The NBA’s all-time winningest coach sounded relaxed from his Maui residence. Don Nelson also sounded eager for San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to eclipse his league record among head coaches for most all-time wins.
“I can’t wait until he gets that,” Nelson told USA TODAY Sports. “That will be a great day for me.”
Nelson says it feels inevitable Popovich will do that. And why not?
In his 25th season with the Spurs, Popovich became the NBA’s only coach and one of eight head coaches in the US’ four major sports to coach a franchise for that long. Popovich has guided the Spurs to five NBA championships and oversaw an NBA-record 22-year playoff streak that ended last season. And Popovich has compiled the most combined regular-season and playoff wins among head coaches in NBA history (1,458).
Popovich also appears within striking distance of breaking Nelson’s record. While Nelson (1,335) and Lenny Wilkens (1,332) stand in first and second place among NBA coaches for most all-time wins, Popovich needs 48 more wins to top Nelson. With the Spurs (11-10) in 10th place in the Western Conference, how their mix of veterans and young players perform will determine both San Antonio’s playoff chances and if Popovich can further cement himself in the NBA record books. It also depends on how much longer Popovich wants to coach beyond this season after turning 72 last week.
“He’ll get that after this year and one more probably,” Nelson said. “I hope he sticks around to get that record. I want him to have it.”
Gregg Popovich is enjoying coaching a young roster that includes 24-year-old Dejounte Murray (left) and 21-year-old Keldon Johnson (right). (Photo: Kelley L. Cox, USA TODAY Sports)
Nelson’s affinity for Popovich stems back from when he worked as one of Nelson’s assistant coaches with the Golden State Warriors (1992-94) before returning to the Spurs as their general manager. Two years later, Popovich fired and replaced Bob Hill as head coach, and has patrolled the sidelines since then.
During that time, Popovich oversaw the Spurs’ dynasty that remained dominant even as the game evolved.
The Spurs won an NBA title in 1999 by relying on the so-called Twin Towers in David Robinson and Tim Duncan. They later won NBA titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007 by pairing Duncan with an elite point guard (Tony Parker) and a crafty playmaker and defender (Manu Ginobili). Seven years later, the Spurs won another title with those three players along with an emerging star (Kawhi Leonard).
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While he kept winning, Popovich established a team-oriented culture that centered on ball movement, sacrificed roles and player development. Off the court, Popovich organized team dinners, cultural outings and talks about worldly issues.
“The Spurs have long been the franchise that all 29 other teams were trying to emulate. That starts with Pop’s coaching, his leadership and style of play,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “When you get in this business, you’re not trying to have success. You’re trying to have sustained success.”
Therefore, Popovich could have retired so he could enjoy more wine and travel. Instead, Popovich has remained committed toward coaching a Spurs team that features a handful of veterans (DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills) and young players (Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson).
“At the base of it, the competitiveness in game situations is thrilling.That’s always there. If that diminished or disappeared, then I wouldn’t be doing this,” Popovich said. “Beyond that, watching a new generation of players that are 19, 20, 21, 22-years old is both a challenge and it’s extremely satisfying to watch them develop. Not just their basketball skills, but their awareness on the court, what’s going on in their world, what’s going on off the court, learning about the world they live in way beyond basketball — that still is a big satisfaction for me. And I think I would miss that. So I think those two factors, more than anything, keep me in it.”
“"… Watching a new generation of players that are 19, 20, 21, 22-years old is both a challenge and it’s extremely satisfying to watch them develop."”
It does not appear accolades has kept Popovich in it, though. When the Spurs’ 22-year playoff streak ended last season in the bubble, he had no interest in using that point to reflect on the organization’s achievements and his role in that.
“I don’t dwell on the past,” Popovich said. “I don’t know who won the baseball championship from year to year. Four years ago, I don’t know who won the NBA championship. That stuff is totally not important. What’s important is the moment. You do what you got to do you, then you move on. But looking at the past doesn’t do much good. Any success we’ve had is because we’ve had some great players.”
Therefore, does Popovich even care about eclipsing Nelson’s record?
“I don’t think he really does,” Nelson said. “But he’s going to get it anyway. So it doesn’t matter what he thinks.”
Instead, what matters is how Popovich coaches.
He has remained committed to coaching the U.S. Men’s Olympic team, which is scheduled to compete in the Tokyo Games this summer after it was postponed last year because of the coronavirus outbreak. Even when the Spurs accommodated Leonard’s trade request in 2018, Popovich still coached and played an instrumental part in the organization’s transition.
Though the Spurs missed the playoffs last season, Popovich became pleased with how his young roster went 5-3 in the NBA campus bubble. This season, the Spurs are among the Western Conference teams with a chance to make the playoffs.
Unlike in past years, Popovich cannot take his trips on cultural outings or invite guest speakers. That is not possible because of the NBA's health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus. Still, Popovich has talked at length with his players about following the protocols and about the country's social justice movement. Like in other years, Popovich’s players have become impressed with how he has shown both tough love and patience.
“He’s been mixing it in well, trusting us to keep the young guys motivated, keep them pushing and going the right way and picking and choosing when it’s time to get on the young guys and on us to pick it up,” DeRozan said. “His balance on both sides has been really good.”
Some of his veteran players like the way Gregg Popovich has mixed allowing his young players the room to make mistakes and when to yell when they're not doing what the team needs. (Photo: The Associated Press)
Popovich has displayed that with a fiery enthusiasm. During one recent game, Popovich jumped in the air while expressing frustration toward his players and an official.
“He was jumping higher than some of the players on the team,” Gay joked. “That’s something I want to do at 72, I guess. He comes in here and gets his workouts in and takes his health serious. He’s had a lot of reasons to. He’s still out here and being chipper and doing what he does.”
Hence, those in NBA circles believe Popovich should keep roaming the sidelines beyond this season.
“I don’t think he’s made any decisions yet. But why not?” said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, one of Popovich’s former players and close friends. “He’s still as sharp as ever. You can still see the impact he still makes just by watching his team this year. Nobody expected much out of the Spurs. Here they are right in the thick of things."
And here Popovich is right in the thick of collecting another NBA head-coaching record. But even if Nelson wants him to make history, Popovich seems more enamored with the game for more pure reasons.
“Pop is obviously a very interesting man. He’s got a lot of different interests and pursuits,” Kerr said. “He’s very well read. He can talk about pretty much any topic that you want. And yet at his core, he’s a basketball coach. Basketball is what genuinely excites him. Coaching a team is what gives him the thrill that keeps him going.”
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