Popovich's path to being the greatest NBA coach of all time

USA TODAY Sports

With Tim Duncan, Pop became a Hall of Fame Coach. With Kawhi Leonard, he could become the best ever.

Spurs fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when Gregg Popovich agreed to an extension to coach the Spurs beyond the presumable duration of Tim Duncan's career. As recently as three weeks ago, it was easy to imagine our beloved Hall of Fame curmudgeon making good on his threats to ride off into the sunset with Timmy. As exciting as I'm sure the subsequent Jim Boylen or (woah) Ettore Messina era might be, what we're now able to consider is a bid by Pop to become the greatest NBA coach of all time.

At this point, even the most homerish and optimistic Spurs fans are scrunching their noses up and rolling their eyes. Sure, Pop is awesome and could surely win a staring contest with any team's current coach, but with only five titles, he's clearly a tier below guys like Auerbach, Phil, and maybe even Riley ... right?

That's where Kawhi Leonard comes in. The Finals MVP's success in helping to lead the Spurs to the 2014 Championship lays the groundwork for post-Duncan era. Where the Spurs once stood at the edge of a rocky cliff staring into the abyss of perpetual mediocrity (or as I like to call it, the Bucks Zone), now there's a gleaming new bridge with a mighty span and suspension cables laid out like cornrows. What would a Championship Spurs team look like with Kawhi as its undisputed leader? For Pop and his legacy, would building and coaching such a team be enough for him to nose his way into GCOAT discussions?

Let's start with his past and present contenders for the honor. Spoiler alert: I've narrowed it down to Red, Phil, and Riley, both for the sake of brevity and because those are really the only three in Pop's peer group at this point in his career. This is taking into consideration championships won, winning percentage, longevity, front office/team building role, developing or mastering innovations which affected how teams prepare and play the game. Among current coaches, only Rick Carlisle, Tom Thibodeau, Stan Van Gundy, Erik Spolestra, and Doc Rivers even have the potential to be in this discussion. That group has four championships and eight Finals appearances combined (half of which belong to Spolestra), so there's clearly a gap bordering on a chasm between them and Popovich.

Among past coaches, there are several who stand out, like Bill Sharman, Jack Ramsay, Hubie Brown, Billy Cunningham, K.C. Jones, Chuck Daly, Rick Adelman, Jerry Sloan, George Karl, Rudy Tomjanovich, Jeff Van Gundy, and Larry Brown. All good coaches, but they each fell short in one or more key aspects:

1. Number of Titles

Several coaches have won two, but there's a clear gap between that group (Jones, Daly, Rudy) and the coaches who have won five (Pop and Riley) or more. If you can't win more than two, it's unlikely you were even the best coach of your era, let alone the best of all time. Such is the stature of the best coaches in league history.

2. Winning Percentage

Bill Fitch won a title with the '81 Celtics, but he also lost more games than any coach in NBA history, had an astounding three 17-win seasons, and finished his career under .500. Bill Sharman coached the '72 Lakers to 33 consecutive wins and a title, but his career winning percentage of .569 equates to a merely decent 47 wins over a full season. Red, Riley, and Pop are all over .600 for their careers. Phil is over .700. This speaks to consistent results not only in the playoffs but the regular season as well.

3. Longevity

Was success more than just a flash in the pan? Did they win titles in multiple decades and with multiple cornerstone players (pay attention to this part, Spurs fans). Sloan still holds the record for longest coaching tenure with one team, but not one of those years found his team holding the Larry O'Brien.

4. Team building role

Was the coach known for developing players, somebody players loved playing for, or did they spend time as a general manager or an executive in addition to their coaching duties?

5. Innovation

Think Triangle, Motion Offense, Showtime, etc. Spurs fans might be loathe to admit it, but Mike D'Antoni's 7 Seconds or Less philosophy partly inspired the offense San Antonio just won a Championship with. Only problem for D'Antoni? His best finishes while running 7SoL were WCF trips in 2005 and 2006, where his team went 3-8.

6. Were they best known for coaching in the NBA?

Sounds silly, but ask yourself if Hubie Brown is best known these days as a coach or as Mike Tirico's broadcast partner, or maybe just as the guy who really likes timeouts. Bill Russell won two championships as player-coach in the sixties, but he's much better known for wearing that green #6 and warring with Wilt in the post. Same thing with later Boston championship coaches Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones. Even after his 2004 title with the Pistons, I bet more people remember Larry Brown for the time he spent at Kansas. I bet Pop and R.C. remember him that way, at least.

With the field narrowed, let's look at who Pop will need to move past in order to reach GCOAT status. 

Red Auerbach

Between 1959 and 1966, Red and his Boston Celtics went undefeated as NBA Champions. What's more, Red helped change the way the game is played by employing Bill Russell, an elite-passing big man who dominated with his shot-blocking presence and bent entire defenses into pretzel shapes. He became the first "modern" NBA superstar to carry a team to a dynastic championship run (apologies to George Mikan and John Kundla). Surrounding him was a cast of talent which operated within an innovate system of ball movement and player specialization, which became the direct precursor to the discreet guard-forward-center positions we know today. Auerbach retired from coaching after winning his ninth ring and ran the Celtics front office, overseeing the Havlicek and Bird eras, during which Boston won another five titles (two others also came in the sixties with Russell as player-coach). 

The thing about Auerbach, of course, is the context in which he coached those teams. This was the time before consolidation and the collective bargaining process formed the league that we know today, not to mention a time when racial issues meant that some of the best basketball talent either didn't play in the NBA or wasn't empowered to excel. Auerbach deserves credit for featuring Russell in such a prominent role despite the prevailing attitudes of the time. But the pre-merger context does invite discussion as to whether a team could repeat what Boston did in today's NBA, where college programs are so much better funded and more sophisticated, more games are played in both the regular season and the playoffs, players are drafted from across the globe, scouting is more prevalent and more effective, and free agency tends to undermine team continuity. All that said, it took 49 years for another coach to eclipse Red's ring total.

As far as coach Pop is concerned, there's no reasonable way to argue his teams could have won eight titles in a row. Five in a row, yes, but outside of that 2003-2007 window, the roster was simply not good enough. To say Pop has barely won half the rings Red has feels like damning with faint praise. Even if everything broke right in '00, '04, '06, and '13 and every Spurs fan's wildest "what if?" daydreams retroactively came true, Pop would still "only" be tied with the league's most famous cigar chomper.

But there is one potential trump card Pop could still play to beat Red. While he was no shooting star in terms of longevity, all of Auerbach's titles as coach were won with Bill Russell manning the middle. Thus far, Pop has won all of his with Tim Duncan, though Duncan was arguably only the second or third best player on the last two title teams. But what if Pop could transcend the Duncan era by winning another title with Kawhi, a different type of player from Timmy? At that point, Pop would be closing in on Red's total, and have won across multiple eras, all while ceding nothing in terms of team building, recruiting outside of contemporary norms, and innovating the way the game is played. It's partly thanks to Pop's use of small ball, 3 n' D, and the stretch 4 that the discreet positional cohorts developed by Auerbach are now falling into obsolescence. In short, if Pop wins a title in the Kawhi era, I think he passes Red. 

Pat Riley

Auerbach dominated the sixties and Jackson the nineties. Riley didn't own eighties to the same degree, but he played as big a role in the NBA's rise to glory as anyone not named Bird, Magic, or Jordan. Riley presided over the Showtime Lakers, invented the term "Three-Peat", unleashed Magic and Worthy and meshed them with Kareem, the greatest, or at least moodiest, scorer of all time. How does a run of seven Finals appearances in nine years sound? Nevermind that the Western Conference of the eighties resembled the Eastern Conference of today. That's a dominant, historic run, with none of the provisos that might come attached to Auerbach's resume. 

For me, though what really gets Riley in this conversation is the title he won eighteen years later as coach of the Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat, a team Riley almost built from scratch. While that championship is still controversial today, there's simply no denying that Riley was able to get it done across vastly different teams and eras. He also helped develop the image of the modern coach, taking the profession out of its seventies afro-and-plaid-suit phase. He contributed to the philosophy of championship basketball with concepts like "The Disease of More" and "15 Strong." And he's had success as an executive, winning two more titles and helping to construct a team based around the most infamous collection of stars in NBA history. 

Yet it's almost impossible to make the case for Coach Riley as best ever. He jumped ship twice, once via fax, never beat Jordan or Phil during his time with the Knicks, won only 15 games his last season as Miami's coach, couldn't stop LeBron from leaving (and may have actually chased him away), and on a couple of occasions may have worn out his welcome.With another title, Pop would clearly pass Riles, if he hasn't done so already.

Phil Jackson

The Mount Everest of coaches, both for his physical stature and his towering accomplishments, the particulars of which include eleven rings and thirteen Finals appearances over twenty years. 11-2 is a darn good record whether you're talking about horseshoes or wars. Jackson's teams destroyed their opponents, winning an average of 58 games each year in the regular season. He was a master motivator, making champions out of stiffs and slobs like Bill Wennington, Tony Kukoc, Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum.

This I think helps to address the major knock on Phil, that he was more of a player manager than a developer. Critics will say he walked into ideal situations with superstar players already in place, but this ignores the fact that a) He managed to not screw things up, and b) No coach can win it all in the NBA without superstar players. Whether those players happen to join the team before or after the coach is a chicken and egg debate. Besides, Jackson managed the egos of the stars he coached while at the same time earning their respect.

My criticism of Jackson comes not from the way he arrived to Chicago or Los Angeles, but from the way that he left. Jackson disappeared right as Jordan retired (the second time), and again when Shaq and Kobe broke up, only resurfacing once circumstances became more favorable. Maybe he earned that prerogative from his success over the years, or after he weathered the Scottie Pippen incident in the 1994 playoffs. Not every coach is a Jerry Sloan or a John Wooden, but the fact that we never saw Phil Jackson endure a prolonged rough patch makes it difficult to crown him GCOAT with utmost enthusiasm. 

Then there's the innovation thing, which was covered by Chuck Kolsterman in this 2012 Grantland article. Put simply, Phil mastered the Triangle in Chicago and L.A., but the system has attained a startlingly low adoption rate in the rest of the league. And, unlike our other top 4 coaches, Jackson hasn't yet shown a proven track record as a team builder.

Still, eleven rings is eleven rings. Phil wins in terms of sheer numbers, and it's unlikely another coach will ever match that total. But I'd argue that in 2014, Pop is his equal or superior in every other way without the advantage of homicidal maniacs like Jordan and Kobe, or a physically overwhelming presence like Shaq. If Pop can win a couple of titles with Kawhi, it would just about neutralize Jackson's one remaining advantage.

*****

So there you have it. The window for Pop to attain the pro coaching summit is surprisingly wide open. That wouldn't have been possible without championship number five, which gave Pop rings in three different decades spanning the end of the Robinson era to the end of the Duncan era and the dawn of Kawhi. Until this year, you couldn't have said a Popovich team won a title playing beautiful basketball, like Red's Celtics or Riley's Lakers used to play, nor could you say a Popovich team won a title in the masterful, often casually dominant fashion that Phil's teams once did. Now you can, and there's no reason to believe it was a fluke.

Some closing thoughts: Am I overestimating the ultimate ceiling of Kawhi Leonard? Is this conversation merely the result of residual Title Buzz? It very well could be. It's barely been a month since Father's Day. What's more, Leonard has yet to extrapolate anything like his three game Finals masterpiece over an entire series, let alone an entire season. After the buzzer sounded on Game 5, young Leonard experienced the jubilation of a championship and thanked Pop for pushing him, but even someone as talented and gifted as he is can only be pushed so far. Despite the weight of empirical evidence suggesting Sugar K will continue his role as "just" an Uber 3 n' D Guy, we're all assuming he'll come out in 2014-15 dropping 22 and 8 per game, and that his prodigious phalanges will produce a nightly reel of swipe n' slam transition dunks like this one:


You know, kind of like we assumed at the start of last season.

But that may not be where Kawhi is headed, and next season's Spurs might continue to channel its offense through the still-excellent Tony Parker. I will say this, though: If you're unsure how to feel about Kawhi, take as evidence the fact that Pop re-upped to keep coaching the Spurs instead of retiring to prowl the hardwood of his wine cellar. Take as evidence the Finals MVP trophy, which stuck to The Hand like a lazy Nic Batum pass. Take as evidence LeBron's fleeing Miami for the "comforts" of Cleveland and an unproven roster.

And it's not all on Kawhi, either. Early in his career, there were people who said Tim couldn't win a title without the help of David Robinson. Now Tim is the helper rather than the helped. When he leaves, there will still be a championship leader on the roster in the form of Parker -- who has a few years of co-alpha or beta dog play left in him -- and would see a definite legacy spike from winning another couple of rings. As long as R.C. Buford sticks around, the Spurs will likely continue to draft shrewdly and avoid major free agency mistakes. Who knows, Buford may even do something ridiculous like convince Marc Gasol or Joakim Noah to come to San Antonio in a few years and win another Executive of the Year award.

Hard to believe, but we've reached the point where another title would nudge the 90s Bulls from the NBA podium and get us into that rare tier inhabited only by Boston and the Lakers, franchises who've won multiple titles around multiple cornerstones. It would be an extension of a dominant stretch already unrivaled in pro sports history. A post-Duncan championship would validate a lot of things, even for an organization which has nothing left to prove. But it's clear that no one has as much left to gain as the guy who nearly eighteen years ago set this crazy party in motion. Coach Pop, the GCOAT chair is yours for the taking.

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