The Spurs recently announced that Gregg Popovich signed a five-year extension, ending all remaining speculation about the coaching situation going forward. It’s a long contract that crushes any semblance of uncertainty in the locker room and feels justified, considering how good Pop is as a strategist.
It also seems to signal that the Spurs, in typical form, are valuing continuity. The arrival of Wembanyama might have been a good spot in which to reset their coaching staff, but instead they have chosen to maintain a connection to their past glory. If this decision seems shortsighted, there is another perspective to consider.
Again, the decision to bring Pop back once it was clear that he wanted to return was an easy one. Pushing him out was not an option. That said, it’s not hard to make a case for this juncture to be the perfect place to make a change. After sticking around for the tough part, Pop could have moved to a different role while someone else took over and formed a bond with Wembanyama. It’s completely possible Pop finishes his five-year deal before retiring, but he’d be pushing 80 by the time the contract ends and an extension at that point seems unlikely. The certainty the club has gained in the short term won’t be there in the long term even in the best scenario. Granted, there would have been no guarantee that whoever might have taken over would still be around for long NBA coaches don’t normally have lengthy tenures, but there would have been a chance.
The tradeoff could be worth it, still, as it could help the Spurs traverse through two different eras. The great Dave Deckard of Blazers’ Edge recently wrote about how a Lillard trade, (while likely beneficial for the development of Scoot Henderson on the court) could still be detrimental as a whole by essentially resetting the franchise’s culture once again. The whole thing is worth your time, but there’s a specific passage that applies to San Antonio.
Every franchise needs gurus, leaders whose value goes beyond on-court play. Their cultural knowledge—passed from generation to generation, adapted and evolved by each—becomes its own language.
If I learn a dialect from a native speaker, I can keep it. I might speak with a peculiar accent. I might add new words or shades of meaning. But it’s there.
If all the speakers of that language disappear, I can’t learn it anymore. There’s no way to create it out of thin air. I can forge my own language, but I’m losing the heritage and institutional knowledge inherent in the original. It’s not going to be the same. Developing a workable approximation is going to take a long time, an extended process of trial and error.
Through that lens, a move that initially seemed a little shortsighted becomes anything but. Passing on the chance to pair the superstar of the future with the coach of the future is a small price to pay in order to maintain a connection to the successful past the franchise enjoyed. If there is a Spurs’ Way, Pop truly is the last link in the chain.
Once Derrick White and Dejounte Murray were traded, no player who had shared the court with any of the Big Three remained on the roster. No one in the young core has been to the playoffs. The veterans who have don’t figure to be in the team’s long term plans, except for maybe Zach Collins. A bunch of assistant coaches have left and the return of Brett Brown probably means very little to guys who weren’t around when he was years ago. The new generation is far removed from the good old days of contention. Without Pop to teach them the language, they would be on their own trying to figure out how to be winners as Spurs.
The counter to the argument would be that even with Pop around and some continuity after the Kawhi Leonard trade, the Spurs were still pretty bad. In the NBA, talent matters above all else, That’s why the Spurs finally relented and tanked. And there are players who are just destined to win because of their talent and character. The reality is, if Tim Duncan had landed in Boston instead of San Antonio, for example, he probably would have been as great since he had all the qualities needed to become one of the best ever as he entered the NBA. Maybe things wouldn’t have worked out as quickly for him, but eventually, Duncan would have found success by building his own winning culture through pure skill and hard work. If Wembanyama is truly special, then, is Pop really necessary?
Maybe not for Wemby in the long run, but definitely for the Spurs. In an era of superstar empowerment, it’s especially important for franchises that are not located in glamorous markets to stand out in other ways. It’s particularly necessary for the Spurs to have something unique to offer since the narrative changed in recent years about San Antonio’s desirability after they lost a superstar. Granted, Pop was at the center of some of those criticisms, but we are now seeing a different side of him. The pressure to contend has disappeared and has made the formerly hyper-demanding leader more understanding of the pitfalls of youth on a team. He’s gone back to his roots as a teacher, which is what the new group of Spurs needs. And if can make the young core feel connected to a legacy of success and to the principles that helped the franchise achieve it, his value will be immeasurable first as a coach and eventually as an executive.
Gregg Popovich, 74, getting a five-year extension in the same year that the franchise drafts a 19-year-old cornerstone seems backward at first glance, but it doesn’t take long to figure out why it could be a good thing. If Wembanyama is as gifted as everyone thinks he is, he will be an NBA superstar no matter his surroundings, but if the Spurs want to speed up the process while making him feel like wearing the Silver and Black actually means something, keeping the only connection to their historied past is the smart thing to do.