There have been 324 head coaches in the NBA’s eight decades of existence. As of now, Gregg Popovich has won more games than all but four of them. On Tuesday, the Spurs dismantled the New York Knicks 100-91, enabling Popovich to surpass George Karl in coaching victories by notching his 1,176th dub. Not bad for a cranky, oenophile who was the forefather of the DNP era, which allegedly trivialized the regular season and relied on resting players to keep them fresh for the postseason.
In his trademark self-effacing manner, Popovich deflected from commenting on the milestone, per NBA.com.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he told the media, “except that I’ve had good players, and I’ve coached for eons.”
Someone has to deliver the ode to Popovich, though. Here’s the skinny on how incredible his feat is. He’s had the benefit of a stable, disciplined franchise and a few egoless superstars, but he’s also established himself as Picasso with a rotation as his canvas.
Popovich passed Karl with 306 fewer losses and though he’ll probably eclipse Pat Riley in wins early next season. It will take years to catch Riley in losses, if he ever catches him at all. Popovich has 176 fewer losses than Riley and his .694 winning percentage is fourth all-time, trailing Billy Cunningham (.698), Phil Jackson (.704) and Steve Kerr (.843).
Popovich’s pedigree makes him even more of an anomaly. Modern NBA coaches typically have some degree of professional basketball playing experience, or like the other eight of the nine winningest coaches in league history, they suited up for NBA franchises before grabbing a clipboard. Popovich is a throwback to the Bill Fitch, Red Auerbach mode of coach who stalked the sideline terrain. He floated on the outskirts of college basketball for a decade before his call-up.
He was more interested in becoming an intelligence officer during the Cold War than pursuing hoops before spending the 1980s at D-III Pomona-Pitzer, where he garnered an overall record that was 53 games under .500. Then, during his first season as Spurs head coach, a vacancy he created by firing Bob Hill, he went 17-47.
It also explains his esoteric philosophy on discovering players who’ve fit the Spurs culture over the years. Instead of searching for hoopheads whose lives are consumed by basketball, Popovich culls multifaceted people, who also share passionate external interests or hobbies.
The four men ahead of Popovich in wins, Riley, Jerry Sloan, Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson, better watch out because he doesn’t appear to be done ascending. He eclipsed Jerry Sloan’s mark for wins with a single franchise last February.
Popovich is committed to coaching at least until 2020 when he’ll try to lead Team USA to a gold in Tokyo, Japan. If he continues on a modest average of at least 50 games per year, that would put him at 1300 wins heading into the 2020-21 season and only 35 victories behind Don Nelson, despite accumulating half as many losses. Soon, Popovich won’t just be the dean of 21st century coaches. He’ll be the gold standard by which they’re all measured.
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