Gregg Popovich's stealth campaign

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is not just a crank. He's a majestic crank even in good times like these. If stats were kept on press conferences, Popovich would lead the league in sarcasm. Then again, it takes dedication to maintain the deep cover that Popovich has expertly cultivated in small-market San Antonio. It's not easy to have your supposedly too-old Spurs team suddenly gunning for the fifth NBA title of your tenure -- a look-at-me! accomplishment, if ever there was one -- and still have people remarking on how you've somehow remained Mr. Invisible because that's folks' only impression of you even after 15 years on the Spurs' bench.

Popovich is the NBA's man of mystery, all right. He's the coach with no fingerprints. He's anti-self promotion, anti-celebrity, even anti-Twitter, once grousing, "If you tweet, you talk too much."

As a young man, Popovich majored in Soviet studies at the Air Force Academy before undergoing spy training and serving a five-year hitch in the Army. In some ways he's never stopped being a spook. He likes working in the shadows. And this season's surprise run by the Spurs may be Popovich's best black bag job yet.

The Spurs' 52-12 record was the NBA's best by six wins as of Thursday. And yet at the start of this week San Antonio slipped from first to third or fourth on many experts' NBA power rankings for the apparent "sin" of splitting two games against other top teams. The Spurs trounced the Miami Heat 125-95 last Friday, but then got clipped by the resurgent Los Angeles Lakers, 99-83, on Sunday.

The dip in respect in the midst of a 7-3 Spurs run was yet another reminder how the skeptics have been waiting for the Spurs to fall back to earth since their scorching 12-1 start this season.

It just hasn't happened yet.

The doubters insist the Lakers and Dallas Mavericks are more likely to come out of the Western Conference because both have the size to trouble the Spurs' smaller front line. They also argue San Antonio's Hall of Fame-bound power forward Tim Duncan ain't what he used to be.

But if Popovich is right -- not just about some shrewd strategic shifts he made at the start of this season to reduce 34-year-old Duncan's role, but also about his opinion that the Spurs' chance to win the 2011 title will come down to "how hungry this group is" -- then the Spurs have the right man to keep whipcracking the team along.

Popovich never subscribed to the idea that the NBA is a player's league, not if that means an organization or coach should give stars some unconditional white-glove treatment. One of his first moves as a Spurs executive was to trade away Dennis Rodman. Popovich -- who is also Spurs president -- has a close, complicated, often protective relationship with the players he does keep. But he's also highly demanding. Getting used to his bluntness can take time.

When Popovich coached the West last month in the All-Star Game, Minnesota rookie Kevin Love blogged for GQ that Popovich's "pretty funny" pregame speech went like this: The veterans could all expect to play a lot and have fun, but rookies "Russell [Westbrook], Blake [Griffin], and Kevin, you're all [screwed]."

Popovich gets away with it because he wins, and because he's an equal-opportunity strafer. Long before Popovich's crack last week about star point guard Tony Parker's shockingly fast recovery from a leg injury that was supposed to take perhaps a month --- "Looks like the foie gras and truffles treatments worked very well" -- the French-born Parker needled Popovich for his opinion of him the first time the Spurs worked out the 19-year-old before the 2001 NBA draft.

"I never want to see him again,'" Popovich has admitted barking to his staff, relenting only after Parker impressed him in a second tryout.

Popovich has also long acknowledged that without Duncan, "I would be coaching a third-grade team somewhere in America."

And yet, while the Miami Heat's Erik Spoelstra defers to his trio of stars and talks in mantras like "everyone needs to keep a hand on the rope" in tough times, this is Popovich's occasional bull-in-the-china shop approach to crisis management: A couple weeks ago, resorting to one of his favorite go-to moves when his players irk him, Popovich called a timeout just 96 seconds into a game against the New Jersey Nets. Why? To chew out the great Duncan, his meal ticket. For what? Why, being too slow to switch on defense on the Nets' opening possessions.

Duncan just took it in, blinking impassively like Spock.

Only one, perhaps two, coaches in the NBA can get away with dressing down their superstars in public like that. One is Phil Jackson, who has an NBA-record 11 titles as a coach. The other is Boston's Doc Rivers. But that's about it.

Popovich marches to his own idiosyncratic beat, all right. But it probably helps to know he cut his NBA teeth at the knee of former Spurs coach Larry Brown, who's always set a high bar for tortured basketball geniuses or indulging personal peccadilloes without inhibition. Before Brown offered a Spurs assistant's job to Popovich in 1995, Popovich was the head coach at Pomona-Pitzer, which sounds like a pharmaceutical company but is actually a tiny Division III school in Claremont, Calif., where Popovich insists he could've remained "fat, dumb and happy" forever.

The self-deprecating dumb jokes are just another Popovich smoke screen. Did you know, for example, that Popovich is just as liable to walk around practice talking to his players about politics or the statehouse protests in Wisconsin as pick-and-rolls? That he's a wine connoisseur with a 3,000-plus bottle cellar? That he's often visited with wounded war veterans at a medical center in San Antonio, or during that same visit to New Jersey where he reamed out Duncan during the game, Popovich also went into a rhapsody for reporters about the amazing tone Duncan has always set for the team -- then coughed and added "not to get too sappy about him, or anything."

Popovich has often said when Duncan retires he may go too.

Duncan is the team's axis on the floor, but as Spurs chairman Peter Holt has put it, the organization's philosophy "starts with Pop. It's his vision."

The Spurs' ability to sneak up on the rest of the league again was predicated on three changes that Popovich made before the start of this year that some Spurs critics might be missing.

Popovich has reduced Duncan's role by design, trimming his playing time by about three minutes a game to keep him fresher for the playoffs much like the Lakers used to do late in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career.

Knowing there'd be a domino effect, Popovich also decided before the season to shift more of the burden for carrying the team onto the 28-year-old Parker and 33-year-old Manu Ginobili, who's finally healthy for the first time in three years. To improve his team's chance of success, Popovich opened up the once-plodding Spurs offense to better suit Parker and Ginobili rather than Duncan.

The result? Richard Jefferson is also playing better and the Spurs' rotation not only goes eight to nine deep – but also all of them can play, and all of them can score. San Antonio hasn't sacrificed that much on defense. Reserve sharpshooter Gary Neal, a 26-year-old European league rescue project, is having a breakout season.

Still, if the playoffs prove that Popovich was wrong to subtly move the emphasis away from Duncan, he'll probably be the first to say so. All year long -- not just after Lakers trounced Spurs last week -- Popovich has said he still considers the Lakers the NBA's best team.

But does Popovich really believe that or is he spreading disinformation?

Who knows?

He's the NBA's chief spook. San Antonio remains his personal duck blind. Reporters can keep uncomfortably tossing their questions at him -- only to have Popovich sneer back, "Did you stay up all night thinking of that? You're out to lunch" -- but face it, all anyone is liable to get out of him is someone's name, rank and jersey number.

Popovich may never want everyone to know everything about him.

But what we do know, you've got to love.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.