Gregg Popovich has coached over 1000 NBA victories with the San Antonio Spurs. He has won five championships, and this season marked the 19th consecutive time they have reached playoffs.
We explore three aspects of his coaching that have made the Spurs so consistent, and why Popovich is considered one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time.
Be Hard on Your Star Players
For the majority of his time at the Spurs, Popovich has coached three elite players of the NBA: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili – Duncan is regarded as one of the greatest power forwards of all time.
How he has developed this group, and their loyalty towards Popovich exemplifies his leadership style. These ‘big three’ receive no free rides, in fact, he openly pushes and challenges them in front of the playing group.
“I’ll purposely get on the big boys the most. Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili will catch more hell from me than anybody else out there. You know the obvious effect of that. If you do that and they respond in the right way, everyone else follows suit.” said Popovich.
Popovic understands why some coaches don’t push their best players – they are afraid to damage the relationship or they’re satisfied with their current performance. Conflicts can arise when a coach challenges a player who is more accomplished than they ever were.
However, Popovich applies the same standards and expectations throughout his entire team. When he ran a preseason military camp, Parker & Duncan completed the obstacle course along with everyone else.
”You don’t have a different system for Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili than you do for number 12, 13, and 14, you need to have the same standards for everyone,” said Popovich.
Getting the ‘buy in’ from your most influential players is crucial because it makes managing the rest of the group so much easier. If a Spurs player sees’s Popovich ripping into Duncan for not rebounding, and Duncan accepts it – it’s pretty hard for another player to give Popovich attitude for doing the same to them.
The video below provides an insight into the affection these three feel towards Popovich. Not only are they grateful for him making them better players, but better people. Duncan and Parker, in particular, describe Popovich as a ‘father-figure’ who has mentored them from a young age.
In return for the impact he has had their lives, these ‘big three’ have made significant sacrifices for Popovich. They accept that he regularly benches and rests them from games, sticking to a rule that no one plays more than 30 minutes per game in the regular season – Popovich jokingly acknowledges how this will negatively impact their stats at the end of their careers. However, they trust Popovich and understand how giving ‘role players’ experience benefits the team.
Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili’s loyalty to Popovich is further evident by the fact they have chosen to stay at San Antoni for well below market value- something incredibly rare in a sport where due to the regularity of transfers, fans often follow players rather than teams.
Following the 2016 Olympic Games, Popovich will take over as head coach of the U.S.A national team. It will be interesting to see if he can manage this group of star players with the same success.
How do you manage your best players?
Are they treated any differently to the rest of the group?
Only Accept Players That Fit Your Values
Popovich values character above talent. When assessing players to draft, he looks for personality traits that align with his approach: a sense of humour, a lack of ego, and an ability to respond to adversity. Popovich wants to know that a player has ‘gotten over themselves’ – there is no place for egos at the Spurs.
If I’m interviewing a young guy and he’s saying things like, “I should have been picked All-American but they picked Johnny instead of me,” or they say stuff like, “My coach should have played me more; he didn’t really help me,” I’m not taking that kid because he will be a problem one way or another. I know he will be a problem. – Popovich on drafting.
Popovich also seeks players that enjoy someone’s success over their own; he recalls that the most satisfying memories of his five championship wins; the photo’s in his pool room, are the moments of pure joy between his players immediately after the game.
In a playing sense, Popovich selects players that can execute fundamentals time and time again. He doesn’t value flashes of individual brilliance. The Spurs are renowned for their ability to do the basics well: boxing out opponents, defending with your feet, free throws and not making simple errors by knowing the rules.
Furthermore, his players are adaptable. If a play isn’t working, Popovich isn’t afraid to just scrap it, and try something else. Over his career, the Spurs team has completely changed on the court, but in the locker room – they are the same.
Influence the Person, Not the Player
After players are accepted into his system, Popovich builds personal relationships them – When Tim Duncan first arrived at the Spurs, Popovich spent four days at the beach with him to learn ‘who he was, and what was his character’.
Popovich expects that his players to be good people. He believes satisfaction in life cannot come from sport alone. Popovich doesn’t live and breathe basketball, he regularly downplays the importance of the ‘game’. In media interviews, he shows disregard for reporters – often not answering their questions.
“You can’t just get your satisfaction out of teaching somebody how to shoot or how to box out on a rebound. That’s not very important in the big picture of things.”- Popovich on what matters most.
The satisfaction Popovich gets from coaching is developing kids into men. With his players, he discusses politics, race, food and wine or international events. Popovich will pull players up on their use of grammar, correct them to say I’m well instead of ‘good’ when asked how they are. His nickname ‘Pop’ is a perfect fit for a man that imparts the grumpy love of a grandparent on his players.
How much interest to you take in who you players are?
Do you know what they do for work, or how they are going at school?
Who are the important people in your players lives?
For amateur coaches, the first point to take from Popovich is to value character and influence your players beyond the game.
Secondly, don’t bring someone into your club on talent alone, make sure they align with the club you want to be.
Finally, challenge your stars players, they want to be the best they can.
BE THE VOICE THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
Thanks for reading, leave a comment if you have any thoughts Popovich’s coaching style and what you can apply to your teams.
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