Jun 3, 2014, 1:45 PM EST
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.
Mar 3, 2015, 2:55 AM EST
Goran Dragic would have sat out with back pain against anyone else, but he dropped 21 on the Suns.
Mar 3, 2015, 1:14 AM EST
Zach LaVine can get up. But you already knew that.
Mar 3, 2015, 12:01 AM EST
The Warriors fell to 46-12.
Mar 2, 2015, 11:15 PM EST
Griffin has missed the Clippers’ last 10 games.
Mar 2, 2015, 10:30 PM EST
Whiteside grabbed Len by the legs.
Mar 2, 2015, 9:45 PM EST
Hamilton had no chance.
Mar 2, 2015, 9:00 PM EST
Yes, you read that right.
Mar 2, 2015, 8:15 PM EST
Teletovic is also out for the season.
Mar 2, 2015, 7:30 PM EST
We’ll see about that.
Mar 2, 2015, 6:44 PM EST
He will sit out Tuesday vs. Atlanta.
Mar 2, 2015, 6:15 PM EST
Nine total shoes, three colorways each.
Mar 2, 2015, 5:30 PM EST
Has his extra run and touches since Josh Smith was released changing the dynamic in Detroit?
Mar 2, 2015, 4:30 PM EST
Nobody is talking about Dwight Howard as long as the Rockets are winning.
Mar 2, 2015, 3:45 PM EST
The Knicks got some wins and move out of the cellar.
Mar 2, 2015, 3:08 PM EST
Wizards forward has twice been suspended following altercations with Chicago
Mar 2, 2015, 2:28 PM EST
Lakers guard says he can take a joke – just not this one
Mar 2, 2015, 1:45 PM EST
Bulls facing big challenge without their best player
Doc Rivers on DeAndre Jordan for Defensive Player of the Year: ‘If anybody else gets that award, we need to have an investigation’
Mar 2, 2015, 1:18 PM EST
Clippers coach: ‘What he’s doing defensively, if he was doing that offensively, he would be recognized as the MVP’
Mar 2, 2015, 12:38 PM EST
I can’t wait
Mar 2, 2015, 11:59 AM EST
Sleeves notwithstanding, these are good
- Five Things We Learned in NBA Monday: Goran Dragic got his revenge in concentrated form 0
- League suspends James Harden one game for kick to LeBron James’ groin 19
- PBT’s weekly NBA Power Rankings: Hawks seem to be out of malaise. Maybe. 8
- Report: Jimmy Butler could miss three to four weeks with elbow injury 5
- Five Things We Learned in NBA Sunday: James Harden, LeBron James want your MVP vote 11
- Report: Sixers agree to buyout with JaVale McGee; he can sign with contender 36
- Bulls’ Jimmy Butler leaves with elbow injury, does not return (VIDEO) 0
- Adam Silver says data may prove Gregg Popovich right in terms of resting multiple players 18