Tom Thibodeau has helped shaped a no-excuse culture within the Bulls and on Monday, his team was given a lesson by perhaps one of the toughest, no-excuse coaches in the league; San Antonio Spurs’ Greg Poppovich.
The Bulls know the formula well for playing undermanned. One man goes down, the other steps up and in Monday’s 103-89 loss to the league-best San Antonio Spurs, who were without four of their primary players.
Tony Parker (knee) joined Tim Duncan (knee/ankle) and Manu Ginobili (hamstring) on the sidelines in street clothes and Stephen Jackson was away from the team attending to ‘personal business.’
The quartet accounts for 57.1 of San Antonio’s 104.4 points per game, but without them, the team didn’t skip a beat.
Having the right guys always helps, but even those parts give all the credit to the guy calling the shots; Greg Poppovich.
“I think when Pop got there, he had an idea how he wanted to run that organization,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I was there about three weeks with him. He already had a clear vision of how he wanted to build the organization and it’s amazing, because everything that he talked about (back then), he’s done. They have great leadership. They have a system and they’re so consistent. It’s amazing when you study them and you see what they do at home, on the road, with guys out … it’s a machine. He set the plan in place and he executed it.
“I think they’re the gold standard,” he continued. “It’s a proven system and hopefully we’re on that track. We like to think we are, but you have to be able to do it year after year.”
The Spurs last losing season came during the 1996-97 season. After a 3-15 start under Bob Hill, Poppovich, then the general manager, named himself head coach and finished the season 17-47.
Owners of the third-worst record in the league, the Spurs would claim the rights to claim Tim Duncan with the first pick in that year’s draft and haven’t had a losing season since.
The results are impressive; four championships, a regular season win-loss percentage of .703 (not counting this season). They’ve also seamlessly changed the identity of what used to be an offense predicated around Duncan to a perimeter attack that is equally as efficient as their franchise big man.
“We realized Timmy is getting older, Manu is getting older and the rules changed at the same time, where on the perimeter, you couldn’t do too much hand-checking,” Poppovich said. “That combination made us realize that we have to become a little bit more perimeter-orientated as Timmy gets older, continue to bring in role players that fit around him and change the offense a bit so we could score more.”
More impressive is how no matter the makeup of the roster, or who is sitting out, the ‘machine’ just keeps on churning.
“The approach is still the same every game. It starts with Pop and he does a great job telling us what to do,” Danny Green said. “We listen to him and we’ve been pretty successful. I think he has a pretty good understanding of how to play this game.”
Much like the Bulls, entering this season, despite their history, many observers focused on the Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat when the discussion of legitimate contenders arose.
Never the flashiest of teams or league-pass favorite, the Spurs just continue to win with smart play and execution of their system.
“Some things you can’t teach in this game and that’s speed and athleticism,” Green said. “There are a lot of guys who are stronger and jump higher. Our big three is more of the high IQ and good at what they do (type) …that kind of trickles down to us. We’re not the most athletic or flashy team. We’re just a group of great guys that understand the game, are very smart, know how to play the game and make things work for them, regardless of how athletic or how much talent (other teams may have).”
The Bulls and the Spurs entered Monday’s game as the two winningest teams in the past two seasons and the record between the two clubs during that span is now tied 2-2.
“The way (Poppovich) builds his team, it’s special,” Thibodeau said. “You have shooting, toughness, character, intelligence – all the things that go into winning.”
With the super team era still running its course through the league, the Spurs formula is one that the Bulls, let alone any team in the league can only hope to emulate.