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The Spurs’ youth movement extends to the sidelines

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The Spurs have collected young, untested assistant coaches around Gregg Popovich and Chip Engelland. Will that model survive an offseason in which a lot of experienced candidates could be available?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have been sneakily involved in a youth movement for a while on their roster. The big names are veterans, but behind them they have accumulated young prospects filling important roles and others waiting on the wings for their time.

Something similar has been happening on their coaching staff. Gregg Popovich is still in charge and Chip Engelland is still around, but next to them sit Tim Duncan, Becky Hammon, Will Hardy and Mitch Johnson. The more experienced of the four is Hammon, with six years as an assistant under her belt.

The youth movement in the coaching staff is a new development, just as it is on the roster. For years Popovich was flanked by Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown. Once the two moved on for head coaching gigs elsewhere, other veterans joined. First Jim Boylen and then Ettore Messina filled those voids, then James Borrego returned to step in for Boylen. There were young, untested prospects alongside them in Ime Udoka, Chad Forcier and Hammon, but the franchise seemed to like having more experienced voices alongside Popovich. Then, last season, it all changed.

One of the downsides of having a reputation for hiring good coaches is that they often get poached or leave for better opportunities. It happened with Brown, Budenholzer, Boylen and Borrego, who left for head coaching jobs elsewhere; with Messina, who returned to his native Italy to essentially run one of the most prominent teams in the country; and even with Udoka and Forcier, who left for bigger assistant coach roles under Brown and Frank Vogel, respectively. As a result of all that movement, in 2018/19 the coaching staff was young and untested, and it only became more so in 2019/20, when Duncan and Johnson joined as first year assistants.

The on court results have not been the best in the past two seasons, but it’s hard to blame the changes in the coaching staff for it. Kawhi Leonard forcing his way out killed the Spurs’ contending chances, but San Antonio still made the postseason in 2019 while essentially using the same game plan they had when Leonard was around. Then, a disastrous offseason and some improvements by other Western teams resulted in the playoffs streak being snapped. In the process there have been some questionable coaching decisions, but most seem to be attributable to Pop. We’ve also seen the young players develop and the culture remain strong, and in those areas the assistants deserve some credit.

This offseason will offer the biggest test to Popovich’s and the Spurs’ commitment to maintain the youth movement in the coaching staff. Duncan bowing out of the bubble might mean he’s simply not committed to being a coach, which could leave an opening. Even if Timmy is back, there’s someone who could be on the market for a job that could tempt Pop. Brett Brown has been fired by the 76ers, and the Spurs have a history of bringing alumni back to the fold when they become available, with Jacque Vaughn, Borrego, Monty Williams and many others serving as recent examples. If Brown wants to return — which is not a given. The man might need a vacation — would the Spur say no?

There’s a case to be made for that seemingly harsh decision. If Brown or any other older, experienced assistant that could potentially be brought in are not going to be Pop’s successor, then why have them around instead of developing new coaching talent? It’s possible none of the assistants currently on board will get to replace Pop either, but at least they could potentially rise to the opportunity. Brown is likely at his final form as a coach, and while he’s clearly good, there might be better options available when the time comes. He could surely help out in the short term, but how much? Is he going to be the difference between another trip to the lottery and making the playoffs? It seems unlikely.

On the other hand, if we are truly approaching the end of Pop’s career, making sure he has the personnel he needs, both on the court and on the sidelines next to him, could be the way to go. If we attribute most of the biggest blunders to Pop, that means the younger assistants have little effect on his decision-making. If Brown or any other more seasoned coaches (Boylen, again? The return of Alvin Gentry after decades?) can either help Pop see things in a new light or execute his vision better, it would be a disservice to the franchise to not pursue them. The trade off would likely involve a decreasing ability by the coaching staff as a whole to relate to much younger players, but it might be one worth accepting.

Ultimately the questions surrounding the youth movement on the sidelines are similar to the ones about the roster. In both cases there is currently a mix of more experienced members who are still fantastic at their jobs but won’t likely be in the fold for much longer and a group of younger talent that, while promising, might not necessarily be the best bet to lead the franchise to its previous glory once the old guard is gone. Under those circumstances there are not automatically right or wrong ways to go about building.

The key, then, will be to have a plan and execute it, something the Spurs have struggle with more than usual lately. Whether they decide to go young or go with safer, more experienced assistant coaches going into next season, as long as they have a clear vision, they should be fine.