Updated: Oct 9, 2021
At 72 years old, the legendary Gregg Popovich is the oldest coach in the NBA, both currently and in league history. He's done it all in his 24 years as head coach for the San Antonio Spurs, including five championship rings and three Coach of the Year selections. Popovich has nothing left to prove, yet he's still kicking; the Spurs currently sit at 11-10, good for tenth in the Western Conference. Though San Antonio hasn't been stellar this season, there's a reason they made 22 straight playoff appearances under Popovich.
The Spurs don't have a true franchise player right now, but Popovich keeps finding combinations that lead to wins. He isn't the only secret ingredient to such prolonged competitiveness in San Antonio. The Spurs as an organization have a stellar reputation for drafting the right players for their system and developing them into their fullest form.
In Popovich's first season as head coach, the Spurs had a dismal 20-62 record that earned them the first pick in the 1997 draft. They selected power forward Tim Duncan – the "Big Fundamental" – out of Wake Forest, and the rest is history. He was the perfect fit for Popovich's meticulous strategies; both spurned flashiness for winning at all costs. After watching a rookie Duncan in summer league play, Popovich said that "If I try to coach this guy, the only thing I can do is screw him up." He was just that transcendent of a talent.
Just two seasons later, the tandem of Duncan and center David Robinson led the Spurs to the franchise's first championship. San Antonio's front office struck gold twice more with Manu Ginóbili (selected 57th overall in 1999) and Tony Parker (selected 28th overall in 2001). Duncan, Parker, and Ginóbili became the new "Big Three" to beat in the league, as they won it all in 2003, 2005, and 2007.
The Spurs acquired Kawhi Leonard on draft night in 2011 from the Pacers, and of course, it was another decision that paid dividends. He was the driving force behind San Antonio's shocking upset of the Miami Heat – who had a Big Three of their own in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh – in the 2014 Finals. After winning Finals MVP, Leonard made two more All-Star appearances for San Antonio before being traded to the Raptors.
It takes a special front office to acquire this much first-rate talent, but it takes an exceptional coach to lead them correctly. Popovich is a unique leader in that he's more intense than most head coaches, but he's also adept at forging close relationships with his players. In a normal world without COVID-19, he would host dinners upon dinners for his team to know each other intimately. When it comes to basketball, Pop is an entirely different beast. He'll scream and shout at referees if they make a questionable call, and he rarely rewards reporters with a thorough post-game interview.
Popovich and the “Spurs Way” he’s established in his quarter-century as head coach has allowed for the peaceful transition of power from era to era. David Robinson ceded to Tim Duncan, Duncan made way for Leonard, and Tony Parker set the stage for Dejounte Murray. Additionally, Popovich is masterful in the way he makes adjustments to his system based on the personnel he’s working with that season. He had always been slightly behind the curve in terms of 3-point shooting, but that was a choice he made. This season, both LaMarcus Aldridge (previously allergic to the deep shot before last season) and DeMar DeRozan (a midrange specialist) are attempting more threes.
Though the Spurs are currently caught in a transition period between contending and rebuilding, they do have quite the promising young core. Thanks to strong scouting, San Antonio has made the most out of their last five draft classes despite not having a selection above 11th. Dejounte Murray (2016), Derrick White (2017), and Keldon Johnson (2019) were all selected 29th overall, while Devin Vassell (2020) and Lonnie Walker IV (2018) were selected 11th and 18th, respectively.
Murray and Johnson have stood out to me on a San Antonio roster split between seasoned veterans and young bucks. Murray is an elite rebounder at the point guard (averaging seven boards per game), and his excellent on-ball defense has already come in handy this year. He still hasn’t found his stroke from deep (30.4% this season), but it’s encouraging that he’s averaging twice as many attempts as last year. Johnson is the Spurs’ Energizer Bunny; he has a wicked second jump that allows him to collect 7.5 rebounds per contest at small forward. The Tennessee product has shown playmaking flashes (2.2 assists per game) and is putting up a respectable 15 points per night.
The Spurs will likely be better off dealing DeRozan and Aldridge and unloading their combined $51.7 million worth of cap space. They’ll likely be able to grab some draft picks or young developmental players (their favorite!). But until they make a move or until Popovich retires, the Spurs will never stop fighting for a playoff spot.