Winning an NBA Finals 15 years apart is a staggering feat for Gregg Popovich, considering Tim Duncan was been a fixture on both teams. The league has changed significantly since the time Popovich and Duncan won their first championship, and the sustained success the San Antonio Spurs have achieved is a credit to Popovich’s ability to adapt. His unparalleled adaptability can be observed as he has constantly tailored his philosophies to the ever-evolving NBA.
Directly after Duncan was drafted, the Spurs were a club focused on defense. San Antonio played slow basketball, consistently ranking in the bottom-half of league rankings in pace. Duncan was San Antonio’s offensive focal point, as the ball constantly worked from the post. Duncan drew double teams and kicked it out to open shooters who surrounded him.
Recently, however, the Spurs have upped the tempo and relied much less on Duncan’s post game. Instead, guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have taken the lead on offense. Popovich’s offense has been much more free, with the playmaking of Parker and Ginobili on full display. The ball movement, impossible to miss on the 2014 Spurs, has made the San Antonio offense almost impossible to contain. The Spurs’ assist numbers reflect this uptrend in team basketball, as they have slowly crept up the team assist rankings since 1999.
This adaptability can be further observed in the differences between the 2013 and 2014 Spurs Finals teams. In the 2013 NBA Finals versus the Miami Heat, Popovich started Duncan and Tiago Splitter and played them together countless times throughout the series. As the Finals rematch began in 2014, Popovich went with the same starting lineup. However, as the series went along and Game 3 arrived, he may have changed the trajectory of the series by replacing Splitter with Boris Diaw. After that moment, Splitter was not seen on the court at the same time as Duncan, and this transformation to small ball gave the Spurs the upper-hand in the series. Once again, Popovich pushed the right button, electing to adapt in an effort to achieve the task at hand.
Most coaches do not possess the tactical genius Popovich has displayed throughout his NBA coaching career. Adaptability has allowed the Spurs, with roughly the same core group of players, to win five NBA Championships. As the league has changed, so have Popovich’s philosophies, and this unique ability has made him one of the greatest NBA architects of all time.