Ranking Every Season of Gregg Popovich as San Antonio Spurs Head Coach
After inking a multiyear extension with the club this summer, he'll have a few opportunities to do just that. Star veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili may be reaching the end of their respective careers, but 32-year-old Tony Parker remains in his prime, and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is just beginning to discover his.
There are almost certainly more good times ahead.
And there are plenty already in the rearview mirror.
Here's a look at how each of Popovich's seasons rank in terms of San Antonio's overall success. Taking regular-season performances and playoff outcomes into account, here's a look at which incarnations of the Spurs are especially memorable in Popovich's 18 seasons in the driver's seat.
18. The 1996-97 Season
It was the worst season in Spurs history.
And it's the reason the organization ultimately landed Duncan with the first overall pick in 1997's draft.
Popovich only coached 64 of San Antonio's games that season, replacing Bob Hill after his first 18 contests (at which point the club was a lowly 3-15). Having served as the team's vice president of basketball operations since 1994, Popovich didn't do much better after taking over.
That's par for the course when your best player—the legendary David Robinson—misses all but six games with a back injury. Even sidekick Sean Elliott was limited to just 39 games that season.
San Antonio would eventually finish with a 20-62 record. That—along with the luck of the lottery balls—paved the way for Duncan to become the franchise's future.
But Popovich's coaching debut wasn't just a disaster in the win-loss column. Immediately, there were expectations that Popovich outperform his otherwise popular predecessor. In Hill's two seasons, the Spurs won 62 and 59 games.
There was no title to show for it, but this was a pretty good team when healthy—one that had made it to the conference finals and semifinals under Hill.
"Let me tell you, I love this team," Hill told reporters at the time, reports Alan Greenberg of the Hartford Courant. "I love these players. I did great here. Look at my record. I have nothing to be ashamed of."
The decision to oust Hill wasn't exactly a PR coup.
Popovich indicated at the time that this was potentially about more than the season's early struggles alone.
"When you decide on something as difficult as this and feel that it is the right thing to do, it is best to do it right away," he told media at the time, according to Tim Griffin of MySanAntonio.com. "I fully realize that the timing might look bad. The fact that David is coming back [from injury] is a coincidence.
"At this point I thought a change in direction was necessary. The decision wasn't made in a knee-jerk way. It was made with a lot of thought and a lot of counsel and a lot of heartache."
To whatever extent Hill's firing was controversial in San Antonio, Popovich was the face of that controversy.
Adding Duncan to the mix would quickly change the narrative, though. Better times were ahead and Popovich would lead the way, returning to the bench he sat on as an assistant under Larry Brown from 1988 to 1992.
17. The 1999-00 Season
Duncan continued his rapid ascension in his third season, averaging over 23 points per game after two seasons with 21.1 and 21.7 points per contest.
And San Antonio boasted a nice mix of veterans beyond Robinson, including Avery Johnson, Mario Elie and Terry Porter. Sean Elliott returned to the team in March after undergoing a kidney transplant in 1999.
On their way to compiling 53 wins and a second-place finish in the Midwest, however, disaster struck. Duncan tore his left lateral meniscus in April, finishing his season and any hopes San Antonio had of winning back-to-back championships.
The Spurs would lose to the Phoenix Suns after just four games in the opening round.
16. The 2008-09 Season
Coming off a season in which they'd lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals, there were hopes San Antonio would return to similar heights in 2009.
And Parker appeared poised to take them there.
To date, his 22 points per game during the 2008-09 campaign remain a career high—and nearly three points per game more than the 19.3 Duncan averaged that season. Two of the Spurs' Big Three were on pace for another deep postseason push.
Manu Ginobili was a different story.
Held to just 44 games during the regular season, Ginobili was sidelined from the playoffs with an ankle injury.
The sixth-seeded Dallas Mavericks were ready to exploit that.
"They had more firepower than us. They played better than us," Duncan told reporters after the 4-1 opening-round defeat. "However you want to put it, obviously they were the better team this year. That's all you can say."
That differential in firepower had a lot to do with Ginobili, who'd averaged 15.5 points and 3.6 assists per contest that season.
"Ginobili was hurt and they really never had enough weapons to beat us that year," Mavericks star forward Dirk Nowitzki later recalled to ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon. "I don't think they had enough weapons without him."
If Popovich has learned one thing about postseason success in this league, it may be the importance of health. Early playoff exits in 2000 and 2009 were largely attributable to injury, so Popovich's insistence on resting his stars during the regular season may have a little something to do with history.
15. The 2009-10 Season
A season after suffering just the second opening-round loss of the Popovich era, the Spurs returned with something of a new-and-improved look.
General manager R.C. Buford signed veterans Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess in free agency, adding a starting small forward and the kind of interior depth San Antonio would need for a deep playoff run. The emergences of guard George Hill and forward DeJuan Blair gave the roster some options and youth.
On paper, this seemed like a better team than the one that lost to the Mavericks just months earlier.
But things didn't go entirely according to plan.
The Spurs eventually claimed the seventh seed in the West after winning just 50 games. The club's .610 winning percentage was the lowest since Popovich took over during the 1996-97 season. Though this team was probably better than your average seventh seed, it never quite felt like a contender.
Parker was limited by injury to just 56 games during the regular season, and Jefferson proved to be more of a complementary weapon than go-to option—perhaps by design. With their star and starting point guard missing nearly all of March, the Spurs failed to develop a rhythm during that pre-playoff stretch in which they usually start to hum.
Though San Antonio exacted some vengeance against Dallas in the first round, it was summarily swept in short order by a Phoenix Suns team in its prime.
"It was kind of embarrassing. ... It's really hard not only because of the fact that we are down 3-0 [but because of] the way they are beating us," Ginobili told reporters during the series. "In the first game, we fouled too much and they [scored] too much in transition.
"In Game 2, they stopped running, but they beat us on offensive rebounds. Tonight we didn't foul them, they didn't beat us on the offensive boards, Amare scored seven points and they killed us anyway. That's the tough part to swallow."
The Spurs looked mortal as ever, and it their championship window seemed to be closing before our eyes.
14. The 1997-98 Season
Tim Duncan's rookie season would be the one and only in which he averaged fewer points than mentor David Robinson. It didn't take long to pass this baton. And it didn't take long to see how good this team would be on the defensive end.
San Antonio's suddenly dominant interior one-two punch stifled opposing offenses. Its 99.4 defensive rating ranked second league-wide, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
The problem for these new-look Spurs is that Duncan and Robinson didn't have a whole lot of help at the outset. Point guard Avery Johnson was the only other Spurs player to score in double figures that season.
And with Elliott limited to just 36 games, the Spurs turned to role players such as Vinny Del Negro and Jaren Jackson to carry much of the load.
That core was good enough to dismiss the Phoenix Suns in the opening round before quickly falling to the Utah Jazz in five games, losing to the same team in the semifinals twice in a three-year span.
It was a promising beginning to the Duncan-Robinson era, but it was also a reminder that this team needed some help on the offensive end.
13. The 2010-11 Season
After an impressive 61-win regular season, the Spurs lost to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in an opening round that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Duncan sprained his ankle in late March, and Ginobili hurt his elbow in the last game of the regular season. The former went on to average just 12.7 points through six games against the Grizzlies, while the latter sat out a tightly contested Game 1 loss.
It was a frustrating outcome for a club that was such a balanced and potent scoring machine, a harbinger of the style of play that typified San Antonio's more successful exploits in the years to come.
Meanwhile, the upset marked the first time in franchise history that Memphis would win a playoff series. Big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph gave the Spurs all they could handle and put the Grizzlies on the map as seemingly perennial dark-horse darlings.
"Memphis had been the franchise best known for empty seats and the unenviable NBA mark for playoff futility at 0-12 after being swept in its first three appearances," The Associated Press' Teresa M. Walker wrote after the decisive Game 6. "This time, a third straight sellout crowd cheered every bucket with a couple signs begging the Grizzlies to 'Finish Them' in a town in desperate need of a hero."
The upset dealt San Antonio its second opening-round defeat in three seasons. It increasingly seemed like the Spurs had become regular-season wonders destined for playoff disappointment. And questions about Duncan's longevity became germane as ever.
"Our window is closing," Parker told reporters before the Memphis series, reports Jeff McDonald of MySanAntonio.com. "I really feels like it's our last chance to really do something."
But even Popovich admitted that this Spurs team had already exceeded expectations.
"I don't think there's anybody, in or out of the league, that thought this team would be the first seed in the West," Popovich said before the opening round.
"We really were just hoping to make the playoffs," he added.
10. The 2001-02 Season
Duncan's first MVP season coincided with Parker's rookie campaign.
The former averaged a career-high 25.5 points per contest, while the latter broke onto the scene with 9.2 points and 4.3 assists per game, starting 72 of his 77 games in the process. Robinson remained the team's second-leading scorer, despite playing just 29.5 minutes per game.
This was still a defensively minded team like the one that won it all in 1999. The offseason addition of swingman Bruce Bowen fit that identity, and his legendary perimeter defense would become central to the Spurs next three championships.
But while the foundation of something special was falling into place, it wasn't quite ready.
The Spurs eventually lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in a five-game semifinals series, failing to reach the Finals for a third-straight time after '99. San Antonio led each game going into the fourth quarter but apparently lacked the killer instinct to close games out.
It may not have been a season to remember, but it was a step in the right direction. The Spurs were slowly but surely infusing the roster with new blood that would play a pivotal role throughout the next phase of the Popovich era.
11. The 2003-04 Season
The first season after David Robinson's retirement could have gone slightly better.
San Antonio's second attempt at a repeat ran into a semifinals wall otherwise known as the Los Angeles Lakers. More specifically, it ran into Derek Fisher.
The veteran point guard sank a mid-range jumper with .04 seconds remaining in the Game 5, giving the Los Angeles Lakers a 74-73 victory and a 3-2 lead in a series they'd eventually win in Game 6. Fisher's game-winner followed a last-second heave by Duncan that was arguably even more improbable.
"We don't think the clock got started [in time]," Spurs owner Peter Holt told the San Antonio Express-News, per Griffin, after the game. "But that's our opinion."
When asked how his Spurs would respond in Game 6, Popovich was at a loss.
"How the hell do I know? That's the cruelest loss I've ever been part of," he replied to reporters at the time.
San Antonio's heartbreaking defeat would go down as one of the darkest moments in Spurs history, and it marked the third time in four seasons the organization had exited at the hands of the Lakers.
Even after winning two championships, the Spurs were overshadowed by an arch nemesis that always seemed one step ahead.
The 2003-04 season would be Shaquille O'Neal's last in Los Angeles. While these two teams would meet again in postseasons to come, the worst was over for San Antonio.
10. The 2005-06 Season
The Spurs have eliminated the Dallas Mavericks from the playoffs four times since Popovich took over as coach.
In 2006, however, it was Nowitzki's turn.
San Antonio evened its semifinals series against the Mavericks after initially falling behind three games to one. Though it would eventually fail to defend its title for a third time, it wasn't for lack of determination.
"We win both home games here and went up 3-1, but that's just how good they are. They just keep coming," Nowitzki told ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon in April. "They win down there, and it's 3-2. We try to close out here, and they just keep coming. They make it 3-3."
The series came down to overtime in Game 7, a classic performance in which Duncan tallied 41 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three blocks.
"To win a Game 7 in that building is about as sweet as it gets in this league," Nowitzki added.
It was a painful end for the Spurs after what remains a franchise-best 63-win regular season.
And there would eventually be a painful end for the Mavs as well. They went on to lose to the Miami Heat in their first NBA Finals appearance.
9. The 2000-01 Season
It took the Los Angeles Lakers some time to find their stride after Shaquille O'Neal arrived in 1996. Once they did, however, they became a virtually unstoppable force that made San Antonio's otherwise vaunted front line look unfit for the task.
The 2000-01 season was Kobe Bryant's fifth, and it showed. He raised his scoring averaging six points from a season earlier to 28.5 per contest. His pairing with O'Neal had entered its prime, and Phil Jackson's intimidating machine was looking to win its second title in as many years.
Despite losing just two games through their first two rounds against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs were no match for the defending champions in the conference finals.
The Lakers swept the Spurs and remained unbeaten in the playoffs until Game 1 of their Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers. That would be Los Angeles' lone defeat of an otherwise flawless postseason.
"If you get beat that bad, assuming you have no talent problems, assuming you know the character of your team, you know it's not the character, so you have to wonder if it's their belief," Popovich told reporters after Game 3 of the series. "If deep down in their guts, it's their belief that has waned, and it (ticks) me off."
The Spurs' chances might have been better with a healthy Derek Anderson. The fourth-year shooting guard was San Antonio's second-leading scorer but played just one game against the Lakers after suffering a shoulder injury in the second round.
Even then, however, beating this Los Angeles team was always going to be an uphill battle.
8. The 2007-08 Season
It was a season that once seemed like San Antonio's best chance of repeating as champions.
Instead, the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated the Spurs from the playoffs for the fourth time since 2001—this time after a five-game meeting in the conference finals. In the postmortems that would ensue, one might have been convinced that the end was already nigh for this team.
ESPN.com's J.A. Adande wrote after the series that, "Sometimes there's a fine line between 'experienced' and 'old,' and the Spurs appeared to tiptoe past it in these playoffs, getting blown out by New Orleans three times on the road and getting out-hustled by the Lakers in their own building in Game 5."
In the same ESPN.com roundtable, Henry Abbott blamed an aging core, attributing San Antonio's woes to, "Manu Ginobili's inconsistent play, which is undoubtedly related to fatigue and injury, and some bad timing in which the Spurs' normally excellent role players—Robert Horry, Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Brent Barry—took turns being really, really cold when it mattered."
Just one year removed from sweeping the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, perception of the Spurs had changed.
Popovich was less dramatic in his assessment of the series, citing offensive problems and giving the Lakers their due.
"I thought we did a fine job," he told reporters after being eliminated. "We just didn't muster the offense, for a variety of reasons. The fact that we didn't come through offensively is a disappointment, but part of that is a credit to the Lakers.
[The Spurs] just played a team that was better. That's why the Lakers won. The better team won. You get a seven-game series, you win four games, you're the best team."
San Antonio wasn't good enough to win a title in 2008, and it would be another four years before it got close to another one. This team never went away, but questions began to emerge.
7. The 2011-12 Season
It sort of felt like a changing of the guard at the time.
The Oklahoma City Thunder came back from a 2-0 deficit to rattle off four straight wins against the Spurs in the conference finals. OKC would eventually be dismissed from the NBA Finals by the Miami Heat in five games, but one couldn't help but sense an apparent shift of power in the West.
San Antonio's aging Big Three seemed overmatched by a young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden—a trio assembled by general manager Sam Presti, who once worked in the Spurs' front office.
But a closer look at the 2011-12 campaign reveals a Spurs team just beginning to turn a corner after three years of playoff futility. The Spurs twice lost in the opening round (2009, 2011) after a conference finals appearance in 2008. They were swept from the semifinals by the Phoenix Suns in 2010.
So while San Antonio came up short in 2012, it also came a long way.
Sweeping the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in the first and second rounds (respectively) proved as much. Between the end of the regular season and the first weeks of the playoffs, Popovich's team had rattled off 20 straight wins before falling to the Thunder.
This season also reflected Popovich's newfound confidence in an ensemble scoring effort, an adjustment that likely played a role in him earning his second Coach of the Year award. Kawhi Leonard made a strong rookie debut, and he had help from fellow youngsters such as Danny Green and Gary Neal. The Spurs as we know them today were beginning to take shape.
Popovich famously called for a more aggressive effort in a huddle during the OKC series, originating a line that would later don T-shirts.
"I'm seeing a little bit of unconfidence, a little hesitation," he told his team, per The Huffington Post's Michael Klopman. "It's not supposed to be easy. Every round gets tougher. Penetrate hard. Good passes. Shoot with confidence. I want some nasty!"
And he got some nasty, at least for the rest of Game 1.
What followed, however, was a missed opportunity.
"I thought this was definitely our time," Duncan told reporters after Game 6. "A time to get back to the Finals. A time to push for another championship."
Fortunately for Duncan, it wouldn't be the last time.
6. The 2004-05 Season
The Spurs' third championship didn't come easily.
In what may have been a decisive Game 5 of the seven-game series against the reigning champion Detroit Pistons, Robert Horry nailed five of six three-pointers en route to a 21-point performance off the bench. One of those three-pointers won the game in overtime.
The Spurs held onto the series with a 81-74 win in Game 7 of a series that was defined by defense.
Popovich outlasted good friend Larry Brown, who'd taken his Pistons to the Finals for a second consecutive season after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in 2004. The Spurs proved they were still firmly in the midst of their collective prime against a worthy foe.
"We just played a great team. I don't know how the hell we did it, but I am thrilled," Popovich told reporters after Game 7.
It was the title that proved these Spurs were for real; they were capable of dethroning a champion on the biggest of stages. It cemented San Antonio's legacy after comparatively easier matchups with the New York Knicks (1999) and New Jersey Nets (2003).
The earlier title success hadn't been a fluke, and the Spurs remained a legitimate contender in the post-Robinson era.
5. The 2006-07 Season
The Spurs dropped just four playoff games en route to a sweep of LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
It was the franchise's fourth championship, and the series never seemed in doubt after an 85-76 victory in Game 1.
San Antonio excelled on both ends of the floor throughout the season, getting virtually equal efforts from each of the Big Three and some veteran help from the likes of Brent Barry, Michael Finley and Robert Horry. It also marked the last season to date in which Duncan averaged at least 20 points per game during the regular season.
The stage was set for the club's third title in five seasons, an achievement that opened the door to dynasty talk. San Antonio became just the fourth franchise (along with the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls) to have won at least four championships.
"I don't care where we fall in history," Parker told reporters after Game 4. "I just feel blessed, honored and privileged to play on a team like this."
The Spurs rolled through a sequence of stiff adversaries in the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz.
"This one's sweeter," Duncan told media at the time. "The road that we took to get here was as tough as we ever had it. Guys persevered; we had great performances from one to 12."
It wouldn't be the last time the Spurs benefited from such an ensemble effort, even if it would feel that way for the next six years.
4. The 2012-13 Season
It might seem strange to rank the 2012-13 Spurs ahead of two iterations that actually won the Finals.
But we should remember the Spurs once commanded a 3-2 lead in this series. They won Game 3 by an unbelievable 36 points and seemed perfectly equipped to finish the job, particularly after another 10-point victory in Game 5.
Then Ray Allen and Game 6 happened, robbing the Spurs of a series they were seconds away from winning.
None of that should detract from how good these Spurs were. Miami was a virtually unstoppable force in its own right, making a third straight Finals appearance and ultimately taking home a second consecutive title. If you factor quality of the competition into San Antonio's results, you get a better sense of just how good this team was.
And yet, this series wasn't decided by a marked gap in talent or pedigree. The Spurs were good enough to win it. This series was decided by mere moments of effort and execution, perhaps even a little luck.
The kinds of little things that started going the Spurs' way a year later.
3. The 2002-03 Season
Duncan's second consecutive MVP season also yielded his second championship.
This was the height of the Duncan era, a point at which Robinson occupied a diminished role, while young talent such as Parker and Ginobili filled the gap. Indeed, the 2002-03 season was Ginobili's first—making it in many ways the birth of the Spurs as we know them today.
Duncan averaged 23.3 points and career highs of 12.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in his sixth season.
But even with his individual accolades growing, the ever-humble superstar kept his eyes on the bottom line.
"Elite players are the guys who help their team and take them to the top echelon of the league," Duncan told reporters at the time. "That's what separates the good ones from the great ones."
"I was playing to win games and to be the best team in the league, and that was it," he added. "It doesn't matter who gets the glory."
With an increasingly deep supporting cast, the Spurs offense began catching up with the team's still-formidable defense. This was a more complete team than the one that won it all in 1999, a younger roster brimming with upside.
But this particular title was all the sweeter, thanks to a six-game semifinals victory against the same Los Angeles Lakers who eliminated San Antonio from the playoffs in 2001, 2002 and 2004. The Spurs got the better of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, putting an end to their three-year reign as champions in the process.
San Antonio went on to best the always dangerous Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals before ousting the New Jersey Nets from their second straight Finals appearance.
The 2003 title ushered in the Big Three era while marking the end of Robinson's iconic career, serving as something of a bridge between two chapters of Duncan and Popovich's shared careers. Coming out on top in spite of the transition was a testament to Popovich's adaptability and nothing short of vindication on the heels of his first Coach of the Year honors.
2. The 1998-99 Season
By the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season, the Spurs were the best defensive team in basketball.
After claiming a league-best 37 wins, San Antonio lost just two playoff games en route to the franchise's first championship. It was a title that simultaneously marked Duncan's rapid rise and Robinson's long journey.
And it suggested Popovich might not be so bad at this coaching thing after all.
Elliott, Avery Johnson and Mario Elie were all instrumental to the club's blitzkrieg through the West. The Spurs swept the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers in the semifinals and conference finals, respectively, ultimately leaving little doubt about what would happen next against the New York Knicks (who lost in five games).
Elliott was immortalized along the way on account of the "Memorial Day Miracle" against Portland.
The Spurs were down by two points with 12 seconds remaining in Game 2. Elliott caught the inbounds pass in precarious position near the sideline. Had he allowed his heels to touch the ground, he would have been whistled out of bounds. Instead, he lobbed a three-pointer from the tips of his toes for a go-ahead bucket that ultimately gave San Antonio control of the series.
In turn, Duncan got a taste of what these Spurs could accomplish in just his second pro season.
The first taste of the dynasty that was to come.
1. The 2013-14 Season
The Spurs' most recent conquest may be their finest yet.
This team was one of a kind, the first in league history on which no player averaged 30-or-more minutes per contest. In turn, this team produced one-of-a-kind results, beating the Miami Heat in five games by the widest margin of victory in Finals history.
On the heels of a 62-win regular season that earned Popovich his third Coach of the Year award, the No. 1-seeded Spurs entered the postseason with plenty of expectations. It didn't help that the season before had ended in such spectacularly disappointing fashion.
"We're happy to be back here this year," Duncan told reporters after clinching his sixth Finals appearance by besting the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games. "We're happy to have another opportunity at it. We're happy that it's the Heat again.
"We'll be ready for them. We've got some experience, obviously, from last year against them. And we'll go back and look at some film...We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."
That bad taste produced a series to remember.
Broken air conditioning sabotaged an otherwise close Game 1, and LeBron James' late-game cramps opened the door to a Spurs run that—in retrospect—may have set the tone for the series.
And after losing Game 2 by two points, the Spurs took Games 3, 4 and 5 by a combined 57 points. Third-year veteran Kawhi Leonard tallied a combined 71 points during that stretch and was accordingly named Finals MVP for his efforts.
The one-sided affair was all the sweeter given what this team had been through in 2013.
"I think our guys, they actually grew from the loss last year," Popovich told reporters before facing Miami in the Finals. "I call it fortitude. I think they showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude.
"If I can compliment my own team humbly, to have that tough loss, especially the Game 6, and not have a pity party, and come back this year and get back to the same position, I think that's fortitude…I'm really proud of them and even happier for them."
He'd be even prouder of what they did next.