Popovich envisioned having Kidd run the team, with Parker serving the role as scorer until Kidd’s skills diminished and Parker was ready to run the team. “Tony did not love that idea at all,” Popovich admitted.
Parker didn’t have to worry as Kidd stayed with the Nets and the Spurs went on to win two more championships, with Parker becoming the first European Finals MVP in 2007. But the Spurs continued to remain heavily reliant on Duncan in the post and Manu Ginobili on the perimeter until Popovich realized that the franchise would likely remain stagnant unless the younger, more durable option became the offensive focal point. Popovich watched Parker lead France to the Eurobasket final against Spain in 2011 and display a more demonstrative approach in both his play and interactions with teammates.
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Parker said Popovich told him, “I want you to play like that now. Timmy is getting older and Manu is getting older. You need to go to the next step to a new level with your game.”
Parker responded to the support by leading the Spurs back to the conference finals for the first time in four years last season. But after Oklahoma City eliminated San Antonio in six games, Parker saw a dejected Duncan in the locker room and promised him that he would take him back to the Finals.
“This will always be Timmy’s franchise. Always. Should do a statue for him outside the AT&T Center,” Parker said. “I got a great example in Timmy, who has been unbelievable all those years. I want to try to do the same thing. I want to try to improve my game, as the responsibility and the ball came in my hands, I try to do more and try to deliver.”
If he can help the Spurs capture a fifth NBA title, Parker might reserve a spot next to Duncan after completing a journey that few could have seen coming when Buford convinced Popovich that he was worth the risk of drafting 28th overall in 2001.
“At that point, 12 years ago, there hadn’t been a big history of a coach handing a ball to a point guard and saying, ‘Here’s somebody who barely speaks my language or half as good as I do,’ So there was concern, I think, ‘Is Pop ever going to trust an international point guard,’ ” Buford said. “And I think through the workout process and through our study, Pop saw enough to say, ‘Okay, I’ll try this deal for a little while to see how long it will last.’”
Twelve years later, the relationship between Popovich and Parker is still growing, and the Spurs’ championship window may remain open a little longer.