From Monty Williams to Sean Marks, the Gregg Popovich coaching tree is broad and includes a diverse cast of modern NBA movers and shakers.
The Spurs aren’t going anywhere. This month, legendary head coach Gregg Popovich became the third NBA coach ever to win 1,300 regular-season games. The team lingers in the Western Conference playoff picture and refused a full-scale teardown at the trade deadline. We may well see the Spurs themselves in the postseason once again, but the scope of Popovich’s influence on the NBA will be present across the standings as a new generation of Pop disciples enters the fray.
Pregame is the time for remarking on relationships in the NBA. It’s when you’ll hear a story of early morning runs or late-night drinks. If a coach knows the guy on the opposite sideline, odds are the media will ask about their relationship: Do you stay in touch? What did they mean to you? What’s it like facing so and so? Increasingly, those bonds run through Popovich.
Take this weekend’s matinee tilt between the Suns and Hornets. A fascinating matchup between two of the most surprising teams in the NBA became a fun overtime battle. Both teams figure to play a role come playoff time, and both coaches come from the Pop tree. On one side was second-year Suns coach Monty Williams, who has transformed the franchise with his leadership and engrossed the city with his high character. In teal on the other bench was James Borrego, the second-year Hornets coach who has built up a young team into a winner in no time.
To see the collision of styles was to observe the long history and impressive malleability of the Spurs’ dynasty.
Williams has made the concept of “point-five” popular again, though it was introduced by Popovich and Etore Messina (a former Spurs assistant) decades ago. The idea is simple, essentially a riff on the most basic tenets of ball and player movement that are vital to any offense. Borrego’s Hornets play a more spacious, perimeter-oriented offense that could have been pulled out of Tony Parker‘s prime years.
You can see traces of Gregg Popovich’s legacy in every corner of the NBA
Within the game was also a long history of Spurs basketball.
Both coaches passed through San Antonio and saw their fortunes change, and both men credit that experience as an inflection point in their careers. When Borrego came to Phoenix last season, he told stories of how Williams would wake up early with him for a jog each morning, followed by coffee, a relationship forged through hard work and a shared faith. Both coaches were empowered as partners and leaders by way of Popovich’s stewardship over the franchise.
Asked about those relationships again before this week’s matchup with Borrego, Williams thought back to the opportunities opened up for him by Popovich, when Williams was a recently retired player looking to get into coaching.
“If you’ve been around as long as I have, you realize that you get there because of the efforts, the prayers and the sacrifices of other people,” Williams said.
Pop brought Williams on as an intern prior to the 2005 season, allowing Williams a front-row view of a championship season. Williams would go onto coach under Nate McMillan in Portland, but Pop opened the door.
The same is true for Borrego, who was hired by Williams in New Orleans a decade ago and then came to know Williams as a colleague in San Antonio years later. After three years on the Spurs’ bench, Borrego got the gig in Charlotte.
From Williams to Borrego to Steve Kerr, a good portion of the league’s coaches come directly from Popovich’s staff. Then there’s a whole other trunk of the tree that comes from Mike Budenholzer, an assistant for much of the Spurs’ dynasty who has been a head coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee in the years since. From Budenholzer spring branches for Utah’s Quin Snyder and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, in addition to the recently fired Kenny Atkinson. If you broaden the foliage even further, there’s longtime Spurs assistant Brett Brown and his former assistant Lloyd Pierce, just fired from Atlanta, as well as recent Nets interim coach Jacque Vaughn. That brings us to the assistant coach ranks, which is filled with respected coaches like Ime Udoka and Mike Brown. Even Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks spent time on the Spurs’ bench before building a juggernaut in New York.
Seven head coaches plus Marks can draw a straight line to Popovich. As their names show, Pop had a hand in bringing up some of the most inventive and diverse coaching candidates in the NBA. Of the current playoff teams in each conference, eight of the 20 organizations are coached or managed by a member of the Pop tree. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to imagine a Finals between the Williams-led Suns and Budenholzer-led Bucks. We may be getting ready to say goodbye to Pop, but his influence is still everywhere.
It is widely assumed that Popovich will consider retirement following this NBA season and the Tokyo Olympics in the summer, though his lucrative contract takes him through next season. Kerr was even asked about it recently and said he did not believe Popovich had made a decision one way or another yet. His comments will be closely monitored as Spurs fans look toward the end of the Pop era.
When the time comes for Pop to retire, his likely heir in San Antonio is Becky Hammon. This too is part of Pop’s legacy. As Uproxx’s Katie Heindl recently wrote, “whether you consider the Spurs a dynasty in decline or simply going through a period of necessary retooling, Hammon is familiar with all the veins running through it.” Giving his franchise over to the first female coach in NBA history and a general manager in Brian Wright who is one of only six Black GMs in the league is par for the course for how Popovich has run the Spurs’ program in recent years.
Even before Williams or Borrego or Udoka, there were people like Avery Johnson, a former Spurs point guard who has been the head coach of the Mavericks and the University of Alabama, or Trajan Langdon, one of those six current Black GMs who initially worked as a Spurs scout after retiring as a player. Pop has consistently made space in the organization for diverse voices, and seemingly committed to it more overtly in recent seasons.
Aside from who he brought into the league or the size his tree, Popovich is still innovating in San Antonio. Lest you forget, San Antonio is still quite good right now, ahead of the curve with tons of young wing talent on a roster that forecasts a truly positionless future in the NBA.
Though Pop still hasn’t given into the 3-point revolution, these Spurs still are his. They rarely foul, almost never turn the ball over, and everyone touches the ball. Old and new come together in San Antonio, though new is slowly eclipsing what came before.
Simplicity would prefer us to consider dynasties as moments that begin and end with a bang. Reality is much more inconsistent. There have been stories pondering Pop’s last season for years, and they haven’t stopped. They won’t stop. He will be asked with it at the end of the regular season, after the Spurs inevitably lose in the playoffs, before and during the Tokyo Olympics, and forever until he hangs it up at last. But while remembering and honoring one of basketball’s great coaches is necessary and practical, one needs only to open their eyes, or turn on a Sunday afternoon NBA game to see that Popovich’s impact will live on.