players operate in the mid-range is certainly a challenge. Along with general manager R.C. Buford, Popovich built a team tailored around his star players.

Along the perimeter, players such as Davis Bertans and Marco Belinelli can space the floor and remain active off the ball so that space is cleared for either DeRozan or Aldridge to make plays or score. The same goes for guards Bryn Forbes and Derrick White, who can both create shots for themselves or teammates while providing a threat from deep.

The Spurs shot an uncharacteristic 34.8 percent from behind the arc last season, making them the third worst three-point shooting team in the NBA. Even though they added another non-shooter as a primary option, Popovich and Buford made sure that there’d be other players available to knock down shots from the perimeter.

Defense will be the most difficult part of this season for Popovich. After years with reliable defenders throughout his roster, he’ll lead a team that’ll give up more points than he’s comfortable with. As the game evolves, he’ll do a good job of changing his plan to accommodate trends of the game. Now, he’ll have to go against the grain and build a new brand of Spurs basketball that pushes the pace and outscores opponents.

Trading two of the best perimeter defenders in the world is a great way to signify that a team is moving away from a defensive mindset. The loss of both Danny Green and Leonard will affect the way this team operates, but it’ll also allow them to play a faster and more contemporary brand of basketball.

Watching Popovich’s evolution without Duncan, Ginobili, Parker or Leonard will be one of the more captivating storylines of the NBA season. If he can find a way to make DeRozan a more effective, efficient and reliable star player then he’ll be a clear-cut candidate for Coach of the Year.

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It’s been an incredible run for Coach Pop, but we may not have seen the best of his coaching ability just yet.