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How Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich Saved Basketball

May 3, 2015

The 1980’s and 1990’s were the arguably heydays for the NBA. It was a highly competetive league full of superstars too many to list, but including Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Isiah Thomas, Karl Malone, John Stockton and of course Michale Jordan. 

The league was highly competetive, filled with some of the best finals series and teams/Dynasties of all time. There were Isiah Thomas’s Bad Boy Pistons; Bird’s Celtics; Magic and Kareem’s Lakers; Jordan and Pippen’s Bulls; and Hakeem the Dream’s Rockets. 

Television was taking off, allowing fans to watch every playoff game and many of the most exciting regular season games, as well as every game for local teams.

Throughout the nineties Michael Jordan changed the scope of basketball and professional sports in general. He pioneered not only how the game was played, but also the business side of it – selling millions of shoes and other merchandise and becoming a global phenomenon. His Bulls teams travelled around like rock stars, and nearly every boy who ever put a pair of basketball sneakers on during the nineties wanted to be like Mike. 

He dominated the league, leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA Championships, two three-peats. He was arguably the most viscious competetor ever to play ball. However, in the summer of 1998 after winning his sixth ring, Jordan retired and the NBA changed drastically

The 1998-99 season began with a three month lockout. The traditional 82 game NBA schedule was condensced to just 50 games. That year, the Bulls went 13-37 and failed to make the playoffs. With the Bulls record, television ratings dropped and the league was at a loss for an identity. This was the time when I was becoming obsessed with the NBA. I remember watching that year and it feeling almost like the silence after a seven-year long nuclear bomb explosion.

Teams and other stars who could never beat Jordan’s Bulls in a playoff series finally had a chance to claim the crown.

Then came the emergence of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popavich.

It was a strange year, and everyone thought Stockton and Malone’s Utah Jazz were going to finally take that elusive championship after losing to the Bulls in the previous two epic final series; or Alonzo Mourning and Pat Riley’s Miami Heat, or Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers. 

Instead, the Spurs dominated the playoffs, only losing two games total, even sweeping Shaq’s Lakers in the second round. Tim Duncan emerged as the league’s new top-dog, but for the next fifteen years, he would do so while flying under the radar, only seeming to appear to the national gaze in late April through June.

As the Spurs had to rebuild as supporting cast around Duncan with the retirement of David Robinson, and an aging supporting cast, Kobe Bryant began to emerge alongside the Lakers’ dominant center Shaquille O’Neil, Los Angelas took Jordan’s Bulls torch of the league’s dominant force.

They won the next three championships.

The playoffs for these years featured some of the best series I’ve ever watched (not having been old enough to recall the first half of Jordan’s career, or Bird, Magic, and Thomas). The Lakers had epic playoff battles with the Sacremento Kings, Portland Trailblazers, and of course Pop and Duncan’s Spurs. 

But, after their third championship, Kobe and Shaq could no longer co-exist and they split up. Neither player wanted to share the spotlight, so Shaq left LA for Miami. 

During this time, the league was also dealing with many PR problems. Much of the public considered the NBA to be full of thugs, making it unrelatable to many people buying tickets and cable. 

At least that was the perception. 

Tattoos became more prominant with players such as Allen Iverson, Rasheed Wallace, and Kenyon Martin. (All great players and fun to watch I should add).

Isolation basketball hit the ground running thanks to Jordan’s influence. All the players who matured while watching Jordan were now being drafted, many right out of high school, many not ready/mature enough for giant paychecks and the responsibility of carrying the heavy fate of their franchise.

In 2004, the Indiana Pacers star forward Ron Artest, who had a reputation of being a hot-head ran into the stands and began punching fans in what infamously became known as the Malice at the Palace.’

Hand-checking was taken away, which the gave plenty of room for excessive dribbling, and made it more difficult to play a more physical style of defense. The days of The Bad Boys were through. (Who Jordan attributes his toughness to.)

High School coaches around the country tried to encourage their players to watch college basketball instead of professional basketball. College was more of a team game built around good coaching and good defense. It was not at all uncommon in the NBA for multiple possessions in a short period of time with not one pass.

It was becoming a guard’s league, because they were the ones who brought the ball up the floor, and many seemed to care more about the stat sheet than the win-loss column. 

Stars were paid more, seeking shoe endorsements and commercial appearences hust like Mike.

This wasn’t the case everywhere. Most of the good teams were filled with the more unselfish stars, such as the Jason Kidd and the Phoenix Suns, Chris Webber and the Sacremento Kings, Chauncy Billups and the Detriot Pistons, Kevin Garnets T-Wolves and Celtics, and of course Duncan’s Spurs.

The parody in the league, however, was not great. The good teams were really good, and the bad teams were really bad with very few in between.

For years, the league was filled with terrible contracts. Owners were paying players way too much expecting them to be the next Michael Jordan, when in reality, they were a two-time All-Star at best, not the kind of players to build a franchise around.

All the while, Duncan and Popavich were quietly hiding away in Texas winning year after year. 

In 2012 thirty-six year old Tim Duncan was earning twenty-one million dollars a year as the league’s third highest paid player. The Two-time Most Valuable Player became a free agent that summer.

To everyone’s surprise, Duncan signed a contract worth less than Hedo Turkaglu’s for three years and thirty million dollars.

You never see Tim Duncan in commericals.

He does not have his own shoe or clothing line.

He has never worn a tie, even when invited to the White House.

He does not use internet.

While Kobe Bryant’s Lakers were falling apart thanks to his own contract, Duncan’s Spurs had the freed up cap space to sign role players Danny Green, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills – three players that were crucial in their run to the NBA title last year, 2014. It was Duncan and Popovich’s fifth title together in a span of fifteen years and fifteenth 50+ winning season in as many years.

In 1999, Duncan won the finals MVP award by averaging 27 points, 14 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.2 blocks per game.

In 2003, Duncan won finals MVP again by averaging 24 points, 17 rebounds, and 5.3 blocks per game.

He won it again in 2005 with 20 points per game, 14 boards, 2 assists, and 2 blocks.

At age 30, Duncan averaged 18 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.3 blocks per game in the finals. He happily cheered for his teammate Tony Parker who hoisted his own finals MVP trophy as if it were his own. 

Unlike many other superstars, Duncan allowed/encouraged Gregg Popovich to change the Spurs offense as he grew older. The Spurs went from a post-centric offense, run through Duncan, to an offense based around floor-spacing, pace, and ball movement centered around the skill sets of point guard Tony Parker.

Tim Duncan’s primary role on the offensive end was to set picks and clear space for his teams to drive to the rim, and then occassionally get an isolation on the post when his team badly needed a bucket.

In last year’s 2013-14 season, the Spurs passed the ball more than any other NBA team.

Year after year, Popovich uses revolutionary tactics and decision-making in order to get his team ready for the playoffs, and every year, the media questions him. 

And part of what makes Popovich so great is how little he cares about the media. Many people see him as a jerk (he often uses sarcasm and snarky answers to the media’s questions), but that’s because he could care less about flash, celebrity, public perception, etc.

He rests his players on back-to-backs whether or not the Spurs are on National Television, even if he gets fined.

His teams almost always have slow starts to the season, and every year the media and fans reach a point where they question if this is the year the Spurs lose it.

But every year, Popovich paces his team perfectly so that they hit their stride heading into the playoffs, more often than not carrying that moment through the first round and beyond.

In August of 2014, he hired a woman as an assistant coach.

Popovich is a step ahead of everyone else.

He built a culture in San Antonio and only accepts players willing to play within his system, as part of the team. I have heard people say that he is just as hard on Tim Duncan as he is on Patty Mills. He coaches the twelth man on the team as hard as the MVP on the team. 

He probably would not have gotten along with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, superstars who tend to take things upon themselves before trusting their teammates. And he prefers it that way because let’s face it, he’a been doing fine without them. 

Basketball is a team game, but there are only five players on a team playing at one time, far fewer than most other tram sports. The more talented players have more of an impact on the team than other sports. 

Superstars can dominate the ball and shoot twenty-five times a game like Kobe Bryant or Russel Westbrook; or they can create for others and make their teammates better, while scoring when needed like Lebron James, Duncan, or Kevin Garnett.

Both approaches have proven to work, and the former results in more attention, but the latter leads to consistency. No team in the history of the league, especially in the salary cap era, has approached year-in-year-out consistency of the San Antonio Spurs.

It’s finally beginning to trickle down into the entire world of basketball.

Much because of Popovich’s mentality and offensive system, team basketball is on the uprise. For example, the Wisconsin Badgers just finished making a run to the NCAA championship this year. They were able to outmatch Kentucky in the final four and Coach Calipari’s system of recruiting star players and one-and-dones with only two future NBA players and no lottery picks because of things like floor-spacing and ball movement.

Look at this year’s Atlanta Hawks team. With no superstars, they held the best record in the Eastern Conference thanks to a system based around Popovich’s and this year’s NBA Coach of the year, Mike Budenholzer, who was an assistant coach for Gregg Popovich for several years.

During this now sixteen year run by the Spurs, the NBA has transformed from a league with a bad reputation based around isolation and selfish basketball, to what it is today, where the top teams all swing the ball around the floor and work within a team concept.

Duncan and Popovich may not be the sole reason for this, but they are the one consistent and most quietly influential thread.

While everyone was busy speculating where Lebron was going in free-agency or who how many points Kobe Bryant scored the night before, it’s quite possible that Tim Duncan and Popovich were saving the sport. 

But no one knew it because they were ‘too boring…’

I asked them if it wasn’t too much trouble, if I wasn’t being too pushy, if they could execute what we were trying to do. And if it didn’t make them too angry, if they also wanted to play some defense on the other end, that would be great.

– Gregg Popovich

I’m not better when I force shots. I’m going to take them as they come. They are really sagging in there, trying to take me out of the game. It’s my job to find guys. I want to be aggressive and take my shots, but I can’t force them.

– Tim Duncan


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