The NBA's Top 5 Coaches: Where Does Gregg Popovich Stand?

Raymond SettlesContributor IOctober 15, 2010

SAN ANTONIO - MAY 09:  Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs and referee, Monty McCutchen in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on May 9, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

During the 1996 season, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Bob Hill, was handicapped by injuries that knocked out starters David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Vinny Del Negro and sixth man Chuck Person. The coach was fired after a 3-15 start. That kind of start was understandable with so many top players out for much of those 19 games.  The general manager then selected himself to coach for the rest of that season.

That GM turned coach was Gregg Popovich.

He didn't fare much better, by the way, going only 15-47 the rest of the way.

It was a controversial move at the time because of the injuries that had decimated the team.

However, with hindsight being 20/20, I can't say Bob Hill would have accomplished what Coach Pop has during that time. If you look past the acerbic wit and dry humor, you see a man that can flat out coach and established a legacy of winning. His track record includes:

Four NBA Championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007)

Winning 736 regular season games.

Winning 106 playoff games.

Winning Coach of the Year in 2003.

Leading the Spurs to their most regular season wins in 2006, with a 63-19 record.

Being an assistant coach on the Olympic Team (yes, it was the 2004 team, but it was still the Olympics, for Pete's sake).

Having established a few things, record-wise, here is the heart of the matter:

Where does Coach Pop rank among NBA coaches?

I'm not gonna try to get to 10, because I think that would insult Pop and the gentlemen who I think are currently the best in the NBA.  I don't even think I could get to 10, unless I started adding the John Kuesters and Jay Trianos of the world.

5) Jerry Sloan, JazzI believe the biggest thing to note about Sloan is that his teams have seemingly looked similar for over 20 years, and like the famed Green Bay Packers sweep, there's nothing you can do about it. Hard nosed on defense and simplistic on offense (maybe to a fault). Like Jason in Friday the 13th, the Jazz just keep coming and keep winning. Will they ever win the championship? I don't know, but there are few coaches that have ever been more consistent than Mr. Jerry Sloan. 

4) Doc Rivers, CelticsUnderrated in his tactical approach, Rivers is no slouch when it comes to his X's and O's. I think people make too much of his ability to get the Big 3 to play together, from a motivational standpoint, and downplay his scheming on the sidelines. Furthermore, he does get his players, whether in Beantown or Orlando (his first stop), motivated to give up a limb for him. This man will win at least one more ring with the C's and probably a couple more at his next destination.

3) Larry Brown, BobcatsThe master of both the beauty of coaching (still the only coach to have won both NCAA & NBA rings) and the self-destruct button (more stops than a Greyhound bus), Coach Brown has been mystifying and mysteriously left teams for nearly 40 years now.  He is still the best coach the Clippers ever had and the only coach who could have done what he did with the Pistons in 2004 & 2005. He is a coach's coach, period. Watch this guru work the sidelines and you will see a coaching clinic almost every night. If he could have stayed in one place for his entire career, he would have won more than one championship ring.

2) Gregg Popovich, Spurs.  His track record has been buoyed by coaching Tim Duncan for his entire NBA career (who doesn't win with some All-Star talent?), but more importantly, Pop knows the game and how to build a team. The former ace student under Larry Brown, he has won championships with the likes of Avery Johnson, Jaren Jackson (I know, right?), Stephen Jackson (younger, wilder, not Captain Jack) and Bruce Bowen starting. He simply knows the game of basketball. 

1) Phil Jackson, Lakers.  I hate to admit it. The smug attitude, the smarmy "know it all" approach at the press conferences, the whole Zen stuff during the season.  However, I will give him his due in this regard. Jackson is the best at getting his players to believe in his system better, and perhaps faster, than any other coach in the league.  Having those 11 rings does not hurt either. But don't get me started on his coaching Mike, Scottie, Shaq and Kobe, either... 

So there it is. I have Pop as the tenuous second-best coach in the game. If (or shall I say when) the Spurs take home the ring this year, I may move him to numero uno. That would mean he won with another different type of group. That would be more impressive than Jax's sheer numbers, winning with the best hand dealt, in a seemingly rigged card game.

Enjoy the read, I'm out.