Six Degrees of Gregg Popovich
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is a living legend. He has four rings with a fifth in the cross hairs. He's coached current and future Hall of Fame players. He's been an integral cog in the Spurs becoming one of the best organizations in all of sports, if not the best.
But like most elite coaches, Popovich's legacy won't be finished when he decides to hang up the whistle and retire. The many disciples of Pop will carry on his legacy as the years go by, branching out an already impressive coaching tree.
It's almost impossible to be a player or coach in the NBA without some degree of connection to Popovich, and seeing as he's one of the most brilliant and hilariously surly coaches alive, we wouldn't have it any other way.
Mike Brown: Former Assistant
Current and former (how often does that happen?) Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown was an assistant under Popovich from 2000-2003, helping the Spurs win a title during his final year in San Antonio.
Two years later, Brown became the second-youngest head coach in the league when he took over in Cleveland. Moving quickly again, Brown guided LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers both to their first finals appearance in 2007. Fittingly, the student lost to the teacher, as Popovich's Spurs proved to be too much for the Cavs.
A former NBA Coach of the Year, Brown's skills as a coach have come into question more and more as of late. The murmurs grew to screams after a disastrous start with a Los Angeles Lakers "superteam" that, as it turned out, needed much more than five games to come together and build a cohesive defense after all.
Although Brown's offenses sometimes lack imagination, he's highly regarded in NBA circles as a brilliant defensive mind. Turning around a terrible defensive team in Cleveland is right in his wheelhouse, and maybe he'll eventually get LeBron back for a second crack at a title.
P.J. Carlesimo: Former Assistant
It's strange to think of another graybeard as a member of Popovich's coaching tree, but P.J. Carlesimo put in plenty of time as Popovich's assistant during the peak of San Antonio's dynasty.
Popovich's reclamation projects (Boris Diaw, Danny Green, etc.) aren't limited to the court. After a disastrous tenure with the Golden State Warriors from 1997-1999 that included a whole lot of losing and a famous choking incident with Latrell Sprewell, Carlesimo needed a place to bounce back.
Popovich gave Carlesimo that opportunity. In turn, Carlesimo, who had tons of valuable college and pro experience, helped deliver the Spurs two more rings during his five years in San Antonio.
Don't be surprised to see Carlesimo land with the Spurs again in an assistant role as the coaching carousel turns. Although his short tenure after taking over for another disciple of Pop in Brooklyn was ultimately unsuccessful, there's an open spot on San Antonio's bench, thanks to the next coach on the list.
Mike Budenholzer: Former Assistant
The Spurs, as we know them, have seemingly been around forever, and you can say the same about Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud, as he's affectionately known, spent a whopping 19 years in the organization, with 17 of those coming as an assistant.
By slowly working his way down the bench, you can only imagine the knowledge he's gained over all these years.
That's part of the reason why it was so surprising to see Budenholzer take the head coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks this offseason.
It's not that Budenholzer wasn't worthy for the position, but rather it's that everyone assumed Budenholzer was next in line for the Spurs and would take over whenever Popovich retired. That was the only real way to explain why he wasn't a head coach already.
Maybe Bud was just waiting for the right opportunity, or maybe he was waiting to land somewhere with a few familiar faces. He'll get both in Atlanta, as Hawks GM Danny Ferry played for Popovich in the twilight of his career and then joined the front office to work with both Pop and R.C. Buford before heading to Cleveland and hiring Mike Brown.
With Ferry and Budenholzer teaming up, there's an awful lot of "Spurs East" potential in Atlanta, and it all stems from Popovich.
Monty Williams: Former Player
New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams is, perhaps, the most highly regarded member of the Popovich coaching tree.
Williams is another defensive-minded coach who likes to have his teams play drag-out, mistake-free basketball. Williams is still young at 41 years old, but he coaches with a throwback style.
That makes sense, as that's the type of player Williams was for Popovich during his first full year as a head coach in 1997. You wouldn't dream of having a small forward, who made four three-pointers in his entire career, play 20 minutes a night now, but things were different back then.
Popovich's ability to adapt to the always changing schemes and strategies of the league is incredibly underrated. He's not as rigid or stubborn as his interview persona may suggest. Williams has a lot of potential to be a great coach, but he may need to embrace a more modern brand of basketball like his mentor has.
Avery Johnson: Former Player
If there was ever a player who epitomized Popovich's character, it was Avery Johnson. Smart, ferocious and demanding, Johnson acted as a second coach on the floor for Popovich during many successful years.
After nine seasons and a championship with the Spurs, the "Little General" quickly found success on the pine.
The 2006 NBA Coach of the Year was incredibly successful during his first head coaching stint in Dallas, but he was never quite able to get the Brooklyn Nets going this season and was eventually replaced by one of his former coaches in Carlesimo.
Members of the Spurs family and Pop's tree tend to watch out for one another, so it's not hard to imagine Johnson will land somewhere soon, provided he's comfortable with taking an assistant role.
Vinny Del Negro: Former Player
Del Negro is another former player who played for Popovich, but never coached under him. That's a distinction Popovich was quick to make during a press conference in Los Angeles, clearing up that Del Negro "wasn't a protégé."
The sharpshooting guard and former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers coach did spend the prime of his career with the Spurs under Popovich, and he had a lasting influence. Still to this day, the Spurs use a "Del Negro" defense, as outlined by Popovich in a report by Arash Markazi of ESPNLA.com:
Some of the stuff we do on defense, we actually have one thing we call on the pin downs, we say we’re going to "Del Negro it" and that’s in his honor and we’ve done that for 15 years.
We have a Del Negro defense out there because he couldn’t play a lick of D. At times we had to invent something just to hide him, so we call it "Del Negro" and you do certain things on the court and everybody has to make up for that guy who’s the "Del Negro."
That might not be a ringing endorsement, but sometimes, the apple falls pretty far from the tree.
Jacque Vaughn: Former Player
Preparation breeds confidence, and Jacque Vaughn has that in spades.
Vaughn played for three seasons with the Spurs at the tail-end of his career—a popular theme. A former point guard, Vaughn immediately caught on with the Spurs as an assistant coach after retiring, spending two years on the bench with Popovich.
When former Spurs Director of Basketball Operations Rob Hennigan took over as general manager with the Orlando Magic, he took Vaughn right along with him to form the youngest coach-GM tandem in the league.
Vaughn exhibits a few "Popovichian" traits, the most notable being his use of timeouts as teaching tools. Many times in his first season as coach, Vaughn would call a timeout right in the middle of a possession if the play was being executed incorrectly or his players needlessly freelanced.
Vaughn already looks to be a solid developer of young talent, as evidenced by the strides Nikola Vucevic, Andrew Nicholson and Tobias Harris made last year. With Popovich connections throughout the organization, Orlando is in good hands.
You can probably say the same about most of the league, as Popovich's influence spreads far and wide.