As more and more teams entered the offseason, the coaching carousel started to spin. Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, Nick Nurse, Dwane Casey, Doc Rivers and Stephen Silas have all been fired. Nurse and Williams immediately found another job while other coaches that were fired in recent years, like Frank Vogel and Ime Udoka, are now employed again.
For Spurs fans, watching the rest of the league reshuffle their staff as often as they do feels a little strange since the franchise has had unprecedented levels of continuity. As coach Pop gets closer to retirement, though, these moves provide a good reminder that what has happened under him in San Antonio is unique and unlikely to be replicated in the future.
Coaching in the NBA is not a profession that offers a lot of job security. While at one point it seemed like things were stabilizing a bit with the average tenure expanding, it’s clear that no one is really safe. Budenholzer and Nurse recently delivered titles to franchises that hadn’t had a lot of recent success and are now gone. Williams did a fantastic job with the Suns but simply didn’t fit in with the new ownership’s vision in Phoenix. The other side of that coin is that if someone has made a mark at the highest level, they will probably find their way into the big chair or at least a high-profile assistant job even after being discarded. It didn’t take Vogel long after being fired by the Lakers to get a new gig, and Budenholzer and Rivers will probably get an offer soon after someone else decides to make a change.
The curious thing about all the shuffling that involves the same well-known figures is that it’s a little unclear why they keep happening. Clearly a different roster, a different front office and different goals can reinvigorate a coach, but by now everyone knows what strengths and weaknesses the big names bring to the table. Vogel, for example, wasn’t a good fit on a star-studded veteran Lakers team that lacked depth, but apparently the Suns think he’s the perfect candidate to lead a similar group now. From the outside, it’s extremely hard to gauge what a coach actually does asides from the systems they like to implement, so it’s entirely possible that there is a huge difference between Williams and Vogel other than the fact that the latter has a title in his resume, but a lot of times it seems like decision-makers just want something to change and swapping familiar names is the easiest way to do so.
More relevant to the current state of the Spurs is not what happens to teams that are trying to contend, but to those who are rebuilding. The two teams that finished with a worse record than San Antonio last season, the Rockets and Pistons, both fired their coaches. Had anyone but Pop been roaming the sidelines of the AT&T Center, it’s safe to say that they would have been under a lot more scrutiny. It was only the first year of the rebuild, so they would have probably gotten another chance, but the seat would have been warm, and getting Victor Wembanyama could have been a blessing and a curse.
Unlike what happens in college sports, coaches hold very little power in the NBA. A couple of bad results or a clash against a star, and they are out, and a sudden increase in expectations can often accelerate the process. San Antonio has been a huge outlier for literally decades now because Gregg Popovich not only had success, but also the full backing of most of the stars he coached as well as the front office and the ownership group. Even in the recent down years his job was never in question, and it’s clear that he’ll coach for as long as he wants to. You’d have to go back to Jerry Sloan to find similar backing — and that still ended ugly. The closest in the new era is probably Erik Spoelstra.
The uniqueness of Pop’s situation is what makes the hyperfocus on who will take over once he decides to retire a little shortsighted. It’s hard to avoid thinking about the successor, but does it really make sense to obsess over who it will be when they might just last a couple of seasons? That’s the most likely result. Even landing a generational talent in the draft that looks special immediately is no guarantee of longevity for a head coach. Paul Silas had one full season with LeBron James. Monty Williams and Rick Carlisle had three years with Anthony Davis and Luka Doncic, respectively. If Victor Wembanyama turns out to be as good as expected but Pop still chooses to retire, there are no guarantees that whoever takes over the big chair will be there for Wemby’s prime.
The question that lingers is whether the Spurs will somehow once again avoid some of the pitfalls that other franchises have gone through, and there’s reason for optimism on that front. At this point, it seems that Pop will be back to serve as a lightning rod for criticism if the team underwhelms in Wembanyama’s first year in the NBA, and he can take it. The transition that took place over the past few years in the front office had its bumps, but things seem to be heading in the right direction now. The ownership group has had to navigate its own transformation but seems stable and committed to both San Antonio and the hands-off approach that led the organization to enormous success.
No matter what, as soon as Gregg Popovich decides to retire, the Spurs will be thrown into the unknown, which is a scary thought for an organization that has thrived in the familiar. Hopefully they have prepared enough during the past few years to face the challenge head on and avoid the lack of continuity other franchises can’t seem to escape.