Gregg Popovich Not The Greatest Coach Ever … Yet

San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich is already one of the best coaches of all time. But will he be the greatest when it’s all said and done?

Over the weekend, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich passed Jerry Sloan for most wins by a coach with a single team (1,128). Yet another milestone for Popovich as the Spurs are on pace for another 60-win season.

But where exactly does the Spurs’ head coach rank among the all-time greats?

According to basketball-reference.com there are 15 coaches in league history to coach for at least 20 years. Of those 20, nine have won 1,000 or more games. Four of those nine have a winning percentage better than 60 percent.

Pop is one of these four, along with Sloan, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley.

He is also in elite company in the postseason as one of just 21 coaches to coach 100 or more playoff games and one of four to coach in 200 or more. Of that original 21 he is one of 13 with a winning percentage better than 50 percent and one of five to top 60 percent.

A total of 31 coaches have won multiple conference or division (conferences were called divisions from 1950-70) titles. Of those, 14 have won more than two and nine have won more than three. Pop is third on this list with six.

And finally only 13 coaches have won multiple NBA titles and only five have won more than two. Pop is in a three-way tie at the bottom of this list with his five championship rings. But the most important thing of all at the moment is this: he’s still going.

Coach Popovich could pass Don Nelson for most wins in the next four to five years. He could have the most playoff wins this year should the Spurs make it to the NBA Finals and win one game (so at the most two, mayyybe, three years?). 

And just one more ring would move him into sole possession of third place in terms of titles amonf coaches.

While four conference championships might be a bit of a stretch to go into second place and five NBA titles sounds insane for the same ranking, finishing with the most regular-season and playoff wins plus third in championships sounds pretty impressive.

But what about the coaches he trails in those categories?

Riley has five titles in nine trips to the Finals. Red Auerbach had nine in 10. And Jackson of course has the 11 rings in 13 Finals appearances. Arguments can be made for and against each of these coaches, but when it’s all said and done Pop could have the best case of them all.

Now, no offense to Red Auerbach, the man is a legend for sure. But the league back then was just not as competitive as the one these other coaches have battled in.

This doesn’t take away from anything he did, but it is something that when he goes up against the great coaches of today does count against him.

A knock against Pat and Phil is that they got their wins, titles and rings with multiple teams, allowing them to stay in the good graces of the ever-flowing cycle that is success in the NBA. Again it doesn’t take away from their coaching, but it is something that hurts their case.

This is a very critical time for Popovich to pounce on these points and take advantage of the situation. Sure Auerbach didn’t coach in as competitive a league. But 10 straight Finals appearances and nine wins in those appearances is nothing to scoff at.

And neither is everything Pat and Phil have done, even if they did do it with multiple teams.

But if Pop could go to another couple of championships and even win one of them that sure would help his case. Taking on one of the most star-studded lineups in history and one of the top-five players of all time and coming out on/near the top could push him ahead of the Boston legend.

As the Tim Duncan era for Pop is over, seeing where he goes from here is how we can compare him to Phil and Pat.

Jackson had Michael Jordan, but then he had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Riley had “Showtime,” but then he had Shaq and Dwyane Wade.

But if Pop can build another championship team around a new centerpiece on his same team, with that centerpiece carrying over from a previous championship; that is a more impressive feat in my books.

This point leads to something else that can’t be tracked with statistics. Culture. Pop created this insane dynasty, winning tradition and overall aura around this team for 19 years that we may not have ever seen before.

I would say the clashing of egos in L.A. ruined that idea for Phil. And Pat’s long tenure of not getting over the hump in New York and one ring in Miami don’t really match up either.

You could say Red brought a similar light on the Celtics in his time, but Popovich could have twice as many years with the Spurs when he finally hangs it up. This is something that will mean a lot to people who have this debate for years to come.

So where does Pop rank today? Definitely top four. It is hard to compare while he’s still coaching, though.

But say we get five more years. He ends his career with the most regular-season and postseason wins. He gets another ring and maybe two more conference titles. There’s no question this pushes him past Riley.

And when you scale the success in terms of competition level and longevity I think he gets by Red as well.

But putting him above Jackson will be the tricky one. That is where you would have to debate the importance of winning with one team and the culture created. If you believe in those things being important, Pop could walk out on top.

So no, Pop might not be the GOAT right now. But he sure does have the chance to be, and my money is on him to get it done.

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