Greg Popovich has led the San Antonio Spurs to another brilliant season, eclipsing the 50 win mark for the sixteenth time in seventeen years (the only exception being a shortened strike season, finishing 37-13). During the same stretch, he has led the team to four 60 plus win seasons and four NBA championships, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest NBA coaches ever.
Popovich took control of the Spurs in 1994, serving as the team’s Vice-President of Basketball Operations. That is, until the 1996-97 season started in complete disarray and the Spurs dropped 15 of their first 18 games. Less than a quarter of the way into the season, Popovich had seen enough, so he stepped in and fired then coach, Bob Hill. The rest is history—Popovich took the reins and total control of the team, naming himself as the new head coach. During his first season, the team struggled mightily, and ended the season with only 20 victories.
When commissioner David Stern stepped up to the podium and announced that with the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft that the San Antonio Spurs selected Tim Duncan, everything changed. It made as great a significance as when Earvin Johnson, also known as “Magic,” was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers No. 1 in the ’79 draft. Well known for his no nonsense interviews, Popovich has said that one of the secrets to success is to “get the number one pick in the draft every ten years and make sure it’s a franchise player.”
With a marquee player at his side, Popovich led the Spurs to 56 wins during the 1997-98 season, his first complete year as head coach, and then reeled off four NBA championships out of the next nine seasons. His four championships put him fifth behind some of the greatest NBA coaches of all-time, including: Phil Jackson (11), Red Auberbach (9), John Kundla (5) and Pat Riley (5).
Popovich has been named NBA Coach of the Year for the third time with 380 total votes—beating out coach, Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns who tallied 339 votes. This is the third time that “Pop” has won the prestigious award (2002-03, 2011-12 and 2013-14), again putting him alongside Hall of Fame coaches, Don Nelson and Pat Riley, making them the only coaches to win the award three times.
The ability of Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs to maintain a winning culture with the same core players of Duncan, Parker and Ginobli, to go along with role players like Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills is astonishing. Year in and year out critics pan the Spurs, pointing to the age of their star trio, but as automatic as a Tim Duncan’s bank shot, the Spurs continue to rise to the top. The current 2013-14 season has seen the Spurs win 62 games, secure home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and jump out to a 1-0 lead in the first round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks.
The name Greg Popovich will always be part of the discussion when talking about the the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA, and rightfully so. While coaches like Jackson, Riley and Auerbach are usually some of the first mentioned in this category, Mavericks head coach, Rick Carlisle has gone as far to say that “Greg Popovich is probably the best coach in the history of the NBA.” Critics can make an argument for and against this statement, but one thing is certain, it is an argument worth having and an argument with no right or wrong answer.
Commentary by Johnny Caito