The Gregg Popovich coaching tree has expanded over the NBA for decades. It’s not hard to understand why. When any coach has the level of success Pop experienced, his disciples will be coveted by others. It’s the same reason why some Phil Jackson acolytes got to lead teams in the past.
Normally when the success stops, however, the demand for the assistant coaches of the living legends dwindles. Surprisingly this hasn’t happened with people associated with Pop yet. Not only have former assistants been hired recently but there appears to be serious interest in Mitch Johnson now from the Raptors.
Johnson, who is just 36 years old and has been an assistant for four years, was also rumored to be on the Hawks’ shortlist before they hired Quin Snyder. If he gets the job he’ll become the third youngest head coach in the league, behind former Spurs assistant coach Will Hardy, now with the Jazz, and the Celtics’ Joe Mazzula. He’ll be competing for the Raptors’ position with, among others, Becky Hammon, who left San Antonio just a season ago to take over the Las Vegas Aces of the WNBA and led them to a title. None of Johnson, Hammon or Hardy were around for the glory days but that hasn’t stopped them from either getting coveted jobs elsewhere or being on the radar of several coaching searches.
The older guard has been doing well too. Jacque Vaughn, who struggled in past stops, recently took over the Nets and did a good job leading them through tough times. The disgraced Ime Udoka is getting a second chance in Houston. There are multiple other coaches who had a past either with the San Antonio or Austin versions of the Spurs that are leading teams. Most of them have trailed their own path after leaving, but it’s not too bold to assume that being associated with Gregg Popovich helped them get their foot in the door and probably still helps their reputation. It seems that at least for now, the recent fall from grace from Pop and the Spurs has not made others engage in revisionist history.
There are two main reasons for that. First, it’s impossible to look at the Spurs' struggles over the last few years and come to the conclusion that they underachieved. After the Big Three retired and Kawhi Leonard forced his way out, San Antonio simply didn’t have the personnel to make any deep playoff runs. Second, unlike what happened with most of Phil Jackson's assistants, some of the people who worked under Pop had success after leaving. Mike Budenholzer might be in the hot seat now, but he won a title with the Bucks. Despite the off court issues, Udoka won a lot in Boston. Will Hardy made a great impression in his first year as the Jazz’s coach. And Becky Hammon won a championship in her first year in the WNBA. At this point, other organizations are not going off pedigree alone, except for Johnson.
Whether it’s a good thing that other teams continue to look at San Antonio’s bench for coaching talent is a matter of perspective. The glass half empty view is that the brain drain that has been happening for a long time might cost the Spurs soon. Pop won’t coach forever and when the time comes to pick a successor the front office might not have any homegrown replacements ready if every assistant keeps getting poached. The glass half full stance is that the fact that working in San Antonio helps secure a head coaching spot elsewhere will be a selling point used to get even more capable young and untested coaches. Maybe the next Mitch Johnson is already working his work up within the organization or looking to join it.
In a broader way, any positive perception of the Spurs is a good thing at this time. San Antonio is not a glamour market and as the memories of the glory days start to fade and the scandals and messy breakups the franchise used to avoid become more common, being the organization that is known for developing talent both on the court and in the sidelines can only help. At this point all that matters is finding a star in the draft, but soon enough the Silver and Black will have to try to appeal to a new generation of players who will barely remember watching Tim Duncan. Once Pop decides to retire, the stability of the front office and the ability to either recruit one of the good coaches with ties to the franchise or find the next gem could give the Spurs the small edge they’ll need to acquire and retain talent.
It has been bittersweet to see so many assistant coaches leave the Spurs and succeed elsewhere in the past few years. If Johnson actually joins the Raptors after growing so much in San Antonio, it would be understandable to be happy for him but a little concerned about losing even more coaching talent.
Still, the fact that other organizations remain impressed enough with the Spurs to look past wins and losses when looking for potential skippers suggests that the franchise has to be doing something right these days and that the success of the past is still not forgotten, which should at least provide some small comfort in these tough times.