Gregg Popovich in Elite Company on NBA's Head-Coaching Mount Rushmore

Gregg Popovich in Elite Company on NBA's Head-Coaching Mount Rushmore
Bleacher Report
From left: Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley

With a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, the San Antonio Spurs advanced to the NBA Finals for the sixth time in franchise history—all under the watchful eye of Gregg Popovich.

Doing so was no easy feat. The Spurs had lost their last nine trips to Chesapeake Energy Arena before that deciding Game 6. With the way these Western Conference Finals have swung so violently from game to game and venue to venue, it would've come as little surprise if OKC had extended this most peculiar series to a seventh game.

That victory by the Spurs, though, was particularly historic, beyond the team's extensive struggles in OKC. For all of this franchise's success since the Popovich-Tim Duncan partnership was born in 1997, San Antonio had never claimed consecutive Western Conference crowns until now. As such, Pop has never had so much as an opportunity to win back-to-back titles like some of the Association's other coaching giants have.

And after the way the Spurs squandered their shot at Title No. 5 in last year's Finals against the Miami Heat, he won't have that chance this time around.

Still, whatever happens between now and the NBA's next coronation, Pop's place in basketball history has already been cemented. He belongs not only in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but on the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaches.

And no, I'm not referring to LeBron James' comments from this past February about the league's all-time foursome or the debate that said comments inspired.

Pop's resume ranks among the best the NBA has yet seen, right up there with those of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Red Auerbach.

Note: Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and accurate as of June 2, 2014. ABA records are not included.

The NBA's Mount Rushmore of Head Coaches
Seasons Reg Wins Reg Win % COY Post App Post Wins Post Win % Conf Champ NBA Champ
Popovich 18 967 .686 3 17 145 .620 6 4
Jackson 20 1,155 .704 1 20 229 .688 13 11
Riley 24 1,210 .636 3 21 171 .606 9 5
Auerbach 20 938 .662 1 19 99 .589 10 9

Basketball Reference

The discussion over who belongs on this particular Mount Rushmore needn't be limited to these four titans of the profession, though. The first three all rank as the most prominent branches on other coaching trees—Popovich on Larry Brown's, Jackson on Red Holzman's and Riley on Bill Sharman's. As for Auerbach, his dynasty with the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics was preceded by John Kundla's with the Minneapolis Lakers of George Mikan's vintage.

More Names for Mount Rushmore
Seasons Reg Wins Reg Win % COY Post App Post Wins Post Win % Conf Champ NBA Champ
Brown 26 1,098 .548 1 18 100 .518 3 1
Holzman 18 694 .535 1 10 58 .552 3 2
Sharman 7 333 .581 1 5 35 .565 2 1
Kundla 11 423 .583 N/A 10 60 .632 6 5

Basketball Reference

Clearly, though, Popovich belongs among the greats who've ever stalked the sidelines for a living in the NBA. But beyond the numbers themselves, how does Pop compare to the other faces etched into our Mount Rushmore?

 

Popovich vs. Jackson

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This might make for the easiest comparison, if only because these two have gone head-to-head so many times under different circumstances over the years. Their teams have played 45 times during the regular season, with Jackson's taking a slim 23-22 edge therein—albeit one that flips to 22-20, advantage Pop, if you remove Jackson's time with the Chicago Bulls from consideration.

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In the postseason, though, there's no such wiggle room for Pop to pull ahead. His Spurs lost four of their five postseason series opposite Jackson's Los Angeles Lakers, with San Antonio accruing an abysmal record of 8-18 therein.

However you slice it, the Zen Master has the upper hand on Pop. Where Pop had never even taken a team to consecutive Finals prior to this current stretch with the Spurs, Jackson only won his 11 titles in pairs or trios.

But hey, at least Pop can outshine Jackson in Coach of the Year honors three-to-one. And if you're picking one of the two to run a team, you'd probably start with Pop, who was a GM in San Antonio before he became the coach, and maintains a measure of control over the team's personnel decisions. Jackson, on the other hand, is just getting his feet wet in that regard with the dysfunctional New York Knicks.

 

Popovich vs. Riley

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There might not be greater contrast to be found between any two members of the basketball coaching pantheon than there is between Popovich and Riley. The former is notoriously terse and tight-lipped, with little desire to promote himself or his team in any way and even less regard for the media.

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Riley, on the other hand, is about as flashy as they come. Whereas Pop's spent his entire career as an NBA head coach stationed in a relatively nondescript military town, Riles has sought fame, fortune and success in three of the league's glitziest, most glamorous markets: L.A., New York and Miami.

Style aside, Pop may well overtake Riles in the coaching hierarchy if he sticks with it for a while longer. Another 244 regular-season wins will put Popovich ahead of Riley's 1,210. Another 27 in the playoffs will nudge Popovich's total past Riley's 171.

Those accomplishments would likely require that Pop hang on for another four or five years, particularly in the former instance. But there is one category in which Popovich can pull even with Riley much sooner: championships. Should the Spurs outlast the Miami Heat—of Riley's construction, no less—in this year's NBA Finals, Popovich would match Riley's five titles (four with the Lakers, one with the Heat) with a fifth of his own.

 

Popovich vs. Auerbach

Eric Gay/Associated Press

As far as styles and circumstances are concerned, there may be no closer historical parallel for Popovich than Red Auerbach.

In terms of single-team purity, Pop has Red beat. Auerbach is best known for the 16 years he spent stewarding the Boston Celtics, but that only came after his three seasons with the Washington Capitols of the Basketball Association of America—which became the NBA in 1949—and his lone with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, now better known as the Atlanta Hawks.

The expansion of the league and its playoffs in the years between Auerbach's dynasty in Boston and Pop's in San Antonio speaks to the disparity in postseason victories, just as it does to the Celtics' superior ring count.

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But specifics aside, Popovich and Auerbach are about as close to mirror images of one another as you'll find in regard to their relationships with some of the game's seminal big men. The C's didn't start hanging banners until Bill Russell, an athletic specimen and defensive dynamo out of the University of San Francisco, arrived as a rookie in time for the 1956-57 season. Russell served as the backbone of a Beantown team that would win a whopping nine titles in 10 seasons under Auerbach—and two more once Russell stepped in as player-coach.

Likewise, the Spurs were a mess (albeit only briefly) before Duncan came aboard as the No. 1 pick in the 1997 NBA draft. San Antonio won its first championship in Duncan's second season and may well come away with its fifth in his 17th.

ESPN's Marc Stein, for one, found the comparison a fair one:

The ever-efficient San Antonio Spurs quietly prefer the comparison they've been known to make internally -- Bill Belichick and Tom Brady -- but even the NFL's signature coach/franchise player partnership hasn't been at it as long as the NBA's modern-day Red and Russell.

So, too, did at least one former Spur. "When you look at what Russell and Auerbach did, now that's a whole different stratosphere," said Avery Johnson, who was the starting point guard on San Antonio's 1999 title team, via Stein. "It was a different time. But I will say this: They're not far behind."

Moreover, both did masterful jobs of tailoring their team's efforts to the inevitable decay of their franchise cornerstones. Auerbach pivoted to a more guard-oriented approach in Russell's waning years, with Sam Jones and a young John Havlicek bearing most of the team's offensive burden.

Popovich followed suit once Duncan's days of dominating down low were clearly through. He retooled the Spurs attack around the on-ball talents of Tony Parker, thereby sparking the pseudo-renaissance that once again has San Antonio on the precipice of greatness. 

 

Who do YOU think belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA coaches? Tweet me your picks!

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