San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich earned his Oscar the Grouch reputation for his antics during in-game interviews on nationally televised sports. It’s hard to separate genuine disdain for the format from schtick. It goes beyond that, though.
Given the right questions and the right attitude, Popovich can work and think when dealing with the media. He always speaks his mind when it comes to things outside of basketball. You’re more likely to get a good answer from him by asking about world politics than a Spanish pick-and-roll.
As a reporter, some hard lessons can only be learned by enduring 20 or so painful seconds as Popovich tells you he has no idea what team his Spurs will play. When asked about Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes, who is off to an incredible start even before returning to action against the Spurs on Sunday, Popovich was soft-spoken. He hasn’t looked to the Raptors to gauge Barnes’ progress. His voice was bitter, but wasn’t it?
He would like to answer your question about new Raptors coach Darko Rajaković, however.
“He’s one of those under-the-radar guys,” Popovich said. Rajaković worked with Spurs, scouting and assisting during the summer league from 2004 to 2012. “He doesn’t want attention or anything like that, but he has a brilliant mind. I don’t just mean basketball — he’s a sharp guy.
“But he understands the game. You went up the right way. He studied a lot overseas and kept coming here. He is good with people. Straightforward, honest, (a) no-BS kind of person you can count on.”
To be clear, Rajaković was not a big part of the Spurs organization, having held various jobs abroad while working part-time with the franchise. Most NBA head coaches wouldn’t have formed a meaningful relationship with someone of Rajaković’s stature at the time, even if they were working for the same team.
“Coach Pop (is) an amazing coach,” Rajaković said on Saturday. “What really stands out … is that he cared about people. You go to the same meal with him, and he will make sure that you get the right order. He will explain that this wine comes from the southern part of the island in Italy. You have invested a lot and you want to feel comfortable and welcome.”
When it was pointed out on Sunday that what Rajaković said about Popovich is the same as what Rajaković’s peers say about him, he just laughed and said that maybe it is because Popovich is of Serbian origin (Popovich’s father was Serbian, his mother is Croatian). The Spurs have been around as a franchise model for nearly two decades, and Raptors president Masai Ujiri has often expressed his admiration for them.
And how could he? The Spurs had a 22-year playoff streak from 1997-98 to 2018-19, a stretch that included five championships, one NBA Finals appearance and four other trips to the conference finals. They’ve been lucky (and smart planning, shall we say) to win the lottery the years Tim Duncan and Victor Wembanyama entered the league, but they’ve also drafted well in the first round (and often in the second round).
They also voted when necessary (think trading George Hill for the draft pick that became Kawhi Leonard), accepting temporary steps back to open up future opportunities. The Raptors’ desire for a Spursian goes back to former coach Dwane Casey instilling the phrase “pound the rock” (the rock next to the locker room door) to the team.
Right now, the Raptors may be a step behind the Spurs and with recent lessons to apply. Sure, the butterfly effect could have sent Wembanyama the other way if Spurs had acted sooner, but he went through his terrible period of purgatory. It started with trading Leonard to the Raptors, bringing back immediate contributors (DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl) and one first-round pick instead of trading him to a team that offered a package entirely based on prospects. (To be fair, Leonard’s situation was different, given his sights on Los Angeles and his incredible injury history.)
The next three seasons saw them achieve one playoff series loss and an overall winning percentage of .478, leading to the 19th, 11th, 20th and ninth overall picks. Meanwhile, Popovich talked about the importance of competing to win the entire season, fighting to get into the Play-In Tournament on several occasions.
Important reminder: Coaches and players don’t roll or at least they shouldn’t; front offices make that decision. In the 2021 offseason, the Spurs signed and traded DeRozan for a package that included a protected first-round pick. The following season, they traded for first-time All-Star Dejounte Murray, one of the Spurs’ long list of late first-round steals for three first-rounders and a trade for picks from Atlanta. They collected picks for Derrick White and Poeltl, both solid starters who have been greatly improved by the Spurs.
DeRozan’s situation worked well enough, as he was an unrestricted free agent and was not going to leave to avoid a trade.
While the Murray trade, along with the departure of Rudy Gobert, has now cooled the trade market for teams looking to acquire–Star-level talents who are not regular members of the All-NBA. The market is constantly changing, so the extent to which similar options are available to the Raptors is unclear.
This made last season’s Spurs so bad that they were able to get a much-needed centrepiece from a good group of complementary players they released but also gave them future assets to support that player if they found one.
It’s not a direct comparison, as Barnes looks to be a better player than any player Spurs had before arriving at Wembanyama. That should simplify the situation, and the Spur’s example makes it clear: Make a move with that main thing in mind. The Raptors are coming off a 41-41 season, and through seven games this year (yes, it’s early!) they are 3-4, with a two-point lead. The sample size of the Raptors since it is almost equal by definition is increasing.
Increasingly, the Raptors look like they already have a centrepiece in Barnes. It is reasonable enough to get a full view of this team, as it is currently constructed, under Rajaković, but it should give the Raptors some urgency to act on the future of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, unrestricted free agents. Anunoby is young and soft enough to fit in nicely next to Barnes, as long as the Raptors are confident they can keep him; There are legitimate and growing doubts about Siakam.
For a while, the Spurs refused to lose on purpose, but not this. Instead, they started building with a purpose. Throughout the process, they continued to draft players they felt would fit into their culture, and there were hits (Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell), misses (Joshua Primo and Luka Šamanić) and TBDs (Blake Wesley, Jeremy Sochan and Malachi Branham. ).
The Raptors have reason to be excited about Gradey Dick, but their player development has slowed down enough in other areas that they have to realize that if you’re not in the high lottery, you need several opportunities to build a decent core. That approach also gives you a better chance of finding a difference-maker on the trade market, which will remain focused on the Raptors as long as Ujiri is in charge.
It’s early days, but the Raptors have to hope that in Rajaković, they have their kinder, gentler version of Popovich to communicate and lead the players they bring to Toronto.
“When I was growing up as a young coach, I looked up to coach Pop, coach (Željko) Obradović,” said Rajaković, referring to the former Yugoslavia national team coach after talking about Popovich. “I had two coaches that I respected a lot and … I wanted to settle down that way.
Those were my decisions at the time, and I can’t name why (that was). But it was the coaches who took care of the people first. So I don’t know if that was in me before or if I saw that in them. I have to sit down and think about it.”
As he reflected aloud on how he made it to the Hall of Fame this past summer, Popovich talked about the people who influenced him, the important lessons he learned and the non-negotiable values he believed. He then looked at the players sitting next to him – Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – and pulled out one name.
No team is perfect in design and development. What Spurs did in the 1990s and 2000s was historic and very difficult to replicate, and perhaps even emulate. One thing is for sure: To find those players, you have to put yourself in the position to find them and do all the things – big and small – to make sure they fit reasonably close to your engine.