Gregg Popovich is the winningest head coach in NBA history with 1,344 victories. Along with having the most wins for any coach in league history, we’re beginning to see another part of Popovich’s legacy take shape. The four head coaches involved in the last two NBA Finals have a tie to coach Pop, having either been on his staff or played for him in San Antonio.
If this trend continues, the NBA might need to consider changing the NBA Finals to the Gregg Popovich Invitational. Celtics rookie head coach Ime Udoka played for and coached under Popovich in San Antonio. Udoka spent most of his assistant coaching time on the Spurs’ sideline with Pop. He also spent three of his final four years in the NBA playing for the Spurs.
Like Udoka, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr spent time in San Antonio as a player for Pop. Kerr played four years in San Antonio and won two championships in 1999 and 2003. While Kerr is more known for playing with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, his playing days under coach Pop significantly affected his coaching style with Golden State. That motion offense the Warriors run where everybody touches the ball, that’s Popovich right there.
Should Udoka and Boston beat Golden State in the Finals, he’d become only the fifth coach in the modern era to win a title in his first season as head coach. Udoka would join Paul Westhead (Lakers’ 79-80), Pat Riley (Lakers’ 81-82), Steve Kerr (Warriors’ 14-15), Tyronn Lue (Cavs’ 15-16), and Nick Nurse (‘ 18-19).
Last year’s Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns was also heavily influenced by Popovich. The most successful coaching disciple (Kerr only played for Pop) of Popovich’s thus far has been Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee. Even before winning the NBA Finals with the Bucks last season, Budenholzer had an Eastern Conference Finals appearance as coach of the Atlanta Hawks.
Monty Williams, head coach of the Phoenix Suns, also has his own ties to Popovich. Williams played for San Antonio during the early part of Pop’s time as head coach. He was then a coaching intern for the Spurs to begin his coaching career after his playing days were finished.
Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins was also part of Pop’s staff at one time, serving as an intern on the team. Jenkins then became an assistant with Budenholzer in Milwaukee before accepting his first head coaching gig with Memphis in 2019.
Popovich’s coaching influence also extends to the WNBA, with Becky Hammon. Hammon coached on Pop’s staff in San Antonio for eight years before taking on her first head coaching job in the WNBA with the Las Vegas Aces. The Aces are off to a 9-1 start to the 2022 season, and it’s looking like Popovich could have another former assistant playing for a championship soon.
Hammon was just named Coach of the Month for May due to the Aces’ hot start.
When a coach is as successful for as long as Popovich, his or her legacy is felt for years down the line. It’s become easy to dismiss the Spurs over the past couple of years, but they had a run of 22 years under Pop where they didn’t miss the postseason. That’s the longest streak in NBA history, and they won five titles over that time and played in six Finals overall. In 10 of those 22 seasons, the Spurs made it to at least the conference finals.
I’ve always looked at San Antonio as the New England Patriots of the NBA. Some might disagree, but there are many similarities in the long runs of these franchises. Both teams had sustained success and dominated for two decades. The Patriots won six Super Bowls while the Spurs took home five Larry O’Brien trophies.
Both had their all-time great franchise players for most of, if not the entire run in Tom Brady and Tim Duncan. Both organizations are led by no-nonsense coaches with Popovich and Bill Belichick. Both coaches have had assistants move on to become head coaches themselves. Their dynasties ran parallel to each other in their respective sports. Sure, the Spurs never won back-to-back titles but it’s tough to witness that much success and not call it a dynasty.
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