Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Gregg Popovich passes Don Nelson for most wins as NBA coach: Drafting Tim Duncan helped, but Pop makes magic

If you are one of the many people who believe Gregg Popovich is the greatest coach in NBA history, you can add another bullet point to your argument. With the San Antonio Spurs‘ 104-102 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday, Popovich passed Don Nelson to become the NBA‘s all-time winningest coach with 1,336 career victories. 

Over the league’s 75-year history, only four coaches have held the distinction of being the career wins leader at any point in time: Red Auerbach, Lenny Wilkens, Nelson and now Popovich, who has won five NBA championships with San Antonio and has more regular-season wins than six franchises

Throughout the years, Popovich has always deflected credit in the direction of those around him, players and coaches, downplaying one of the most decorated coaching resumes in all of sports. Earlier this season, Popovich was asked what the keys to his coaching success have been: “Draft Tim Duncan,” he said. “After that, stay alive.” 

Indeed, Pop would have you believe that any coach with a beating heart could have led those Spurs teams, built around Duncan, to great heights. He doesn’t think he’s anything special.

But he is special. Everyone knows it. Yes, he lucked into drafting Duncan, who arrived in San Antonio for Pop’s first full season as head coach in 1997-98. The season prior, the Spurs, who had won 59 games in 1995-96, went 20-62 because David Robinson went down with maybe the most fortuitous injury in history and only played in six games that season. 

That one-year crash landed the Spurs in the lottery, where they had the third-best odds of landing the No. 1 pick (21 percent). It was the Boston Celtics who had the best odds (36 percent) to get Duncan, but fortune fell San Antonio’s way. They got Duncan. It would be silly to suggest that didn’t change Pop’s fortunes as well. The Spurs won a title two seasons later. 

But don’t let Pop fool you. All great coaches inherit great players in some capacity. They either draft them, trade for them, sign them as a free agent or get hired by a team that already has them on its roster. However it happens, there’s always luck involved. The NBA just named Steve Kerr one of the 15 greatest coaches in history. He can thank Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala for the first of his three coaching titles, and all those guys plus Kevin Durant for the next two. 

Phil Jackson can thank Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. And Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Nick Nurse can thank his lucky stars Kawhi Leonard took a one-year Canadian detour on his way home to Los Angeles. Mike Budenholzer got hired by a team that lucked into Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick back when nobody thought they’d ever have to learn how to spell his name. 

Lucking into great players isn’t the point. It’s what you do with those players. Pop has always gotten the most out of the rosters with which he’s been afforded. He’s been adaptable, winning titles with 3-point heavy systems despite his noted disdain for the existence of the shot itself, as well as on the strength of twin-tower big men. 

This is perhaps the greatest coach in history in terms of evaluating, with an open mind, what he has to work with, then developing a plan in accordance with the strengths and weaknesses of those pieces. He’s not set in his ways. He learns from his players as much as they learn from him. 

Like teams and players, different coaches have different strengths. The best are the ones that can do it all. Pop can do it all. He’s an Xs and Os wizard. How many times have you heard some variation of “that’s a Pop play” from another coach or broadcaster around the league? 

It goes without saying Popovich’s teams are always going to be prepared. If you get into a playoff series against him, you better plan on what you do best being taken away from you. Still, after all these years, he will do something you didn’t fully expect, even if just at a different moment than you thought, and if you’re not ready with a counter for his counter, go ahead and take your place in the long line of coaches to have been outmaneuvered by a legend. 

All that said, X-and-O prowess is not what has made Pop great. We love to romanticize the greatest coaches as these mad scientists scribbling genius on a napkin, but if your players don’t play hard for you, if they don’t trust you, if they don’t care about you, you can draw up plays like the “Good Will Hunting” guy banging around on the MIT chalkboards and it won’t matter. Pop’s players give him everything. They drop their egos for him, because he does the same for them. 

On Tuesday, ESPN published a great series of Pop stories told by some of the players and coaches closest to him over the years, and the central theme of so many of them was how giant and sincere this guy’s heart is. It might not always seem that way when he’s doing his prickly little routine with the media, and this is not to suggest that he isn’t a true hard-ass, because he is … but that side of him never comes at the expense of the much bigger, more important side that cares so deeply about his players and their families. 

Listen to this story from former Spurs assistant coach Mike Brown, via the aforementioned ESPN piece. 

“I will never forget this: We brought a strength coach in as an intern, wasn’t getting paid much money at all. And his internship was up. He had gotten a new job as a youth counselor in Colorado. He didn’t have the money to move there, and unbeknownst to anybody, we found out later that Pop bought him a brand new [Nissan] Pathfinder just because he knew that the young man didn’t have true means to get to his destination and start his new life as a youth minister.

I was going through a separation at the time … my boys were living in Colorado with their mom, I was [in San Antonio]. I will never forget, they were out here for about a week and my sister was about to take them back because we were about to go on the road. So when I dropped them off at the airport, the [team] plane wasn’t far [away]. They [the boys] were really crying at the gate because they didn’t want to go. I was about to be late. I was torn.

“I called Pop [and said,] ‘I am going to be there, I am at the airport, my kids are having a tough time getting on the plane to go back. But just give me a few more minutes.’ And he goes, ‘Mikey, you should just stay here.’ I said: ‘No, no, no, Pop.’ Because we were going to Chicago and it was my scout and I need to go. [I told Pop,] ‘The kids will be all right.’

“He said, ‘If you show up to this plane, you’re fired.’ I said, ‘Pop, come on, man! Listen, I’m packed and ready. I’ll be there in [a little bit].’ He said, ‘Remember, if I see you on this plane, you’re fired.’ Click. He hangs up on me. So I stayed back with the kids for an extra three days. So literally just two stories off the top of my head of many that shows his true character.”

Or how about this story, again via ESPN, from Don Nelson, the guy whose record he just broke:

“He’s just the greatest coach to ever lace them up. When I hired him as an assistant coach [in Golden State in 1992], I figured he could learn something from me. But I learned more from him than he learned from me, that’s for sure.

“When I hired him, I met him for the first time when he flew in to get interviewed. And I hired him the same day, I think. … I had watched him work before games and I just thought that that’s a guy that I should have. He’s everything and much more than I ever thought I was gonna get.

“The first thing he did when he got to Golden State, he set up a summer league for young kids to play in and stay off the streets. They would play from 10 o’clock at night until 2 in the morning. And he got [an] award for that. He was there every night with the kids. It was in Oakland. There were hundreds of kids involved in the program. It was wonderful. He really did a great job keeping the kids off the streets and out of trouble.”

No coach has ever communicated with their athletes better than Pop. He fosters and values relationships. We’ve all heard about the grand dinners for which he always picks up the tab. The long nights drinking wine, laughing together, even crying together. 

In that same ESPN story, Manu Ginobili talks about Pop taking the Spurs out for an Italian dinner after Ray Allen had just ripped their guts out with his famous last-second shot in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, which the Spurs would eventually go on to lose in Game 7. 

“We talked and we basically cried together,” Ginobili said, via ESPN. “He went one table at a time with different players and had conversations and tried to cheer us up when we were devastated.”

You hear about coaches whose players will run through a wall for them, but you know what makes them willing to do that? It’s not the fiery motivational speech in the locker room that the movies like to portray; it’s the relationships. 

Think about the people in your life that you would do anything for. It’s the people that you know would do anything for you. The people who love you. Who support you unconditionally. The people who tell you the truth, who trust you, who believe in you. The people who will demand the absolute best out of you but then still be there to pick you up, to hug you, to tell you it’s going to be alright when you fall short. 

“One of his phrases that we’ve heard many times is, ‘If this is the worst thing that happened to you in your life, you got a very lucky, blessed and fortunate life,'” Ginobili said in the ESPN article. 

Losing basketball games isn’t the worst thing in the world, quite obviously. In fact, it’s the tough losses that make the wins sweeter. Pop has loved everyone one of his 1,336 wins not for himself, but for his players. He is truly happy for, and humbled by, the success of those around him, even when he seemingly couldn’t care much at all about his own. 

That’s what people gravitate to. My favorite story in that ESPN piece is one about a freezing-cold night in Toronto when Pop walked past a homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk. He wadded up a bunch of cash and put it in the pocket of his jacket, took the jacket off, laid it over the guy and went on his way. 

Forget sports. What inspires is, as humans, are the people who make us want to be better versions of ourselves. This is what makes a coach that even other extraordinarily talented men, who are born leaders themselves, will happily get in line to follow.

That Popovich has done it all with one franchise only makes this sweeter. He was a central part of the Spurs intelligence that drafted Kawhi Leonard in the middle of the first round, Tony Parker at the end of the first round and Manu Ginobili at the end of the second round. He helped develop those players into Hall of Famers, who then in turn helped Pop grow into a coach who has now won more games than any other coach in history. The credit goes both ways, even if Popovich will forever be reluctant to accept his share. 

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