In his formative years, Ginobili provided Popovich with many teaching moments, but the outcome of the discussions was sometimes more maddening than the flamboyant approach Ginobili found so inviting.
“He would make passes that were unnecessary in certain situations and he could do it in a more efficient manner,” Popovich said. “I would go to him and say ‘Manu, we don’t need that right now. Here’s the score, here’s the time, I’m not sure what can we do about this.’”
Ginobili speaks three languages fluently, but he would look at Popovich like the Spurs coach was speaking in tongues.
Change the way he plays?
With every bit of diplomacy that he could summon while still remaining true to his basketball values, Ginobili would explain the situation.
“We can do nothing,” Ginobili would earnestly tell his coach. “I am Manu and this is how I play.”
Although Popovich remembers multiple occasions for such a conversation, Ginobili laughs today and says, “It only happened once. I was upset and I shouldn’t have said it. It was after a very awkward behind-the-back pass and I was frustrated. But he understood that’s really how I felt the game. It was just part of me.”
That Popovich – a man who graduated from Air Force Academy, which is not an institution that embraces individualism – could allow Manu to be Manu is a tribute to Popovich and helps explain how he’s managed to last 16 years as head coach of the Spurs.
“The education of Popovich being around a unique player who thinks out of the box a little bit has been a continuing one,” Popovich said. “You have to realize there are several ways to get things done and when somebody is unique in their talent, whether it’s sports or music or whatever, you have to be observant of that.”
The approach has worked. The Spurs may be playing the best basketball in franchise history – yes, better than each of their four championship teams – with sweeps of Utah and the Clippers in the first two rounds of the playoffs. With Tim Duncan continuing his brilliance of the last 15 years, Tony Parker playing at an MVP level (he finished fifth in voting this season) and Ginobili filling the sixth man role better than anyone since John Havlicek, the Spurs have been the most impressive team in the playoffs.
The Spurs have also done a wonderful job of accumulating role players. Criticized the last few years because of advancing age, the Spurs have a starting lineup that includes Danny Green, a 24-year-old third-year player from North Carolina who played exactly 207 minutes his first two years in the league.
The starting small forward is 20-year-old rookie Kawhi Leonard, whose defense is so advanced that Popovich has already compared him to Bruce Bowen.
At the trade deadline, the Spurs picked up veterans Boris Diaw (who starts) and Stephen Jackson. Last year, they added a terrific 3-point shooter in Gary Neal, who spent four years playing in Turkey, Italy and Spain before signing with the Spurs. Neal has made 42 percent of his 3-pointers the last two years.
The complementary players have fit perfectly, but there is little doubt they succeed because the Spurs star players do exactly what star players do – they make their teammates better. And they do it as a threesome.
It is a unique union in San Antonio, where Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are in their 10th season of playing together with Popovich as their coach. There is a profound comfort level and it exists because the three stars – well, make that superstars because they are – are so comfortable and have not a drop of self-importance in them.
And no player is more unselfish than Ginobili, who has spent most of his career coming off the bench because his personal goals are secondary to his championship aspirations.
Ginobili has started in as many as half of the Spurs games in only three of his 10 seasons. One of those years was 2004-05 when he started each of the 74 games he played and the Spurs won a title.
Two years later, Popovich went to Ginobili and told him he wanted him to come off the bench. Duncan and Parker could handle the scoring as starters, then Ginobili would be the lead offensive player when the other two were resting.
“First year, to tell you the truth, I was a little hurt,” Ginobili said. “When you’re young, it’s a little harder. But I’ve never been a player looking for individual accolades. I feel comfortable doing it, and I really believe the team is better off with me coming off the bench. I have a great role and I know I’m always on the floor down the stretch.”
Popovich returned Ginobili to the starting lineup last season, saying, “Manu deserves to start.”
But Green and Leonard played well at the beginning of the season, and Ginobili was sidelined with hand and rib injuries and missed 32 of the 66 regular season games. When he was healthy, Popovich asked him to be the sixth man again but said it wasn’t easy.
“He’s got the same competitive heart as Kobe (Bryant) and Michael (Jordan),” Popovich said. “He’s not as physically gifted, but he has the same competitive heart. There is no difference whatsoever.”
So it was difficult asking a star player to play a role.
“Obviously I feel very fortunate that he allows us to do it and I feel very guilty for doing it because he does have the stature he has,” Popovich said. “It’s almost embarrassing to go to him and say you’re going to do this, and you kind of walk away and say ‘please don’t hit me or hate me forever for doing this because I know who you are. I really know who you are. I know what you can do, I know you’ve won championships all over the world, but I think we’ll be better for this.’
“Luckily he’s got the intelligence and the character to understand that’s true so he does it. So we’re very fortunate.”
And because Ginobili makes sacrifices and Duncan and Parker lead by example and the role players have been the best supporting players in the league and Popovich somehow meshes it all together, the Spurs are poised to win a fifth title.
They will enter the next series with an 18-game winning streak. It has been 40 days (April 11) since they lost a game. Their average margin of victory is almost 16. Fourteen of their 18 victories have been by double digits.
They will be hard to beat.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.