Longevity has become an increasingly recurring theme in sports and while it is mostly attributed to athletes and how they’ve tested father time, some coaches have outlasted their peers, overcome personnel changes, and adapted to the times in order to cement themselves into the conversation of the greatest tacticians of all time.
Gregg Popovich has been the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs for 25 seasons, longer than any active NBA head coach (and even across the four major US sports) and even two franchises (the Charlotte Hornets and the New Orleans Pelicans). During that span, he has won five NBA titles in six NBA Finals appearances and thrice been named the league’s Coach of the Year. Lost in all those accolades, however, was his recent inclusion to an ultra-exclusive club.
With a win over the Chicago Bulls last March 27, Popovich joined Don Nelson and Lenny Wilkens as the only NBA coaches to ever amass 1,300 wins. Among the three, Popovich was the fastest to reach 1,300 and was also only one to do so with one team.
In reality, Popovich already secured the most wins (regardless if in the regular season or playoffs) by an NBA coach all-time, considering that his 170 playoff wins put him well above both Nelson and Wilkens. Clinching the regular season all-time record would then be a mere formality, but it would also highlight the consistency that has been a staple in his teams for nearly three decades. In fact, he also has the highest winning percentage in the regular season (.672) among active coaches and is only behind Phil Jackson (.704) for the all-time record.
Winning championships requires the perfect combination of players, circumstances, and naturally smarts and with five titles under his name, Popovich is clearly doing something right. Many have also tried to emulate the way of the Spurs, as his assistants and former players have all taken coaching positions for other teams in the hopes of achieving even just a sliver of the success San Antonio has had.
After Mike Krzyzewski stepped down at the conclusion of the 2016 Olympic Games, Popovich was named as the head coach of the US national team. Having previously served as an assistant to the 2004 Olympic team that settled for bronze, international success remained elusive as Team USA finished 7th (out of 32) in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. While he didn’t have some of the league’s marquee stars on his squad (some opted out early in the process) for that tournament, the 2020 (well 2021) Olympic Games, which will be held later this year in Tokyo, Japan, will provide him with another shot at a gold medal. Regardless of the outcome, however, his legacy as a coach remains secure.
Off the court, he remains a well-regarded figure when it comes to speaking out against social issues, especially as tensions in the United States reached an all-time high over the past decade. While his dry humor on the sidelines and in press conferences remains the stuff of legend, his love for wine is quite well-documented.
Over the course of more than two decades, Popovich has achieved success with the help of Tim Duncan and a combination of David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard. While the aforementioned players have either retired, moved on to other teams, or moved to the bench, the Indiana native has continued to rack up wins even with a younger and less-experienced roster.
With less than 30 games left in the regular season, Popovich will likely break the all-time record next season barring a decision to retire. As of this writing, the Spurs are 7th in the Western Conference, one game ahead of the eighth place Dallas Mavericks. Championship aspirations seem much further down the road than a decade ago, but the Spurs continue to work on their system in the hopes that the perfect opportunity will come along.
Should they make the playoffs this year, will they advance past the first round? It’s highly unlikely but don’t count them out in giving their more favored opponent a scare during the early portion of the postseason.
Popovich is certainly in the twilight of his coaching years and it wouldn’t hurt to appreciate one of the greatest to ever do it even as he’s giving you and your favorite NBA team fits. As a parting thought, it’s worth noting that last year we lamented that his 22-year playoff streak ended in the bubble. In true Pop fashion, he hasn’t skipped a beat and has the Spurs within reach of the playoffs this year.
There are only two coaches who have more rings than the Spurs stalwart: Phil Jackson with 11 and legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach with nine. Two others have five rings like Popovich, and that’s Pat Riley and John Kundla. Hey may be the last coach we see with this kind of extended success, so let’s enjoy what little time we have left with his career.