It's difficult to imagine an NBA coach more idiosyncratic, bold and anti-charismatic than Gregg Popovich. It's impossible to find an NBA coach more highly respected and daresay beloved as Pop. That Popovich has risen to such a position of immense respect and control without compromising one bit of himself is among the most empowering stories in the league.
On Friday, USA Basketball named Popovich the next head coach of its senior men's team. He'll coach Anthony Davis and the boys in blue in the 2019 World Cup and the 2020 Olympics. Pop will officially take the reins from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in 2017, following Coach K's farewell run in Rio. As Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski writes, this is all a bit amazing given the deep bruises Popovich and USA Basketball chief Jerry Colangelo have inflicted on each other.
Read Woj for a full outline of the beef, including description of the time Pop copied league officials on a letter to Colangelo that essentially said, "keep my name out of your mouth." Woj also reveals that Pop openly questioned commissioner Adam Silver in a room full of NBA coaches as to why a college coach had a seemingly permanent appointment to the Team USA job. As always, Pop gives zero clucks about how his words come off. He says what he means, and minces nothing.
That's part of why it's so amazing Pop has risen to where he stands. This season's annual NBA general manager survey, the results of which were released last week, marked the second straight season that at least 90 percent of the league's personnel bosses named Popovich the NBA's best coach. The only two other coaches who received votes (one each) this year were Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer, for almost two decades Pop's left hand in San Antonio, and Golden State's Steve Kerr, who played under Pop, belongs loosely to his coaching tree and (most notably) has embraced Popovichian strategy in many ways.
Think about that. The 30 people in the highest basketball operations positions in North America almost unanimously picked Popovich as the top coach. Those who didn't cast a vote for Pop's eons-long assistant and the new coach that most closely replicates Pop's on-court style. And Popovich's team lost in the first round last season!
This is why Colangelo was forced to ask Popovich to succeed Krzyzewski: no other choice is credible until Popovich rejected the offer. There are many respected, pleasant NBA coaches who could (most importantly) get the job done and who (of interest to Colangelo) would be more malleable than the notoriously rigid Pop. Doc Rivers has been mentioned frequently. Brad Stevens would be an inspired choice from the younger ranks, and either Budenholzer or Kerr would make sense, too. But you can't offer a job like this to an NBA coach unless Popovich makes clear he's not interested. And as it turns out, Pop wanted it. Knowing that, it would have been a suicide mission from Colangelo to try to hand it to anyone else.
Colangelo is a proud man, as well he should be: he's done great things in and out of basketball. But by sticking to his convictions, taking no guff from anyone and being the best in the world, Popovich earned what he wanted. Popovich is so good he forced Colangelo to set aside his beef and call on a rival. There was really no other choice, just as there really is no other choice for those 30 GMs when picking the best coach in the league.
This is the thing: Pop tries to give everyone reasons to reject him. He's often mean to those sideline reporters and to the media in general. Basketball journalists share Pop stories almost like a PTSD support group. At times, he seems to make anti-fan rotational decisions just because he can; no example is greater than the nationally televised Spurs-Heat game for which he sent his stars home and earned a whopping $250,000 fine.
He quarreled relentlessly with David Stern and he's had a few wars with rival GMs and franchisees (like Colangelo, who starred in the great Spurs-Suns rivalry of the '00s). In basketball settings, his reputation is that he treats his players -- even his stars -- like they are high school freshmen who can't do anything right. This is a neoclassical pose in an increasingly modern NBA. (It's also, notably, the biggest departure from Pop you'll see Budenholzer and Kerr exhibit. Only two other current NBA head coaches are truly Popovichian in scolds: Stan Van Gundy and the maniacal Quin Snyder.)
Pop had no great basketball pedigree before taking over the Spurs. He worked under Hank Egan at the Air Force Academy and caddied for Larry Brown at Kansas and in San Antonio for a few years. He wasn't a top player. He doesn't trace his educational roots back to the peach baskets. He's primarily self-made and largely self-taught. He has glorious non-basketball exploits to lean on -- Cold War espionage! -- and he seems to be among the smartest men ever to coach in the NBA.
In an environment where cronyism and relationships matter above all else, Popovich constantly looks outside the box. He hires the first full-time female assistant coach. He hires a legendary European coach as an assistant. He reinvents his own basketball philosophy to stay ahead of the NBA's viciously fast curve. He not only ignores norms: he sets the norms from his perch well outside and well above the NBA bubble. There's no one like him, and that's only partially a compliment.
Pop can't be touched right now. Not after landing the top available free agent in the 2015 class, not after winning 50 games a year for almost two decades, not after five rings and vindication and the burying of hatchets and the triumphant marches to come. Against all odds, Gregg Popovich is the undisputed king of the NBA and now, finally, the basketball world itself.
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