Marco Belinelli faked a shot to draw the defender and then stepped inside to take the mid-range baseline jumper. When he made it and when the Spurs had their one final defensive stop, history had been made.
A routine regular season win during the dog days of the season in the final days before the All-Star break was anything but that. It was the shot that gave Gregg Popovich his 1,000th win, a milestone that confirms the fact that he is one of the all-time great coaches in league history.
With that shot and defensive stop giving him the win, Popovich became the ninth coach to the reach that pinnacle. It’s a list that includes Don Nelson (1,335-1,063), Lenny Wilkens (1,332-1,155), Jerry Sloan (1,221-803), Pat Riley (1,210-694), Phil Jackson (1,155-485), George Karl (1,131-756), Larry Brown (1,098-904) and Rick Adelman (1,042-749) and it is the latest part of a journey that began with his first win on Dec. 14, 1996.
That night Popovich was 999 wins shy after David Robinson scored 27 points in a 106-105 win over the Dallas Mavericks. Of course Robinson was the reason why Popovich was there in the first place or a lack of Robinson was the cause. The Spurs weren’t very good that year due to Robinson’s injuries and it led to a 21-win season.
Of course that can be forgiven now. It led to the Spurs winning the lottery and pairing Duncan with David Robinson starting on Oct. 31, 1997 against the Denver Nuggets when the duo had 36 points and 23 rebounds.
From the outside it looked like a nice start to a prosperous pairing but then you read the comments.
That night Popovich said: “It was a good win, but then I’ve never had a bad win.”
It was typical self-depreciating stuff from Popovich who in the ensuing two decades has gained acclaim for not only the wins and championships but also for his sense of humor in countless national TV interviews with sideline reporters.
And 19 years later after the 1,000th win, similar stuff highlights Popovich’s postgame comments to reporters in Indiana.
“Not too much celebrating,” Popovich told reporters. “I’ve been here a long time and I’ve had good players. That’s the formula. Getting the players is difficult, but I’ve been fortunate to have good ones. The time — that’s the most important element. You have to be around for awhile. It’s more a tribute to [the players] obviously than any coaches.”
But while Jackson’s triangle offense with good players won rings, so did Popovich’s adaptations of international players and the pass friendly style of European basketball. It led to 17 and likely 18 straight postseason appearances, 16 50-win seasons, four 60-win seasons and three coach of the year awards.
Popovich is the gold standard when it comes to current NBA coaches, especially when you consider that two of the league’s best teams are coached by men associated with him in Mike Budenholzer and Steve Kerr. They learned their craft as an assistant coach and as a key role player on the championship team of 2003.
They’re not the only two with past associations to Popovich. The others are Brett Brown (Philadelphia), Monty Williams (New Orleans), Quin Snyder (Utah), and James Borrego (named interim coach by the Orlando this week). Executives with ties to Popovich: Kevin Pritchard (Indiana), Danny Ferry (Atlanta), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City), Dell Demps (New Orleans), Dennis Lindsey (Utah) and Rob Hennigan (Orlando). Former coaches with ties to Popovich include Mike Brown, Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Jacque Vaughn and P.J. Carlesimo.
Unlike the others on the list of 1,000-win coaches, Popovich did not have any playing experience in the pros. He played college basketball at the Air Force Academy, was an assistant there before becoming the head coach at Pomona-Pitzer. Getting to know Larry Brown was his ticket to the league. He was an assistant with Brown at Kansas in 1985-86 and then three years later he became the top assistant with the Spurs.
After getting fired in 1992, he spent two years in Golden State before returning. This time it was as the GM and then when the Spurs lost 15 of their first 18 games in 1996-97, the magical run to a thousand wins began.
And if you want further proof of his stability in San Antonio just look at the rest of the league in terms of coaching changes.
Boston – (Six)
New York (Nine)
Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets (Six)
Charlotte Hornets/New Orleans Pelicans (Nine)
Oklahoma City (Seven)
Golden State (11)
Los Angeles Clippers (Nine)
Los Angeles Lakers (Ten)