Popovich the best ever NBA coach?
On Wednesday night, I watched San Antonio Spurs beat the Los Angeles Clippers to tie their series 1-1. Spurs are defending champions, and while they remain legitimate title contenders, they are by no means overwhelming favourites to repeat.
This ageing Spurs team is only being kept relevant by the brilliance of their coach, Gregg Popovich. While Spurs doggedly stuck to their guns to defeat the young, brash Clippers team, I wondered whether I was witnessing the best NBA coach of all time in action. He may not be the most affable guy around, and is a nightmare for interviewers, but despite his perpetual grumpiness, he is widely regarded as the best coach currently. I found myself asking how he would stack up against the best of all time.
The minute one talks about best NBA coaches, the name Phil Jackson looms supreme. Eleven titles, six with the Bulls and five with Lakers. The old-timers will tell you about 'Red' Auerbach, who guided the unstoppable Boston Celtics in the late '50s and '60s. He won eight straight in those days (nine titles overall) and any conversation about best coaches cannot exclude him.
Pat Riley is also a formidable figure. Pat won five, four with the '80s Lakers and one with Miami Heat. This quartet would form the 'Mount Rushmore' of the leading coaches in NBA history.
Of all these names, Popovich is the only one who always competes at a very high level, challenging for and winning titles, without ever really having the very best players in the league on his team. Phil Jackson, in the '90s, had Michael Jordan, widely acknowledged as the best ever. Phil went to Lakers after and had the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant combination. Shaq was the kind of force that the NBA hardly sees and Kobe is probably top five all time.
Auerbach had Bill Russell, one of the game's greatest names, and he had a supporting cast that included stellar figures like Bob Cousy and Sam Jones. To win eight straight means that, clearly, Auerbach was coaching a team that was better than the field. Pat Riley coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the incomparable Magic Johnson. Again, these are arguably top-five all-time players as well, and at the very least all time top 10. When Pat went to Miami and won in 2006, he had Shaq and Dwyane Wade. Dwyane would arguably be in the top four best players in the league at the time.
as good as it gets
Popovich has won a few titles without any of his players really being in the top five of the league. He has demonstrated that he can beat the very best teams in the NBA without ever really having the league's marquee players. The Spurs players going back 15 years were good, but with Spurs, you get the feeling that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli are good players. Tim Duncan may well be considered just a tad below truly great at his best, but even so he wasn't at any time seen as the NBA's most dominant force. Spurs' brilliant run in the last decade and a half has been built on playing team basketball. When they defeated Miami in the NBA finals last year, they played a brand of basketball that I didn't even believe was possible.
The movement, the dazzling pace, the sharing of the ball, the team's ability to have scoring weapons from everywhere on the court made that Spurs performance the most majestic performance I've ever witnessed in an NBA final. Only the modern Barcelona, the 1970 Brazilian football team and the 1980s West Indies cricketers could match that Spurs team for combining ruthless efficiency with such breathtaking aesthetic appeal.
What Popovich has managed to do with the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills has been almost unbelievable at times. He has this ability to make mere mortals play like genuine superstars. If you ask about the league's best players over the last few years, names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony jump readily to mind. Their individual brilliance cannot be ignored. Although Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are in that company, they stand out more for what they can do in a team context as opposed to what they can do individually.
The fact that Popovich has been able to keep this team with its core players going so long, especially in the modern era, must also mean that he has the ability that all great coaches have, to develop player loyalty.
So is Pop the best ever NBA coach?
- Orville Higgins is a sport journalist and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.