Last Hurrah? Gregg Popovich’s Coaching Career Reaches Home Stretch

After 23 seasons and more than 2,100 games as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich has accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish. Coaching the Spurs to five championships and 1,422 combined regular and postseason wins, Pop has helped transform the Spurs into a model franchise and one of the most successful teams in NBA history.

At 70, however, it’s fair to wonder how much longer Popovich will continue to coach. In April, he agreed to a three-year extension but it is unclear whether he’ll actually continue to coach for the entirety of his contract. Should he coach for two more seasons, Pop would become the oldest coach in NBA history. It’s difficult to envision the Spurs without Popovich on the sidelines — but that time is coming, most likely sooner rather than later.

The Spurs have been trending downward for several seasons, culminating in a 7-14 start this season. It’s entirely possible that the Spurs could miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997. Tim Duncan was San Antonio’s last lottery pick and, together with Popovich, formed one of the most successful player-coach duos in NBA history.

Missing the playoffs this season would mean the end of a historic 22-season streak that the two helped build. If they do miss the playoffs, the Spurs would land a rare, and a potentially valuable, lottery pick. While making the playoffs would certainly be Popovich’s preference, a high pick could drastically change the team’s trajectory going forward.

Who Will Succeed Gregg Popovich?

Whether it be next season, or the season after, the Spurs are likely to have a new coach soon. Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan, who joined the coaching staff this past summer, are two likely candidates for the job. Duncan has 19 seasons of experience on the court as his main credential. The Spurs offense and defense revolved around Duncan for years.

The hands-on experience he acquired during his legendary career provided him with a blueprint of how a team should execute on both ends. He’s been around the team since retiring in 2016, previously working with players in an unofficial capacity. It’s unclear, however, whether he’d be ready for (or up to) coaching the Spurs as soon as next season. According to Popovich himself, he’s unsure of how long Duncan will coach. It’s also possible that Duncan could continue on as an assistant coach following Popovich’s retirement.

Hammon also makes logical sense as a successor to Popovich. After a successful 15-year career in the WNBA, Hammon has been a part of the Spurs coaching staff for five seasons. She’s coached the Spurs summer league team three times and led the team to the championship in Las Vegas in 2015.

Whomever is tapped to take over the team, it will likely be with the goal of continuing the stability that has been established.

What Would Change When Gregg Popovich Retires?

The front office has already experienced change recently with former general manager RC Buford being promoted to CEO of Spurs Sports & Entertainment. Brian Wright, his former assistant, was promoted to GM to fill the role Buford left behind.

The front office has been an integral part of the Spurs’ success. Identifying talent through the draft and free agency will take on an bigger role should the team be forced to rebuild. Popovich could still be a part of the front office after he retires, as he’s currently the president of Spurs basketball. If he keeps that role, it would allow him to focus on team building. Other legendary coaches, such as Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, moved into front office roles following their coaching careers.

On the court, the Spurs will have to do a better job of keeping up with league trends, specifically three-point shooting. The Spurs have ranked in the bottom five in three-point shooting each of the last four seasons. That said, Popovich has still managed to craft a high-level offense while relying on less efficient mid-range shots.

But after Pop is no longer the head coach, that’s going to have to change. More than a third of NBA teams attempt at least 35 three-pointers per game, almost ten more than the Spurs. The next head coach will need to value and embrace space and pace, encouraging players to shoot three-pointers more often.

The Spurs After Gregg Popovich

Whether Hammon, Duncan or another candidate replaces Popovich, the next coach will likely be taking over a drastically different team. If the Spurs fall out of playoff contention early, it’s possible that the Spurs will begin to tear it down to gain additional assets, as well as maximize their own pick.

It would be difficult to envision Popovich returning to coach a much younger team with little chance to make the playoffs next season. He is set to coach the USA Basketball Men’s National Team in next year’s Olympics. That could mark his final time as a head coach, providing him a chance to end his Hall of Fame coaching career with an elusive gold medal.

Promising young players like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl (and a possible lottery pick) should make the transition for Popovich’s successor easier. However, the next head coach of the Spurs will have big shoes to fill when Pop decides to retire. They’ll be tasked with leading the Spurs into a new era — hopefully one that has even a fraction of the success of the previous era.