The Utah Jazz visited the San Antonio Spurs for a game of NBA basketball. What for some casual fans of major market franchises is probably a classic case of “couldn’t care less”, to me is pretty much the opposite. I couldn’t care more. Because I fancy small market franchises. In particular, I fancy small markets franchises that defy the competitive mechanisms of the NBA. Because franchises go through winning and losing cycles, today’s contenders are bound for the lottery tomorrow – and vice versa. And big market franchises are no exception. Both the Lakers and the Celtics sucked for seasons on end before finding winning ways again. And the massive market New York Knicks have managed to suck and keep sucking even when they’re supposed to win.
But then there’s small-market franchises like the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs. Franchises that, by and large, have largely refused to suck. The Jazz and the Spurs have combined for only eight losing seasons in my 29 years of following the NBA. No other franchises have won as many regular season games as the Jazz and the Spurs in these 29 years. Let me emphasize at this point that, my beloved Spurs aside, there is no franchise I respect as much as the Jazz. Class is permanent, I’m inclined to say.
Even after the John Stockton and Karl Malone era, the Jazz managed to stay relevant. They did so by turning guys picked late in the first or even the second round into difference-makers. Like all-NBA defender Andrei Kirilenko, picked at number 24 in 1999. Or big men Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer, two second-rounders drafted elsewhere that turned into major contributors in Salt Lake City. More recently, number 27 pick Rudy Gobert has developed into one of the best rim protectors to ever play the game, pretty much owning the annual DPOY award. And how did 12 guys get drafted before Donovan Mitchell in 2017? The Jazz do their diligence.
But it’s not only the players that make the Jazz such a class act. It’s also the coaches. Remarkably, they only had three in my 29 years as an NBA fan: The legend that is Jerry Sloan, who was at their helm for more than 20 seasons. The almost inevitably unfortunate guy to succeed Sloan, Tyrone Corbin, who stayed for a transitional three years. Since 2014, they have Quinn Snyder. A guy who has made a habit of making the Jazz better year after year after year. I guess with a bit of optimism you could call him a legend in the making. Maybe one day he’ll rank among the legendary NBA head coaches. If he does, he’ll have to share one thing with pretty much all the other legends, though: They’ll all be second to one. And that one is Gregg Charles Popovich, who last night became the winningest coach in NBA history.
Popovich coached the San Antonio Spurs to a 1,336th regular season win against the Jazz, thus surpassing previous record-holder Don Nelson. The difference between the two: Popovich needed five seasons less to win one game more than Nelson. I’ll repeat that: five seasons less.
Sure, it’s perfectly possible that Popovich’s wins total will be surpassed in the future. But it’s not very likely anyone will accumulate more wins than him in less time. Take Doc Rivers, for example, who is the second-winningest active NBA coach. Rivers is close to his 1,000th regular season win. But he’s already in his 22nd season. That means that even if he went 82-0 in each of next the four next seasons, it still wouldn’t be enough to outdo Pop. What about Erik Spoelstra, who has been a consensus top-three coach in the league for years? He would have to win more games in his next 12 seasons than he won in his first 14. He’s at 651 wins right now. And his winning percentage is almost seven percent below Pop’s. Granted, Steve Kerr’s is three percent better than Pop’s. But Kerr hasn’t even coached a third of the games Pop has. Can he hold that up?
Be that as it may. Let’s celebrate that Pop is and will be the winningest NBA coach for years to come. Let’s celebrate a towering figure who turned the small-market San Antonio Spurs into the best and most consistent NBA franchise of the past quarter-century. And let’s look optimistically into the future, because there’s plenty to be optimistic about. As we saw in the win over the contending Jazz last night.
The only thing that will be remembered from last night’s game is Pop becoming the winningest coach in NBA history, obviously. Even if it had been a better game. It was a watchable affair in the first quarter, but it became worse in the second, and hit rock bottom in the third. Rarely have I seen such shambolic performances from two teams at exactly the same time. Had I not been aware that these were two NBA teams playing against each other, I probably would have thought: These guys are not very good at basketball. They couldn’t make shots. They couldn’t even make layups. And they couldn’t share the ball – except with the opposition. But then came the fourth quarter. And it couldn’t have been a better one for Pop to make history.
First things first, though. The fact that the Spurs were only down nine at half-time was due to maybe the least likely offensive contributor. Zach Collins, who had averaged only 5 points in 15 minutes over his first 12 outings in Silver & Black, led the good guys with a remarkable 15 points. Not only did he hit two threes in the first quarter alone, he also went to the line five times, converting each attempt. In terms of scoring, the Spurs’ starting center and his back-up should complement each other perfectly. Also, Zach was the Spurs’ only efficient scorer Spurs in the first half. Without his performance, the Spurs are losing this game.
Other than Zach, the Spurs had an absolute stinker from beyond the arch. Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Josh Richardson and Lonnie Walker combined for a measly four made threes from 25 attempts. It’s nothing short of staggering that you can win an NBA game in 2022 with that output, or lack thereof. But it’s not without a certain irony that Pop won his 1,336 regular season NBA game pretty much without the shot he famously called “a gimmick” years ago, is it?
Making up for their struggles from beyond the arc, the Spurs, unusually, went to the charity stripe 43 times. That’s more than double their average of 19.5, and as much as only once before the season. Fortunately, 13 misses from the line weren’t too much to not win the game.
The night is darkest just before the dawn, they say. And if we apply that proverb to how the game went, the night was darkest during the utter shitshow that was the third quarter, which saw the Spurs 10 points down at the end. But it gave way to a glorious, golden dawn in the fourth. What followed were the 12 most rewarding minutes we have seen from the Spurs in ages. And I guess it will be some time before we may witness anything that comes close.
It will be a couple of days until I know for sure, but what happened in the fourth quarter could be an all-time top ten moment for me in almost 30 years of watching NBA basketball. But what I can safely say is this: Pop becoming the winningest coach in NBA history couldn’t have happened in any better way. Comebacks haven’t come easy for the Spurs this season. In fact, they didn’t come at all up until last night! And you know what? I’m glad they didn’t. Because every failed comeback, every narrow loss the Spurs had suffered this season made this comeback culminating in Pop making history even more beautiful. It’s a maximum emotion experience. So emotional in fact that I can hardly concentrate on writing this piece. I’m too busy being happy about this fairytale climax. And I’m shaking with anticipation to find out how much further Dejounte Murray can raise his ceiling. That guy’s knocking on the all-NBA door. He’ll probably knock it down.