Erik Spoelstra vs. Gregg Popovich: How NBA Finals Generals Stack Up

Jimmy Spencer@JimmySpencerNBANBA Lead WriterJune 6, 2013

The game's greatest coach faces off against the young guy looking to rack up more titles.
The game's greatest coach faces off against the young guy looking to rack up more titles.

Outwardly, it’s the NBA's version of the Odd Couple.

Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, at least by eye and ear, couldn’t be any more different.

Popovich charms with his fear-provoking wit, and guides his team on the pulpit of nearly two decades of success.

Spoelstra is 22 years younger, still gels all of that dark hair, and he's steering a look-what-I-found dynasty awarded to him by Pat Riley.

However as the two successful franchises meet for the first time in this 2012-13 NBA Finals, it may come as a surprise that the two coaching styles aren't too far away from each other.

How Popovich arrived

Everyone talks about how Spoelstra landed in such an ideal situation—well, so did Popovich.

There are various routes to becoming an NBA head coach, and Popovich made his own way, actually giving himself his first head coaching job.

He was a college basketball coach for 15 years before taking a spot under Larry Brown as an assistant with the Spurs from 1988 until he was fired along with the entire coaching staff in 1992. From there, Popovich moved on to the Golden State Warriors and served as an assistant for one season under Don Nelson.

Popovich then became the Spurs general manager in 1994, a status not everyone thought he had earned since his NBA experience had never expanded beyond being an assistant coach.

San Antonio Express-News writer Buck Harvey recently republished a piece discussing exactly that:

Popovich has the inside track for this job not because of what he has done, but because of who he knows. Should the Spurs make their most important hire since Larry Brown for this reason?

Popovich won’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth. In the late ’60s he was a cadet at the Air Force Academy when a general named Robert F. McDermott served as dean. They weren’t close, but they knew each other. Popovich’s wife, Erin, was a friend of McDermott’s daughter, Betsy.

Without this tie, Popovich wouldn’t be the leading candidate. He would be what he is, just another bright assistant looking for a break. He might get a head-coaching job in Sacramento in two years, or one in Vancouver in three.

Popovich got the job, though.

Bob Hill was the coach of the Spurs at the time, and he had won 62 games and then 59 games in his first two seasons as coach. But after a 3-15 start to the 1996-97 season that included major injuries to David Robinson and Sean Elliott, he was fired by Popovich.

From there, Popovich gave himself his first head-coaching spot. Pat on the back, Pops. Thanks, Pops.

Spoelstra moved through the Miami system

Spoelstra waited back awhile before he was granted a tremendous opportunity.

An excellent recount of Spoelstra's entry into the NBA in 1995 was done by Jeffrey Martin of USA Today. His father Jon Spoelstra, a former NBA executive, recalled how his son's decision to join the NBA weighed against the option of getting paid to play basketball in Germany:

To his then-24-year-old son, who'd been rejected repeatedly for college assistant coaching gigs, extending his playing career felt more important than landing that elusive first job off the court.

That is, until Erik's older sister, Monica, spoke up.

"I don't know if these are the right words," Jon Spoelstra said, "but she said, 'What the (expletive) are you thinking? Do you realize how difficult it is to get into the NBA? Just because Dad is there doesn't mean it's easy. To get a job on the basketball side? You have to be an idiot.'

Spoelstra took the job and the new work spot would be referred to as "the dungeon," as Spoelstra labaled it in a 2011 ESPN article by Kevin Arnovitz:

That's what we called it. It was in the bowels of the old Miami Arena. It wasn't even part of the offices. It was probably an old storage room. When they decided to make a video department I think they just cleared everything out, threw a couple of VCRs in there and said, 'OK, this is the video room.'

Spoelstra thrived in the position, working his way up from the video room, to advanced scout and to assistant coach. He is credited for refining Wade's jumper and for his abilities to create game plans against opposing players.

An assistant when the Heat won its 2006 title, Spoelstra was named the team's head coach after Pat Riley stepped down in April 2008.

Heat owner Mickey Arison said after the hire, according to the Associated Press: "Erik's a guy who's worked hard for the organization and has deserved the right to get this opportunity."

The Heat had fallen to 15-67 in Riley's last season before Spoelstra returned them to the playoffs in 2008-09 and 2009-10 (both first-round losses) before LeBron James and Chris Bosh showed up.

NBA experience and records (edge goes to Popovich)

It's tough to compete with Popovich's 25 years of NBA experience even though Spoelstra has 16 years of his own.

  Popovich Spoelstra
Overall head coach record 905-423 (.681) 260-134 (.660)
Overall playoffs record 130-79 (.622) 46-26 (.639)

As a head coach, Popovich has won four titles in his 17 seasons (23.5 percent). Spoelstra has won one title in five years (20 percent) since becoming a head coach.

Popovich has also won two Coach of the Year awards, a distinction Spoelstra has not yet garnered.

NBA Championships Popovich Spoelstra
As Head Coach 4 1
As Assistant Coach
0 1
Finals Appearances as head coach through 2013

Leader (edge goes to Popovich)

Both Popovich and Spoelstra have been given more than their fair share of top-tier NBA talent.

Duncan was drafted in 1997 and paired with All-Star center David Robinson, giving Popovich his first multi-superstar team. After a title in his second year with the pair, Popovich was later granted the superstar talents of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

Turning gifted talent into nearly two decades of success isn't easy, though.

Popovich built a mindset in San Antonio of trust and consistency. His superstars could have left at any point for seemingly greener pastures.

No one went anywhere.

Popovich spoke to his superstars' mindset on Wednesday during finals media availability, as transcribed from his news conference broadcast on NBA TV (via

 It's a total function of those three guys. What if they were jerks? What if they were selfish? What if one of them were unintelligent? Ya know, if, if, if. But the way it works out all three of them are highly intelligent. They all have great character. They appreciate their teammates' success. They feel responsible to each other. 

...When you have three guys like you are able to build something over time. I think it's just a matter of being really, really fortunate to have three people who understand that and who commit to a system and a philosophy for that length of time.

Similar to Popovich, Spoelstra's work ethic has won his players' respect. However the true test will be if Spoelstra has enough strong personality to keep this talent and system thriving when mega-superstar egos don't click.

This series against the Spurs is a big first test.

System (edge goes to Popovich)

No coach has been lauded more than Popovich for creating a system that has been successful each season over such a long stretch of time. It's not an identical model from year to year, as the veteran coach tinkers and alters all of his moving parts to recreate the successful formula.

Yet so much remains the same each season: misdirections, crisp ball movement, innovative screens, complete spacing of the floor—all to create high-percentage looks for San Antonio shooters. He alters his offense based on his current talent, but certainly his trio of savvy veterans help deliver the point.

The true talent of his coaching isn't his Xs and Os; rather, it's a hands-on approach that stresses the execution of the less glamorous sides of offense. Watch how succinctly San Antonio sets screens and where they set them on opponents. Notice how perfectly Parker and other guards cut hard off those screens to fool the offense.

The Spurs were fourth in scoring in the NBA this season, and they have averaged 101.6 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting this postseason.

The Heat's regular-season scoring average of 102.9 ranked right with San Antonio, and this postseason Miami is putting up 97.2 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting.

Spoelstra's style is different yet just as effective.

Popovich has the Spurs moving and creating from within the offense, but Spoelstra has a different set of superstars, players who can create their own shots and thrive in free motion.

What makes Spoelstra a genius is his ability to provide the highest percentage shots for his super trio. It's no accident they all shot career highs from the field this past regular season. That's a credit to the job Spoelstra is doing, which also includes the more difficult task of keeping all egos satisfied.

The Heat also run phenomenal defensive schemes, ones that take advantage of their players' ability to jump passing lanes and pressure opposing offenses up high.

Style (no edge to either coach)

Not the way they dress, @LanceFresh, but we're talking about the demeanor of the two coaches.

Spoelstra is more of a tactician than he is a rah-rah guy, an element that surely helps with him with his veteran superstars.

His background comes from the film room, so it's easy to imagine that technical scouting and preparation plays a big role in how Spoelstra coaches his team.

Spoelstra is flexible in discussions with his players, a point Dwyane Wade supported during last year's finals according to a quote from The Miami Herald:

Something was made of that blowup in Indiana, but that shows how our relationship has grown...We’ve been together for a long time. You don’t have those kinds of moments if you haven’t been together. It’s just like family members, just like a brother.

We have moments, but we love each other, and we move on from it. We grow from it. I’ve enjoyed seeing him grow. The biggest growth in him this season has been his openness to ask other guys what they think...That’s key for players to feel they have that openness with their coach, that he’s going to listen to what they have to say, and sometimes use it, sometimes not.

Both coaches have a seriousness to them when coaching, and it's something to which the players respond. It seems both Spoelstra and Popovich have their players' trust.

Popovich has a resume of titles and three spokesmen to speak on behalf of his system as a winning one; Spoelstra is still building that.

The history creates a convincing argument that Popovich maintains a significant coaching edge ahead of Spoelstra.

This NBA finals provides the perfect opportunity, however, for Spoelstra to add to a budding coaching legacy.

Read more here: (Popovich edge)


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