Gregg Popovich may be the best coach in American professional sports today.
What Popovich has done goes far beyond guiding his San Antonio Spurs to the best record in the National Basketball Association this season. He has created a template for NBA success. His influence extends so far that his presence is likely to be felt in the NBA Finals even if the Spurs don't make it.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers get in they all have key figures with significant ties to Popovich. For the Thunder it's general manager Sam Presti, who got his start in the NBA working in the Spurs' front office. For the Lakers and Clippers it's coaches Mike Brown, who was an assistant, and Vinny Del Negro, who played for Popovich.
Nonplayoff teams that reflect the Popovich effect include the Phoenix Suns (general manager Lance Blanks), the New Jersey Nets (coach Avery Johnson) and the New Orleans Hornets (general manager Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams).
J.A. Adande writes of the culture and formula that 'Pop' has created in San Antonio.
"Above all else, it's clear that the organization itself is the most important thing; as Pop would say, everyone has to get over themselves and put the organization and team first. The endurance of their organization is uncommon, I feel fortunate for the opportunity to have been a small part of it."
Del Negro said: "They had a culture that was about doing it the right way and having the right people and character, and understanding your role and job. Pop kept everybody accountable. 'This is how we need you to play and this is what we need you to do.'"Having that culture means putting a premium on players who fit that culture. No need to waste time looking at renegades who won't fit in. The Spurs consistently bring in impact rookies -- most notably Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- even though they haven't picked higher than 20th since they got Duncan.
It's not just a culture. The term the Spurs keep using is program, as in a college program. Example: "Pop has brought the vision to our program," Buford said. "Everyone who has come through our program understands the things that are important: character and selfless people who want to be part of a team. Want to be part of something bigger than themselves."
As for building a team, Popovich's front-office background lets him think with a long-term perspective. He oversees most free-agent decisions, while leaving the drafting to Buford and the scouting staff. Most coaches need to think short-term, because their job status can change in the time it takes to refresh the NBA standings page on your web browser. Thinking long-term enabled Popovich to work long-term, to become the most tenured active coach in American major pro sports, to be so entrenched he easily survived a first-round exit from last year's playoffs that would have sent many lesser coaches packing.
"Our program starts with our ownership, with Peter Holt and his group," Popovich said at the news conference to announce his coaching award. "They set a tone for all of us, and I'm the beneficiary of all of their talents."
That's Pop, being all modest again. The attitude is so pervasive in the franchise that Buford even called back to make sure this article wouldn't make the Spurs sound as if they were taking credit for a system that made them superior to everyone else. They want to assert that everything is player-based.
"The guys that played here are the reasons that our program has been allowed to be built," Buford said.
It's not a false modesty. Popovich isn't obsessed with credit. He thinks so little of individual accolades that he didn't even wear a tie to coach the game when he was presented his trophy at half court.
But make no mistake, it's about Popovich.
"His people-managing skills, they're off the charts," Brown said. "You watch how he handles different situations with people, whether it's people in the front office or players 1-15 or people that work for him and you try to copy that, to a certain degree, if you can."