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Another victory for ‘Pop.’ Another show of leadership

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
Gregg Popovich celebrates with Patty Mills after defeating the Miami Heat in Game Five of the 2014 NBA FinalsAndy Lyons—Getty Images

50greatest_logoNobody uttered the word “dynasty” when the San Antonio Spurs won their first NBA championship in 1999.  Nobody. Just a year earlier, the Chicago Bulls, led by Phil Jackson, had collected their third straight title. A year later, the Los Angeles Lakers, led again by Phil Jackson, would start their own “three-peat.”

But the Spurs’ maiden victory marked the start of a remarkable run for the team, which has picked up four additional titles since its short-season thumping of the Knicks in ’99—the latest of these arriving with the team’s 104-87 win over the Miami Heat last night. The victory put Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ coach since 1996 and No. 20 on Fortune’s 2014 list of the 50 World’s Greatest Leaders, in a rarefied club. His five NBA rings trail only Jackson’s 11 and the nine earned by legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach. (Pat Riley, who won four with the L.A. Lakers and one with the Heat, and John Kundla, who coached the Lakers in Minneapolis prior to their move to L.A., each have five championships as well.)

The famously stoic Popovich says little in his post-game press briefings. (For a look, Google “Gregg Popovich” and “curmudgeon.”) But the bottom line is he’s a quiet leader who believes in letting his players play—and not just his superstars. Popovich downright nurtures his bench, which this year had the fourth highest scoring average of all time. The strategy has kept his stable of all-stars healthy—power forward Tim Duncan played an average of 29.6 minutes per game this season versus 40.6 in 2001-2002—and helped the Spurs develop players other coaches would have given up on.

Take Patty Mills. Originally the 55th pick in the 2009 NBA draft, Mills arrived to the Spurs in March of 2012. Last season, he dropped to fourth-string point guard and gained no small amount of weight. (He grew so plump, indeed, that Popovich nicknamed him “Fatty Patty”). The leaner Mills is now the Spurs’ back-up point guard and he scored 17 points in last night’s title-clinching win. Or take Danny Green, a key contributor to the Spurs’ scoring machine, who was initially waived but given a second chance. Or take Boris Diaw, who was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats in 2012. Diaw helped solidify the Spurs’ front court and took some pressure off of Duncan this year.

R.C. Buford, the Spurs’ general manager calls Popovich, or ‘Pop’ as he’s known, “one of the best I’ve ever seen at developing the relationships with his players and the people who work for and with him.”

If it wasn’t a foregone conclusion already, last night’s victory will surely secure a spot for this no-nonsense leader in the NBA Hall of Fame.