Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle called Gregg Popovich “coach of the century” a few years back, and most recently dubbed him “the grandmaster.”
Now, you can invoke Popovich’s name in talks about the NBA’s 1,300-win club, after the 72-year-old became just the third coach in league history to reach the milestone Saturday with a 120-104 victory over the Chicago Bulls. The win snapped a four-game skid for San Antonio Spurs, while pushing Popovich into elite company alongside Don Nelson (1,335 wins) and Lenny Wilkins (1,332).
Given Popovich’s fervor for the game, there’s a decent chance he eventually topples Nelson and Wilkins to become the NBA’s all-time leader in wins.
“I think at the base of it, the competitiveness in game situations is thrilling. That’s always there,” Popovich said earlier this season, when asked what keeps going after 24 seasons at the helm in San Antonio. “If that diminished or disappeared, then I wouldn’t be doing this. Beyond that, watching a new generation of players that are 19,20, 21, 22 years old is both a challenge and it’s extremely satisfying to watch them develop. Not just their basketball skills, but their awareness on the court, what’s going in the world, what’s going on off the court, learning about the world they live in beyond basketball. That still is a big satisfaction for me. I think I would miss that. Those two factors more than anything keep me in it.”
— NBA (@NBA) March 28, 2021
The longest-tenured coach with the same team among the 122 franchises in major professional sports, Popovich has led San Antonio to five NBA titles (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014), and ranks as one of just five coaches in history to capture five or more championships alongside Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla, and Pat Riley.
After a record-tying run of 22 consecutive postseason appearances, the Spurs missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1997 despite an impressive run inside the NBA bubble, where Popovich and his assistants explored playing a new, more up-tempo style of basketball with the team’s younger players. San Antonio carried that style into the 2020-21 season, and its most successful starting lineup (DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl and Derrick White) to date features a 31-year-old four-time NBA All-Star in DeRozan surrounded by four players age 26 or younger.
“Well, we just wanted to pick up from the way we played in the bubble in Orlando; a better recognition of team defense, a little bit more pride in individual defense, and then good pace, sharing the ball, good-to-great type of stuff,” said Popovich, already the NBA’s record-holder for road victories (552).
The current roster features three players in their 30s in DeRozan (31), Rudy Gay (34) and Patty Mills, while the rest of the group consists of 11 players age 25 or younger and one 26-year-old in White.
That youth showed up in a major way Saturday against the Bulls. San Antonio led by as many as 36 points in third quarter, only to watch its advantage disintegrate to single digits with 5:13 left to play, when new Bulls center Nikola Vucevic splashed a 26-footer that cut the Spurs’ lead to nine points (107-98).
San Antonio entered the final frame leading 96-73.
Either way, the collective youth of this current team is somewhat of a departure from the experienced rosters San Antonio fielded during the Big Three days of now-retired stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Popovich currently leads the youngest Spurs roster of his tenure, as the club entered the season with an average age of 25.5.
“It’s obviously different to what I think he’s used to; we’re all used to,” Mills explained earlier in the season. “When I say: ‘we all,’ I mean the organization. Knowing just how many young guys and new people we have, as well as the vets, too, I think we’re all adjusting to be able to figure out how to move forward, and how to succeed in doing so. It’s definitely been an adjustment. For Pop, I think, and how everyone else has taken it has been day-by-day and game-by-game. The biggest thing for Pop is his patience that he’s had for us to be professionals; to be able to learn on the fly, which has been the hardest thing. Especially with a season like we’re having at the moment with the tightened schedule, the games, not [many] practices and all of that. It’s time that, really for us, we’ve got to lock down in film sessions and team meetings for us to get these things down. So, I think his patience has been a key thing for us.”
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) March 28, 2021
That approach appears to be paying off, too. San Antonio remains in the thick of the postseason hunt after a one-year hiatus.
“He’s been mixing in well, trusting us to keep the young guys motivated, keep them pushing, going the right way and picking and choosing when it’s time to get on the young guys and on us to pick it up, to teach us, show us whenever we’re making consistent mistakes how to fix that,” DeRozan said. “His balance with both sides has been really good.”
San Antonio came into Saturday’s game with a historical winning percentage of .618, which ranks as tops in the NBA. What’s more is the Spurs own an all-time winning record against every team in the league, in large part due to the success achieved during the Popovich regime.
Popovich remains the only NBA coach in history to spend 25 years or more with the same franchise, and he’s one of just eight coaches in history of the four major sports (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) to have been with one team for 25 years.
When the Spurs topped Minnesota in overtime on Jan. 9, the game marked Popovich’s 1,900th outing, making him the ninth coach in NBA history to coach that many games. Popovich joined a list that includes Wilkens, Nelson, Bill Fitch, Jerry Sloan, Larry Brown, George Karl, Dick Motta and Pat Riley.
“Reaching this milestone is a testament to the drive, passion and intellect that define Gregg Popovich,” Spurs CEO RC Buford told NBA.com. “Both his success and longevity are remarkable.”
Coaches/managers with 25 seasons or more with one franchise
NBA head coaches with 25 or more seasons
Most NBA wins through 1,900 games
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.