For years, Gregg Popovich asked a lot of his players. They needed to get over themselves, as he liked to say, and accept their role. Even the Hall-of-Famers he coached had to make sacrifices for the good of the team by playing lower minutes and taking rest days that hurt their stats and their legacies.
It was the right thing to do, as the Spurs’ decades-long relevance and five titles under the legendary coach show, but it was fair to wonder if those words had meaning to the man himself. Did Pop really believe in sacrificing for the good of the franchise or was he just selling his players on the idea?
This past season, by far the worst of the Popovich era in terms of record, proves without a doubt that he actually practices what he preached.
Pop had until recently as close to a perfect NBA coaching career as possible. He took over the Spurs before they drafted one of the best players of all time to pair with another Hall-of-Famer, and it wasn’t long before the franchise’s first title. After the old guard retired, the front office nailed the draft to get two guards who helped lead the charge to more banners. All throughout that time Pop did a fantastic job of adjusting to his personnel, switching offensive and defensive styles as the years passed. Despite being a reserved person, he gained notoriety off the court for his cantankerous but entertaining nature during in-game interviews and later on for his frank political commentary. Success, notoriety, longevity — Pop’s career had it all in the Tim Duncan era, and he could have followed the big man into retirement like he often joked he would, leaving behind an impeccable legacy.
Pop decided to stay even after the messy Kawhi Leonard exit and his image took a hit. Those who thought he could take any group and make it competitive realized on court talent is what matters the most in the NBA. The unrelenting critics who refused to give him credit even when the team was almost unprecedentedly successful suddenly had a lot more ammo to try to take him down. But the worst part is that even those who had supported him for years had to wonder if he was still the right person for the job. The Spurs needed to rebuild and a strongwilled coach who had won his entire career didn’t seem like a good fit for a team that would eventually have to bottom out. If having Pop around and happy meant being forced to put together a low-ceiling roster that could at least compete for a playoff spot, then for the first time in decades the franchise would have been better without him.
Fortunately, Pop made the adjustment. In the past years, he had made comments about the rewards of coaching young players, but even then it was hard to imagine him leading a team with as much untested talent as the Spurs had this year. Going from leading veteran groups who could understand his schemes easily to trying to make 19-year-olds figure out even simple game plans can’t be an easy transition. Earlier in the year, he at least had a couple of veterans like Jakob Poeltl and Josh Richardson around to bring some consistency to his lineups, but he never over-relied on a crutch that disappeared after the trade deadline. The Spurs needed to tank and develop young players, and that’s what Pop did by having no issue with holding players out, letting guys play through mistakes and using 40 different starting lineups.
It probably wasn’t easy for such an accomplished coach to swallow his pride and accept being at the helm for a season that ranked as the second-worst in franchise history, but he did it. Pop holds the record for wins for a coach, but now his winning percentage has taken a big hit and it will get lower if he returns. During games, it was not hard to see the competitive fire still burning when he snapped after a particularly egregious mistake, but he remained calm and positive throughout the year. He knew that the best thing for the franchise at this stage was to lose as much as possible while making sure the young players progressed and worked towards it without complaining. Pop got over himself and sacrificed for the good of the Spurs like he asked his star players to do in the past.
Some of the best in league history refused to adapt or struggled to let go in time. From Hakeem Olajuwon in a Raptors jersey to Tony Parker wearing Hornets teal, the examples are plentiful. Coaches are not exempt from making the same mistakes. Phil Jackson thought he could fix the Knicks as an executive, and Larry Brown has had too many self-inflicted wounds to count late in his career. Pop could have followed a similar path if he was intent on not retiring by jumping ship to a team with more talent and hoping for the best, but he didn’t.
If there was one thing the massively accomplished Popovich still needed to prove was that he could put his ego aside for the good of what he likes to call “the program” just like his players had to. After happily taking losses for a year following decades of nothing but winning, there should be no doubt about the sincerity of his past words.