DEERFIELD, ILL.—Tom Thibodeau has a healthy respect for San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s longest-tenured head coach.
Of course, one could say the Bulls head coach respects all of his peers, but it’s clear that when he speaks of the Spurs organization, it’s with a tone of reverence.
“’Pop’ has established a great system. The core of the team has been intact for a long time. When you look at [Tim] Duncan, [Manu] Ginobili, [Tony] Parker and the rest of the parts are basically interchangeable. It’s a great system, great style of play, well-balanced. They put a premium of shooting, character, toughness and it’s reflected in everything they do, so they’re pretty much the gold standard,” Thibodeau said after the Bulls’ Monday morning shootaround at the Berto Center. “You have Parker, who’s playing at just an unbelievably high level—he has the ability to make everyone else so much better—and they play smart, tough, so it’s not surprising.
“I think because they play so unselfishly, they have great ball movement, so that puts a lot of pressure on your defense and they play to win, so if a guy gets a hot hand, they’re going to search him out. They play as a team on both ends of the floor and they’ve been through a lot of wars. Those guys have a lot of experience, so I think they understand what it takes.”
After starting out under Jerry Tarkanian, Thibodeau was an assistant coach under John Lucas—father of former Bulls point guard John Lucas III, as well as an ex-NBA player himself—in San Antonio, but when Lucas moved on to Philadelphia following the 1993-94 season, Thibodeau followed him to the 76ers. Popovich had just been hired as the Spurs’ general manager.
“The thing about Pop is he’s kept it at a high level for so many years and to me, that’s the mark of greatness. There’s not many holes in that team, so we have to be ready. I do know him. I was there when he first got hired, for about three weeks,” he continued. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But he’s a great guy and I got to know him a little bit when he was an assistant and the thing that to me is so impressive is he really hasn’t changed. He’s been the same guy for 20 years. He was like that as an assistant and after all that success, he’s still the same. Real humble, just a hell of a coach.”
Although Duncan—the future Hall of Famer is an All-Star this season, even at his advanced age—and Ginobili hobbled and likely out for Monday’s matchup at the United Center, Thibodeau remains wary of the Spurs, who are currently the Western Conference’s first-place team. That’s mostly due to Parker, an All-Star who seemingly goes under the radar as one of the game’s elite talents at his position.
“Well, he’s having an MVP-type season. He’s scoring, he’s playmaking, he keeps enormous pressure on your defense,” Thibodeau said of the point guard, who is a teammate of Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah on the French national team. “There’s really not anything that he’s not doing for that team and the most important thing is their record reflects what he’s done.”
The Bulls head coach is also aware of San Antonio’s role players, such as swingman Danny Green, who, in typical Spurs tradition—from Avery Johnson to Bruce Bowen—was a fringe NBA player and has developed into an integral member of the team.
“He’s been very impressive throughout his career,” Thibodeau said. “I think each year in the league, he’s gotten significantly better and if you give him just a little bit of daylight, he’s going to make you pay, so we have to make sure that we have an awareness as to where he is, then we have to close hard to him.”
Thibodeau understands an essential truth about the Spurs, whom he calls the "gold standard" of NBA franchises, due to their prolonged success: San Antonio, regardless of who’s on the floor, will remain one of the league’s elites, as long as Popovich—who has won titles with Hall of Famer David Robinson and the aforementioned Johnson, as well as Ginobili and Parker, with Duncan remaining the constant—is coaching the squad and along with executive R.C. Buford, running the front office, in order to unearth diamonds in the rough that fit the organizational culture.