Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches we've ever seen at any level, in any sport.
Popovich's resume stacks up with anyone's. In 18 seasons as the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Popovich has won four championships while leading the Spurs to 16 straight playoff appearances and a .684 overall winning percentage.
When you think of sustained dominance and basketball dynasties, the vision of Popovich roaming the sidelines with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili out on the floor immediately pops up. Popovich will be remembered as both a great motivator and tactician—as someone who was respected, feared and admired all at the same time.
After being in basketball for so long, you have to figure that he will leave the game soon. Here's what Popovich told Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation last spring when speaking about Duncan:
He's a mentally unique individual in that he's able to sustain the year-round workout regimen, both physically and (diet) wise," Popovich said of Duncan's resurgence. "He has an unbelievable feeling of responsibility for his place in the program and wants to sustain that performance that he brings night after night."
"When he doesn't think he can, he'll stop. It might be in the middle of a game. I can see him walking off the court saying, 'Nah, I'm not pulling my weight anymore. I'm gone.' And he'll walk. And I'll be right behind him, like this. No pride, no nothing.
Any notion that Popovich's legacy will end when he retires from coaching can be safely put to rest now. Just because he won't be in the game doesn't mean his influence won't be felt.
Teams around the league have long recognized what Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have been able to accomplish in a small market without all of the resources other teams have. Naturally, other teams have looked to copy that blueprint. The best way to do that, other than drafting the next Tim Duncan? Hire a Popovich guy to put the plan in motion.
That's a big reason why the Popovich coaching tree grows every year, especially as of late. As it stands right now, 13 NBA coaches or general managers either played for or worked with Popovich in San Antonio.
The six-degrees-of-separation game with Popovich is an easy one to play. Just about everyone has a tie to him at this point.
In Oklahoma City, general manager Sam Presti has engineered a rebuilding process that has launched a potential dynasty that could one day rival the Spurs. Presti cut his teeth with the Spurs for seven years, starting off as an intern before eventually becoming the assistant general manager. Here's what Presti recently said about the Spurs in an interview with NBA.com:
I think Pop and R.C. deserve a lot of credit for maintaining a certain focus over the years," Presti said. "To sustain what I would consider excellence while the rest of our industry is trying to sustain success. It's probably the highest compliment you can pay them.
Longtime Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer was a part of that sustained excellence in San Antonio, and like other members of the coaching tree, he now hopes to build his new team (the Atlanta Hawks) from the ground up based on those same principles. Here's what he told NBA.com about Popovich and why the Spurs' system works:
You learn through participating," Budenholzer said. "They really want everybody's opinion and they value everybody's opinion. Everybody is deeply involved and committed. You come out prepared and hopefully to be ready out on your own.
In a profile of Popovich for ESPN.com, Kevin Arnovitz explained beautifully why the Spurs have been able to keep everything together in a volatile NBA climate that sees a lot of turnover:
Popovich is a sharer who, over time, has welcomed input from those with new ideas. Once players earn Popovich's trust, they're integral to that process -- Duncan the prime example. Also, Popovich's offensive system very much relies on players to make reads, ultimately putting important on-court decisions in the hands of his key players.
Popovich has long been praised for his ability to hold players accountable, whether it's his star or 15th man. That's inspired a sort of egoless culture in San Antonio, where the concepts of team basketball are fully at work.
With his former players and proteges spread all across the league, though, that kind of beautiful basketball will carry elsewhere, long after Pop calls it quits.
And in that sense, Popovich has done the NBA as a whole a great service. He's given other coaches and organizations something to aspire to. The Spurs continue to be the gold standard, and although he wouldn't take much of the credit, Popovich deserves plenty of it.
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