Jun 3, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT
Imagine an NBA general manager who, mid-season, fires the coach with the best winning percentage in franchise history.
Then, despite having no head-coaching experience outside something called Pomona-Pitzer, the general manager names himself head coach.
He goes 17-47 the rest of that season. Yet, he lucks into the No. 1 pick in the draft and selects the arguably the most NBA-ready rookie of all-time, a future Hall of Famer to pair with the one his team already has. Then, with two future Hall of Famers, he wins just one playoff series. In year three, he starts 6-8.
Think that coach belongs on the hot seat?
Well, Gregg Popovich was in 1999.
By March 2 of the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the Spurs coach faced intense scrutiny from within and outside the organization.
A popular former Spur named Doc Rivers also happened to be a member of San Antonio’s broadcast team in those days. The fans’ clamor for Rivers, who was already being billed as a coaching natural, to replace the what-has-he-ever-done Popovich got louder with every loss suffered during that slow start.
But by the time the Spurs were headed to Houston for the 15th game of a truncated schedule that left no time for early slumps, pressure on Pop wasn’t coming solely from the public or the media. The belief among many of Pop’s players was that the coach was on the brink of being fired. Or being forced, at the very least, to return to a GM-only role.
“It was different from the regular pregame,” former Spurs forward Malik Rose said, rewinding back to the game in question against a Rockets team headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.
“David [Robinson] usually didn’t say much beyond a prayer in the huddle when we brought it all in, but [before this game] David was saying, ‘We’ve got to get it together, we’ve got to do this, this is a big game.’
“If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc … that was the rumor. I would have to say it was real because of the gravity in the locker room. I’ll never forget it.”
Said then-Spurs guard Steve Kerr: “I can’t say I felt like he was close to getting fired, but there was a lot of discomfort with the way things had started [that season]. Pop wasn’t Pop yet. He didn’t have a name. The fans still didn’t really know who he was.”
[Avery] Johnson, Pop’s point guard and the most vocal of leaders on that Spurs team, says today that he has no doubt that Houston game was the ultimate must-win for the third-year head coach.
“Absolutely,” Johnson says. “Things had been communicated to us. It was really real.
“There was a lot of noise about Pop being potentially replaced by Doc, so David [Robinson] and I went to Pop’s house before we got on the flight to go to Houston. Pop talked to us and … what I will say is we came out of there feeling so strongly about Pop that we knew we had to go win that game.”
“I don’t know that I’d say the end was near,” said longtime Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, now coach of the Atlanta Hawks. “But there was a real concern that we weren’t meeting expectations. It was real. It was genuine. We knew we needed to start playing better and start playing better soon. So I would say it was real.”
Said Johnson: “At the end of the day my allegiances were to Pop because he had put such great faith in me. I felt if he would have gotten fired [after replacing Hill], I’d have been one of the reasons he got fired, because I wasn’t viewed as a starting point guard that could lead a team to the championship. So I really took that personal. [And] it was the most passionate pregame speech David ever gave. He was foaming at the mouth.”
The Spurs beat the Rockets by 17, sparking a 31-5 finish to the regular season and a run through the playoffs that ended with a championship. Popovich obviously stuck around, and Rivers eventually broke into coaching with the Magic.
Yet, this story – one of many told by Stein in an excellent feature on Popovich and Duncan – leaves so many fun and unknowable questions unanswered. The two that stand out to me:
- How would Rivers had done with the Spurs?
- Was Popovich already a great coach in March 1999, or did this one win give him time to grow into the job?
This – what if the Spurs had lost to Houston that Tuesday night? – is definitely one of the great what-ifs in NBA history.
Jul 4, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT
Fits with West’s desire to play for a contender, but he’d have to take very little money to sign there.
Jul 4, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
The Clippers went small the final five minutes of Game 7 against the Spurs, and it worked.
Jul 4, 2015, 12:33 AM EDT
At this price, it’s a fair pickup for New Yor, giving hem another role player.
Jul 3, 2015, 11:03 PM EDT
Hopefully Scott Skiles will play Harris this time.
Jul 3, 2015, 10:30 PM EDT
Curry is just that good.
Jul 3, 2015, 9:00 PM EDT
A big reason Jordan left L.A. to sign with the Mavericks.
Jul 3, 2015, 7:37 PM EDT
Beverley’s defense provides a perfect complement to James Harden.
Jul 3, 2015, 7:34 PM EDT
Rondo is not exactly going to space the floor for Cousins.
Jul 3, 2015, 7:10 PM EDT
They would make solid backups at a fair price.
Jul 3, 2015, 6:27 PM EDT
He is a good fit in the Rockets’ up-tempo system.
Jul 3, 2015, 5:15 PM EDT
She’s a San Antonio assistant coach
Jul 3, 2015, 4:31 PM EDT
Key for the Wizards is this is a one-year deal, so they save their cap space for a Kevin Durant offer next summer.
Jul 3, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
This is a huge blow to the Clippers roster.
Jul 3, 2015, 3:40 PM EDT
This was expected, now the Knicks move forward with Robin Lopez.
Jul 3, 2015, 2:52 PM EDT
Solid deal in a vacuum, but in Sacramento…
Report: Knicks to sign Robin Lopez to four-year, $54 million contract (unless DeAndre Jordan changes his mind)
Jul 3, 2015, 1:58 PM EDT
More evidence Jordan won’t pick Knicks
Jul 3, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT
Washington could land David West
Jul 3, 2015, 12:07 PM EDT
Third year is reportedly a team option
Jul 3, 2015, 11:08 AM EDT
I doubt Sacramento is celebrating quite yet
Jul 3, 2015, 10:31 AM EDT
Brooklyn making most of a self-inflicted bad situation
- Who should Clippers get to replace DeAndre Jordan? How about Blake Griffin. 15
- Report: Tobias Harris reaches four-year, $64 million extension to stay with Orlando 25
- Report: Rajon Rondo agrees to one-year, $9.5 million deal with Sacramento Kings 47
- Report: DeAndre Jordan agrees to four-year, $80 million deal to join Dallas Mavericks 55
- Report: Kings signing Marco Belinelli to three-year, $19 million contract 19
- Report: Knicks to sign Robin Lopez to four-year, $54 million contract (unless DeAndre Jordan changes his mind) 12
- PBT Extra: Free agent signings we didn’t love 6
- Report: Wes Matthews reaches agreement to join Dallas Mavericks 23