LOS ANGELES -- The Spurs can thank Tim Duncan for their revved-up offense and NBA-best record, even though Duncan is taking the fewest shots of his career and much of their success has come with smaller contributions from him. The Spurs are playing faster, scoring more and winning with greater frequency because coach Gregg Popovich told them to. Why do Popovich's words matter, and how is he still coaching the Spurs 14 years after he took over? Because Duncan made it so.
We talk about the great players making other players better, but not many can make coaches into Hall of Famers. I'm talking about stars who bought into their coaches' ways and produced at a championship level for them, giving their coaches lasting clout even after they parted ways. That might be the most elite group in the NBA.
George Mikan with John Kundla. Bill Russell with Red Auerbach. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Pat Riley. Isiah Thomas with Chuck Daly. John Stockton and Karl Malone with Jerry Sloan. Michael Jordan with Phil Jackson.
And Duncan with Gregg Popovich.
"I've said it pretty often over the years: As far as head coaches go, I have the easiest job in the league, because of [Duncan]," Popovich said. "I mentioned how coachable he is and how he accepts what we do. His ability to welcome other people into the program, to keep the standard where it's at, to set the example, and to do it, basically in an unobtrusive way. It's not heavy-handed ... most of the time you don't even know he's around, but he's still there, if that makes any sense. And that's what he's meant for us. He's like the silent leader and the rock of the program. So I always have that to depend on, and he always seems to have my back."
What a concept. Having the coach's back instead of talking behind it.
That's what the Miami Heat's Big Three don't get. If they turn Erik Spoelstra into a winner, it'll say much more about them than if they run him off and have Pat Riley come down to hold their hands and walk them through this.
The greatest of the greats made legends of a coach two years removed from the announcer's booth, the former head coach of the CBA Albany Patroons, and a man whose only other head-coaching job was at NCAA Division III Pomona-Pitzer in Claremont, Calif.
That last one was Popovich, whose NBA coaching résumé consisted of a 17-47 record accrued mostly without the injured David Robinson in the season before Duncan arrived as the No. 1 overall pick.
Popovich knew which side to apply the butter to even before the bread popped out of the toaster. The summer after the 1997 draft, Popovich flew down to Duncan's native St. Croix and spent a few days hanging out with his new franchise player.
"I figured he was going to be the anchor of the team for a long time, so it would probably behoove me to know what he's thinking," Popovich said. "And I wanted to know who he was and what kind of guy he was and start to develop a relationship, so I would know who I was coaching."
Duncan said, "I had a feeling it was going to be a long relationship, and we were just kind of trying to feel each other out. I know he wanted to feel me out, and I wanted to do the same thing."
Duncan has helped Popovich win 751 games and four championships. The reason their partnership has worked so well is because Popovich can coach Duncan. Yes, it sounds like a basic component of his job, but you'd be amazed how many coaches live in fear of their stars and take out all of their anger on lesser players. Popovich can chide Duncan for not rebounding enough, and instead of pouting Duncan will box out and go after the ball.
Duncan will even coach on his own. During the Spurs' comeback win at New Orleans last week, Popovich concluded his timeout talk and left the huddle, only to have Duncan stay behind and add some more comments. That's the type of thing Popovich loves about him.
The Spurs have been the most successful team at integrating foreign players, and you wonder how much of that is due to the confidence instilled in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker when they had freedom to operate thanks to all the double-teams commanded by Duncan at the peak of his career.
The latest aspect of Duncan's making the Spurs and his coach better is by allowing himself to be worse. At age 34, the offense has gone away from him now that they're playing faster and shooting earlier in the clock. It's a long way from the days when the Spurs would call "four down" and run a steady succession of plays for Duncan on the left block. Now he might go several possessions without touching the ball as it moves from side to side on the perimeter ... and the Spurs' offense is scoring more than it has since 1988.
On one transition play in Wednesday night's loss to the Clippers, Parker pushed the ball upcourt. Duncan came down behind the ball, yelling "trail, trail, trail" to indicate he was the man trailing the play, often the most difficult to pick up in transition. Then the ball was passed to every Spur except Duncan, resulting in a 3-point shot by George Hill. The team has slowly shifted toward Ginobili in recent years, but never has the transition been as noticeable as this season. Ginobili leads the team in scoring with 21.5 points per game, and Duncan is fourth at 10.5 points as he attempts only 11.6 field goals per game.
"It's different," Duncan said. "It takes some getting used to. I'm a rhythm guy, and to go that long without touching the ball is an adjustment. But it is what it is. Manu is playing unbelievably and Tony's had a great year so far, Richard [Jefferson has] shown up and really played well. We've found ways to win games by moving the ball and moving the defense and making them pay that way. As long as it's winning games for us, I'm happy with it."
Even after Wednesday's loss to the Clippers, the Spurs still have the best record in the league (15-3). Duncan keeps winning because he makes winners, no one more than Gregg Popovich.