- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2007

CLEVELAND — Now that the San Antonio Spurs have won their fourth championship in nine seasons, the debate over whether they qualify as a dynasty has arisen.

What is not a matter of debate after the Spurs stifled and outplayed the Cleveland Cavaliers in every aspect is who is at the center of San Antonio’s success. The answer is coach Gregg Popovich.

“They have great players on the team and they have had great players come through the organization,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, for three years a San Antonio assistant, said. “But the one steady has been ‘Pop.’

“And he doesn’t get enough credit for his X’s and O’s,” Brown continued. “More importantly, he doesn’t get enough credit for his people skills. He’s a tremendous teacher and a tremendous person, and he’s the reason that organization is where it’s at.”

With Popovich at the helm, the Spurs have needed just nine years to move into fourth place in titles won for a franchise, trailing only the Boston Celtics (16), the Los Angeles/Minneapolis Lakers (14) and the Chicago Bulls (six).

Of all the teams that have won championships, no team has a higher winning percentage in the finals than San Antonio (16-6, .727 winning percentage).

The 2006-07 season marked the 10th consecutive one in which the Spurs reached the playoffs. And considering that their best players — power forward Tim Duncan, point guard and series MVP Tony Parker and reserve swingman Manu Ginobili — are still in their primes and signed to contracts, an end to the streak doesn’t appear likely any time soon.

In fact, the Spurs, who have never repeated as champions, were talking about using that as motivation for next season.

Duncan, who may very well be the best power forward in the history of the league, conceded that it is not his greatness that has made the Spurs the powerhouse they have become in the post-Michael Jordan era.

He bestows that honor on Popovich.

“He’s the one that puts us together. He’s the guy that makes it run,” Duncan said. “He’s the guy who stays on us, no matter how well or how badly we’re playing. He finds the right way to approach us.

“I can say no more than he defines the team. He always has, and as long as he’s here, he always will.”

Popovich’s calming influence was on display in the fourth quarter, right after the Cavaliers mounted their last stand of the series.

An 11-0 run by the Cavaliers to start the fourth quarter put Cleveland up 63-60 with 6:54 left to play. Popovich, unfazed by the noise at Quicken Loans Arena, never raised his head following a timeout in which he mapped out how his team would finish off the Cavaliers.

The huddled players paid attention to the coach’s instructions and when play resumed, their execution was flawless. The Spurs responded with a 14-3 run to take a 74-66 lead with just more than two minutes to play.

A product of the Air Force Academy, Popovich is a disciple of Larry Brown, the vagabond coach whom some consider the best X’s and O’s guy of the last 30 years. An assistant of Brown’s with San Antonio for four years (1988-92), Popovich began shaping the Spurs when he was named general manager in 1994.

He drew extensive criticism in San Antonio after firing Bob Hill during the 1996-97 campaign. The Spurs finished that season 17-47 with Popovich serving as the interim coach after a 3-15 start.

As coach and general manager in 1997, the Spurs won the first pick in the lottery and drafted Duncan. Two years later, the championships started to pile up.

However, don’t tell Popovich he helms a dynasty.

“That doesn’t even enter my head because I think that’s all psycho babble,” Popovich said. “When I think of dynasties, two come to my mind real quick — UCLA and Bill Russell. Everything else is just talk after that.”

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