Ultimate Standings: Popovich has always been ahead of the curve

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For the fourth year in a row, Gregg Popovich was voted the best coach in sports by fans in this year's Ultimate Standings (in the past 11 editions, he's never finished lower than seventh). Jackie MacMullan, who's known the coach for years, dives into what makes Pop beloved, by fans and players alike.

The coach would abhor these rankings.

Gregg Popovich prefers you neither discuss, venerate nor glorify his contributions to the game he has cultivated and cherished for the better part of five decades.

It is contrary to the core of what he has propagated in San Antonio: selfless, understated, seamless teamwork predicated on cutting, screening, ball movement and, above all, trust.

Sustained excellence devoid of ostentatious supernovas elicits ... yawns. President Barack Obama acknowledged during the Spurs' White House visit last January that the prevailing opinion of San Antonio before its 2014 championship was that the team was "not just old, but kind of boring."

Just how Popovich wants it.

His story -- his team's story -- isn't for sale. It's private, sacred. Popovich gripes bookshelves are cluttered with "how to" manuals from coaches, a phenomenon, he once confided, "makes me puke."

Pop's own success stems from an intuition of sensing potential discord before it materializes. Former Spurs assistant (and current Sixers coach) Brett Brown likens it to a mother who knows her children are going to be sick before they exhibit symptoms.

"You can talk about what a masterful defensive coach he is, and that's true," Brown says. "You can talk about his fantastic leadership, which is also true.

"But nothing trumps his human skills."

As a young lieutenant on the Spurs staff, Brown chafed at his limited duties and politicked for more. Popovich bluntly informed him he hadn't earned it. An emotional argument ensued without Pop yielding ground, yet Brown departed convinced he wasn't so undervalued after all.

"I had to wait for more," Brown said, "but in the interim, Pop always circled back around to make me feel a little better."

Similar discourse from players is encouraged, but whether you are Tim Duncan or Matt Bonner, if you break ranks, you will endure Pop's wrath. He has reduced Tony Parker to tears and Duncan to a string of angry, mid-game expletives -- in full view of their adoring public.

It's called accountability, and it's the foundation of the Spurs' mantra. When they falter and look to the bench, Popovich barks: "I don't have 14 time outs. Figure it out.''

They listen because he is authentic and consistent and unquenchable in his curiosity. Popovich devours Russian classics and obscure foreign films and meticulously tracks the movements of ISIS. He's as likely to engage in a conversation on the new planet in the solar system as a new free agent in the NBA pool.

His inquisitiveness led to a fixation on European basketball and the influx of international players into his system. Former commissioner David Stern promoted the "globalization" of the NBA knowing Popovich was already years ahead of the curve.

The Spurs first identified and exploited the corner 3-pointer as one of the most productive and effective shots on the floor; such research is now called analytics.

Popovich's decision to rest aging starters for entire games in midseason, a radical strategy at the time that left him subject to hefty fines from Stern, is now a common strategy endorsed by what is called sports science.

"The things Pop did instinctively through intellect now all have labels and titles," said Brown.

Popovich is vehemently opposed to conducting mid-game interviews, and the result is the curt, abrasive responses that have gone viral. Yet those who believe the Spurs coach is humorless aren't paying attention.

It was Pop who once sat Duncan and scribbled the cause of the DNP as, simply, "old."

Duncan is still old. The Spurs are still "boring." Their coach is still winning, and still wishing you hadn't noticed.