The San Antonio Spurs are a smart franchise. They’ve seen David Robinson and Tim Duncan retire, while Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker will soon follow. But what will they do when their true leader, Gregg Popovich, calls it a career?
The sad truth for the San Antonio Spurs family is that head coach Gregg Popovich won’t be around forever. The harsher truth is the end of the Pop Era could come at any time.
While it is hard to imagine him hanging up his whistle (does he even need a whistle?) the man hardly has anything to prove.
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Popovich is 1,150-506 in his career in the regular season (160-100 postseason after Game 4 against the Memphis Grizzlies), has six conference championships and five NBA titles. On top of that, he is about to start his tenure as the head coach of USA Basketball. He’s done it all.
The question the Spurs need to ask themselves is what they’ll do when he’s gone. That question will be answered when they know what their timeline will be.
The pool of potential successors is drastically different if they need someone in two years as opposed or five years or more down the road.
But like a car lover selling their hot rod when a baby is on the way, Popovich will be sure his team will be in good hands when he’s gone. That is why no matter when he decides to go, he could wind up keeping it in the family.
Options For Now
Mar 11, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson reacts to a call by a referee during second half of game eleven of the SEC Conference Tournament against the Kentucky Wildcats at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Avery Johnson (254-186; 194-70 DAL; 60-116 NJN/BKN; 23-24 postseason)
The story of “Avery Johnson: NBA Head Coach” still feels unfinished. In three full years with the Dallas Mavericks he had three playoff appearances, two 60-win seasons, one NBA Finals trip and a Coach of the Year award.
But two exits in the first round, including at the hands of the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors, garnered him an exit from the team. His time with the Nets was underwhelming. Two injury-riddled years in New Jersey, followed by a 14-14 start in Brooklyn and he was out the door.
Johnson’s ties to the San Antonio Spurs come from 10 years of playing for the franchise. His early Spurs years were two partial seasons in 1990-91 and 1991-92 when Pop was an assistant coach with the team.
That was followed by a full year in 1992-93 without Popovich, then a season in Golden State where who else but Gregg Popovich was an assistant in 1993-94.
Johnson was back in San Antonio from 1994-95 through 2000-01, when Popovich was back in town; first in the front office then on the court. Safe to say these two have been together for a good chunk of time and there could be quite a bit of trust between them.
In the end, I feel Johnson never got a true chance to prove himself as a coach, but that’s part of the game. You often have a short leash until you prove otherwise.
But if Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford were to have enough trust in Johnson to give him the job, you can bet they’d give him a decent window of time to prove himself.
Apr 25, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) and head coach Monty Williams walk off the court after they were eliminated from the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors following game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at the Smoothie King Center. The Warriors defeated the Pelicans 109-98. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Monty Williams (173-221 NOH/NOP; 2-8 postseason)
Monty Williams‘ coaching career does not feel quite as incomplete as Johnson’s because he did not have the same success. With three losing seasons in five attempts, it’s hard to think “top candidate” when his name comes up. But there are two things to remember about his time in New Orleans.
The team he signed on to coach looked very different after his first year, when they traded Chris Paul and let David West walk as a free agent to the Indiana Pacers.
His next four teams were riddled with injuries each season.
It’s tough to get a great feel for Williams as a coach in his own right due to these situations. But the fact that high-profile coaches and teams (Pop and the Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, Mike Krzyzewski and USA Basketball) all want him on their staff speaks volumes.
Monty’s connection to San Antonio starts out like Johnson’s in that he played for the organization. He spent two and a half years with the team from 1996-98. After he retired, he was a coaching intern with the champion 2004-05 team.
He’s also been a part of USA Basketball with Popovich since 2013. Williams is currently the team’s vice of basketball operations, a role he took on this year. His various roles with the team and Pop throughout the years could help him moving forward.
Jan 19, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina gives direction to his team during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Ettore Messina (279-98 in Euroleague, 862-256 overall in Europe; assistant coach 2014-present)
While this is just Ettore Messina’s third season in the NBA as an assistant, he has an extensive head coaching background in Europe. With four Euroleague titles, two Coach of the Year awards and inclusion as one of the 50 Greatest Euroleague contributors he has accomplished a great deal.
While Pop has a few assistant coaches with more NBA experience, Messina could be a great bridge option in the short term. Having come from the European game, his style already meshes well with that of the Spurs.
He also has the experience and pedigree to take control of a team with this much history.
Currently serving as the team’s lead assistant, there’s a chance he is being bred for the position. The one thing that concerns me with this choice is his age. At 57, there are only seven head coaches older than he is now.
But with his experience already as a head coach, he could keep the ship for a few years before a more long term option presents themselves.
James Borrego (assistant coach 2003-10, 2015-present)
James Borrego is sort of a middle of the road option. He is still young (just 39 years old) but already has a ton of NBA experience. He started working with the Spurs in 2003 as the assistant video coordinator and worked his way through the staff until 2010.
It was then that Monty Williams took Borrego with him to be an assistant in New Orleans. From there he went to the Orlando Magic in 2012, where he was the interim head coach in 2015.
Borrego has been up for head coaching jobs as of late, interviewing for the position with the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies last year. It might be nice to have a younger coach take the reins and usher the team into a new era.
This is Borrego’s seventh season as a full-time assistant coach. His previous work with the Spurs followed by coaching stints with multiple teams gives him a wide breadth of experience. Now back under the tutelage of Popovich, he could be ready to take the next step.
Options For Later
Ime Udoka (assistant coach 2012-present)
Ime Udoka is currently the second longest tenured Spurs assistant coach, having been with the team since 2012. After playing overseas and in the D-League for six years and getting just 12 NBA games during that span, Udoka got his shot in the NBA in 2006.
He played two of his four full seasons for the San Antonio Spurs before becoming an assistant coach in 2012.
He was reported to be a candidate for the Brooklyn Nets job last summer and could see his time coming up soon.
Udoka has also said in the interview that his ups and downs as a player and the journey he took to get there would help him as a head coach. He believes his ability to connect with the players and the patience he learned would be key. He may not have to be patient for much longer.
Jul 9, 2016; Las Vegas, NV, USA; San Antonio Spurs Summer League head coach Becky Hammon gestures toward players on the floor during a game against the Golden State Warriors at Thomas & Mack Center. San Antonio won 63-61. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Becky Hammon (assistant coach 2014-Present)
Becky Hammon has one of the more interesting roads to coaching of this list. A longtime player in the WNBA and overseas, Hammon’s coaching roots began in 2013.
After tearing her ACL in a game for the San Antonio Stars, she spent the 2013-14 season participating in practices, coaches’ meetings and games with the Spurs.
She then played her final season in the summer of 2014 for the Stars before being hired as a full-time assistant with the Spurs for the 2014-15 season.
Hammon showed her own coaching abilities by leading the San Antonio Spurs Summer League team the past two seasons. In her first year in 2015 she took the team all the way to the championship, defeating the Phoenix Suns 93-90 to take home the trophy.
Each year Hammon continues to break ground being the first woman in NBA history to do, well, everything she is doing. It shouldn’t be too long now before becoming the league’s first female head coach is added to that list.
Dec 18, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Former San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan smiles during a ceremony to retire his No. 21jersey after an NBA basketball game between the Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Duncan (no coaching experience)
C’mon. I had to do it, right? Who wouldn’t want to see a Spurs team one day coached by the unflappable “Big Fundamental” himself?
Tim Duncan‘s timeline for becoming the next head coach hasn’t even started yet. And who knows if it ever will? Obviously you would think he’d get some experience as an assistant first, but plenty of current coaches jumped right into the gig.
With his immense basketball IQ, iconic persona in San Antonio and the respect he has from Pop, it would be hard to imagine this job wouldn’t be Duncan’s one day if he wanted it. Maybe Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili could be assistants.