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Whispers Growing Louder About Gregg Popovich's Inevitable Successor

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IOctober 8, 2021

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, center, talks to his players during a timeout in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday, March 25, 2021, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Darren Abate/Associated Press

In July 2015, Gregg Popovich's commitment to coaching the San Antonio Spurs throughout the length of LaMarcus Aldridge's four-year, $80 million contract was a key ingredient to San Antonio signing the All-Star free agent.

We're now two full seasons beyond that deal's expiration, and there's a growing belief in league circles that Popovich, after leading Team USA to a gold medal this summer and just 26 victories shy of passing Don Nelson for the NBA's all-time wins record, could finally walk away from San Antonio's sideline following the 2021-22 campaign.

Of course, there's always been an equal level of mysticism surrounding Popovich's longevity. His end date has long been considered open-ended.

In 2018, the Spurs brought in DeMar DeRozan as the main haul for Kawhi Leonard with an eye toward competitiveness. But San Antonio has landed outside the playoffs for two straight seasons, the only such drought in franchise history.

Popovich, to his credit, has seemingly been reinvigorated by San Antonio's recent rebuilding stretch. He's been described by league figures with Spurs ties as refreshed by his team's current situation.

At 72, Popovich extends his record as the oldest coach in NBA history every day, but there will eventually be a coda to this epic career.

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The fact that Spurs officials and rival team personnel persistently whisper about his eventual retirement, when it will arrive, and who will ultimately replace him, is noteworthy in itself.

"Over beers, we always talk," one former Spurs staffer said. "But nobody knows."

"Nobody necessarily even internally knows," the executive said.

Yet poll two dozen NBA personnel, as Bleacher Report did for this story, and you'll find a handful who, curiously, are positive they know which often-rumored candidate will fill Popovich's big shoes. The league's gossip economy can often produce false trails and feedback loops, but there's something to be said about the same few names continuing to reverberate around the San Antonio echo chamber.

Will Hardy, the respected Spurs assistant who just joined Ime Udoka's staff in Boston, has been considered a favorite for the job in recent years. Hardy is a young understudy who learned at Popovich's right hand, similar to how Jon Scheyer rose to replace Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.

Tim Duncan is frequently mentioned, yet few league figures connected to San Antonio believe the Hall of Fame power forward has any intention of pursuing a coaching career, following his brief stint as an assistant. 

Recently, Manu Ginobili's name has surfaced after the champion guard rejoined the Spurs in a nebulous basketball operations role. "If there's a former player who has the basketball IQ and the EQ to do it, it's Manu," another veteran executive with knowledge of San Antonio said.

Yet it would seem there are no direct plans for Ginobili to join the Spurs' coaching staff full time, and few, at this juncture, expect San Antonio to choose a Popovich replacement with zero experience on an NBA bench. (Then again, Spurs disciple Sean Marks picked Steve Nash to pilot the Nets, and that has seemingly worked to perfection.)

Darren Abate/Associated Press

That a string of candidates is making the rounds may be a reflection of the Spurs' actual bundle of candidates.

Who actually becomes Popovich's replacement could prove to be situational. If the Spurs choose a younger voice to match San Antonio's younger group, perhaps Popovich would be open to some type of an advisory role, just as any former Spur has been welcomed back to the franchise with open arms. If San Antonio were to hire a first-time head coach, such as Hardy or Ginobili, many league observers B/R contacted would expect the Spurs to hire a former head coach, such as Brett Brown, to serve as a chief assistant.

Brown's name is often mentioned for the head coaching job as well. If player development is an integral part of the Spurs' cultural fabric, Brown was the needle that San Antonio used for those stitches. He has chosen not to interview for another head coaching post since parting ways with Philadelphia in August 2020, sources told B/R, and has revelled in being a father to a sophomore high school basketball standout.

Perhaps Brown is waiting for an opening in San Antonio. Or perhaps he's truly enjoying the downtime with family, shifting back and forth from the Philly area and his hometown roots in Maine. Uprooting his son could pose a difficulty for any Brown reunification with the Spurs, according to several sources with connections to Brown, although if there's any local hoops scene the coach is familiar with outside of their current city, it is San Antonio.

Brett Brown
Brett BrownKim Klement/Associated Press

Jacque Vaughn is another often-mentioned candidate. Like Brown, Vaughn cut his teeth as a Spurs assistant, while also having played three seasons with the franchise. He boasts head coaching experience with the Orlando Magic and has emerged as a leading name for any head coaching vacancy during his time as an assistant coach with Brooklyn (Vaughn nearly took the New Orleans Pelicans' opening this summer). His candidacy is expected to grow as the Nets wade deeper into the playoffs.

Bill Self was long rumored as lead executive R.C. Buford's preferred Popovich successor. "The person having Kansas ties would be really important. It's kind of sacred," one executive said. "You talk about the Spurs tree—the Spurs tree goes through Kansas. You gotta keep in mind, that goes all the way back to James Naismith, who literally invented the game of basketball."

Self's name, though, has seemingly drifted to the back of this conversation. The Jayhawks' head coach recently signed what's been described as a lifetime contract with Kansas and no longer appears a strong possibility to become San Antonio's next play-caller. If the Spurs did go with a college coach, Villanova's Jay Wright was mentioned as a name to keep an eye on. "That type of clean-cut, polished demeanor," one executive said. "He has Team USA ties."

Becky Hammon will likely receive her fair chance as well. "She's been there; she's now the longest-tenured assistant they've had there outside of Chip [Engelland]," another former Spurs staffer said.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

There does seem to be a strong amount of pessimism, however, among league officials and those with Spurs connections pertaining to Hammon's candidacy. "Just because she's the first female assistant on the front of the bench doesn't mean she's the first head coach. There's just a lot more responsibility, and very few assistants, male or female, are truly capable of moving over to the first chair," one NBA coaching figure told B/R. "She got pumped up for being the first. It's a blessing and a curse. It's a difficult situation to be in."

From there, a few left-field names are typically mentioned. The Spurs have always been fond of Monty Williams, yet it would likely require some type of draft-pick compensation for San Antonio to pry him away from the Phoenix Suns. Quin Snyder is seemingly entrenched at the helm of the Utah Jazz, but he got his first professional head coaching experience with the Austin Toros from 2007-10.

Whoever is ultimately handed the keys will be tasked with boosting this Spurs' crop back toward contention, and San Antonio hasn't reached the second round of the playoffs since 2017. For any franchise to rebound into the title race, it typically requires All-Star talent, and the Spurs have yet to find their next organizational pillar since Leonard's departure.

Dejounte Murray has indeed blossomed. League executives are bullish on both Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker, yet the Spurs could feasibly find themselves as one of the bottom teams in the Western Conference this season, with a chance at a top-five pick in the 2022 draft. They could also trade a combination of young players for a more established star. The Spurs have registered Ben Simmons trade interest, although there has not appeared to be significant traction in those conversations.

For now, all eyes remain trained onto Popovich and this year's crop of young players. Will they contend for the postseason or drift further into the Western Conference cellar? Will this be the fabled coach's final year or will he continue to lead the Spurs in San Antonio and beyond?

   

Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.

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