There was a maelstrom surrounding Gregg Popovich as he tried to navigate Team USA to its fourth straight gold medal.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Olympics by a year and the team was not able to go through its normal prep to come together before the game. Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton ended up taking a red-eye flight from Game 6 of the NBA Finals to make it to Tokyo for the team’s opener against France.
The pressure is always on Team USA not just to be perfect but to dominate the competition. And exhibition losses to Australia and Nigeria before the team even got to Tokyo on top of a sixth-place finish in the World Cup three years earlier. Popovich was not off to a good start with Team USA and his pursuit for a gold medal, the last trophy missing from his coaching collection.
It did not look much better for him or for the Americans after France stunned them in the opening game of the Olympic tournament.
There were a lot of questions and a lot of concerns about the entire U.S. Basketball program (many of them probably still exist, but that is a story for another day).
Popovich was doing his work though. He used his exhibition games and even the group play games to cement his rotations and cement roles on a team that was very much slapped together very quickly. This was his training camp.
By the time the knockout stage came around, the U.S. won games by an average of 13 points, including a 19-point win over Australia before concluding with an 87-82 win over France in the gold medal game.
Popovich had his gold medal and his methods were proven successful. The team won the title in the end.
Gregg Popovich is a master coach who keeps his team focused on their long-term goals and achieving them. The way he got his San Antonio Spurs into the Play-In Tournament was more proof of his brilliance.
This is a post about Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs though. But the way Popovich managed that team full of America’s best stars — including Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker — is much the same way he managed his Spurs team this year.
At one point of the season, it felt like the team could have packed it in and folded. This young team had no shame in missing the playoffs and letting themselves develop and gain experience — saving questions about Popovich’s future for later.
This felt like the first time the Spurs were set up to tank since they struck it big to grab Tim Duncan in 1997 — in a year where David Robinson missed most of the season and was still very much in his prime.
Popovich is a master of looking at the long game though and developing his teams. He always has his team’s long-term goals in mind and he has a way of keeping his team focused and working toward that.
It is the key to their culture and their way.
The Spurs started the season at 4-13 (the Spurs lost four straight games after their season-opening win over the Magic). They sat at 19-34 in early February. They were near the bottom of the Western Conference standings and certainly far away from the Play-In Tournament.
San Antonio kept a constant drumbeat though. As other teams fell off the pace, the Spurs kept marching, going 6-4 in the final 10 games, including losses in the team’s final three games, to earn the 10-seed and a spot in the Play-In Tournament.
That felt like an incredible turnaround for a young team.
Dejounte Murray made his first All-Star game, averaging 21.1 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game and 9.2 assists per game. Keldon Johnson averaged 17.0 points per game. Devin Vassell seemed to find some consistency for the first time in his young career.
San Antonio has some interesting young players to fit into the puzzle. But the team still has work to do to get back to the championship level this franchise is accustomed to.
Right now, San Antonio has a lot of that Spurs-y feeling to them. They can play with energy and create baskets off their defense — 16.5 points off turnovers (11th in the league). They have that motion and balance that made those Spurs teams of the 2000s so dangerous.
But this is still a team that is seeking an identity too. It is not quite what everyone is accustomed to from San Antonio.
The Spurs finished the season 17th in offensive rating at 111.9 points per 100 possessions and 16th in defensive rating at 111.7 points per 100 possessions. After the All-Star Break, the Spurs finished 17th in offensive rating at 114.3 points per 100 possessions and 16th in defensive rating at 114.4 points per 100 possessions.
That is to say, the Spurs were perfectly average this entire season.
San Antonio is not celebrating a 10-seed and a Play-In Tournament. The Spurs had their worst regular-season record since that 1997 season.
What San Antonio does next and how the team tries to build on this mini success of reaching the Play-In Tournament and defying calls to tank the season will be a fascinating evolution in this mini-dynasty. Especially now that it appears Popovich is coming near the end of his celebrated career.
Orlando does not have that veteran coach with years of experience and championship rings to hold the team’s attention. That is something Jamahl Mosley is going to have to make up.
But the one thing it seems like Mosley has created is a culture of togetherness. That is something the Spurs have and continue to reinforce. It is something Popovich has created and cultivated in the past 25 years as head coach.
It is unfair to ask any coach to be thinking about establishing the kind of things Popovich has done with the Spurs.
But Mosley has laid out a long-term vision for his team. And even though the team was losing (a lot) this year, he kept them focused on that vision.
The Magic played their best basketball at the end of the season — finishing 19th this season in defensive rating with 112.1 points allowed per 100 possessions and seventh after the All-Star Break (despite two weeks of tanking) at 111.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Orlando would like to believe the team has established the beginnings of its identity and the team just needs to improve.
Like the Spurs, the Magic have a good collection of young players who seem eager to burst onto the scene. They are trying to figure out the best way to push things forward.
The big difference, perhaps, is San Antonio’s young players grew up in an environment with an established coach in Gregg Popovich and with established players like DeMar DeRozan, who left in the offseason for the Chicago Bulls.
That confidence of playing on a playoff-caliber team with veterans — and even the disappointment of falling short in 2021 after falling short in the bubble in 2020 — probably gave the team a boost when the Spurs turned the keys over to a young group to carry on the legacy.
The one thing every coach can take from Popovich is that long-term vision and that eye to keep everyone working toward that goal. Even if there are short-term falls.