The San Antonio Spurs have won 60 games in the first season without Tim Duncan. Is this Gregg Popovich’s greatest season as head coach?
We’re nearing the end of another NBA season.
If the Spurs don’t manage to win another game, they will end the season with 60 wins for the seventh time in franchise history, including back-to-back years.
Spurs are now 60-18 this season, equaling San Antonio's second-best record EVER in franchise history through 78 games.
— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) April 6, 2017
However, there is something different about this year.
This was the first year that Popovich has coached the Spurs without Duncan in the lineup. Not only is the best player in franchise history retired, but Popovich had a slew of aging players to work with.
Manu Ginobli is 39 years old, Pau Gasol is 36 years old, Tony Parker is 34 years old, David Lee is 33 years old, and LaMarcus Aldridge is 31 years old. Danny Green (29) and Kawhi Leonard (25) are the only starters that are under the age of 30.
Prior to the beginning of the season, there weren’t many analysts, if any, that had the Spurs winning 60+ games this season with the current roster construction. 50 games? Maybe.
Nevertheless, Popovich has coached the Spurs to the second-best record in the NBA, despite the cards being stacked against him.
Let’s see how he matches up against other potential coach of the year candidates.
Coach Lue is in his second season as the Cleveland Cavaliers head coach. In his first year, he led the Cavaliers to their first NBA championship in franchise history. In year two, anything less than a finals appearance is a disappointment.
Advantage: Despite a shaky performance in the second half of the season, the Cavaliers have a 95% chance of securing the one seed in the Eastern Conference. Without a first seed, Lue’s chances of winning this award diminish significantly.
His other advantage would be the injuries to the Cavaliers this season. Kevin Love has played in 57 games, JR Smith has played in 37 games, and Andrew Bogut suffered a season ending injury in his first game as a Cavalier. With all these moving parts, Lue has had to play with several different lineups, likely leading to the sub-par defense we’ve seen in recent weeks.
Disadvantage: LeBron James. In terms of getting recognition for your accolades as a coach, there is no worse player to have on your team than James. Since James has returned to Cleveland, the Cavaliers are 4-19 when he doesn’t play, including 0-4 this season.
David Blatt brought the Cavaliers to the finals in 2015, and lost his job the next season. If Love and Kyrie Irving don’t get injured, the Cavaliers may have won the first matchup against the Golden State Warriors, and coach Lue would have never gotten his chance in the first place.
Coach Stevens took over the Boston Celtics in 2013-2014 at age 37, and has increased his winning percentage in each of the four years. This year, the Celtics have won 50 games, and were at one point, in very good position to win the East.
Advantage: Overachieving. If you ask anyone outside of Boston, the Celtics are overachieving this year. Isaiah Thomas is playing out of his mind, garnering him some MVP attention. Outside of Thomas, is the Celtics roster better than the Washington Wizards? Toronto Raptors? On paper, at least, definitely not.
Nevertheless, the Celtics are incredibly well coached, and a dedicated defensive team who have the luxury of depth on their roster.
Disadvantage: Seeding. Stevens could have elevated his status in the eyes of Coach of the Year voters by beating the Cavaliers on Wednesday, helping to secure the first seed in the East. If Stevens would have ousted the champion Cavaliers and earned a one seed, he may have taken home this award.
However, the Celtics got embarrassed at home by the Cavaliers, and dropped the following the game as well, all but eliminating them from one seed contention. Stevens is an incredible coach, but I believe he lost this award on Wednesday night against the Cavaliers.
Coach Spoelstra has been the coach of the Miami Heat since 2008, and is a two time NBA champion. However, since James’ departure, life has been difficult for Spoelstra.
Advantage: Massive overachievement. On January 13th, the Heat were 11-30, one of the worst teams in the NBA. Following that game, the Heat won 13 straight games, improving their record to 24-30. Since January 13th, the Heat are 27-10, one of the best marks in the NBA.
The Heat are 0.5 games back of the eighth seed Indiana Pacers.
They finish the season against the Raptors, Wizards, Cavaliers, and Wizards.
Disadvantage: If the Heat miss the playoffs, which based on the final schedule is very likely, Spoelstra won’t be eligible to win this award. At the very least, you must be a playoff team to earn yourself the right to be considered for Coach of the Year. Make no mistake about it though, Spoelstra has done the most, with the least this season, and should be acknowledged for it.
Coach Donovan was on the cusp of a finals appearance last year, but blew a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the conference finals. Unfortunately, that probably led to Kevin Durant’s departure, leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder without much help.
Advantage: Overachievement. Before the season started, the Thunder weren’t even a lock to make the playoffs, never mind be a sixth seed in a stacked Western Conference. Granted, the play of MVP candidate Russell Westbrook definitely helps his case, but he has gotten his role players to contribute and defend at a high-level.
Disadvantage: Competition. Unfortunately, the coaches we are about to mention ahead of Donovan have just had more success this season. Plus, he’s coaching a player who’s on the verge of averaging a triple double for the first time since 1961-62, so he won’t be given much credit.
Coach Snyder took over the Utah Jazz in 2014. In his first season, they went 38-44, and in his second season, they went 40-42, missing the playoffs both times.
Advantage: Overachievement. If you look at the Jazz roster, it doesn’t stand out at you. Gordon Hayward made his first all-star game appearance this year, and Rudy Gobert is a candidate for defensive player of the year. Outside of that, they just have a bunch of guys who are willing defenders and contributors.
The Jazz are third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, and first in the NBA in opponents points per game at 96.5 (Spurs are second at 98.2). If the Jazz can hold onto the fourth seed, Snyder has a great chance at taking home this award.
Disadvantage: The three teams ahead of him. While Snyder has been phenomenal this season, Mike D’Antoni, Popovich, and Steve Kerr have also done incredible jobs. If the voters value record over other attributes, Snyder is out of contention.
Coach D’Antoni took over the Houston Rockets prior to this season, and has coached the Rockets to the third best record in the NBA at 53-25.
Advantage: Moving James Harden to point guard. When it was announced Harden would move to point guard, many fans and analysts alike, thought the move didn’t make sense. Fast forward to the end of the season, and Harden is in serious contention for MVP honors.
While Westbrook is just imposing his will on the offensive end, Harden is playing within D’Antoni’s system which made Steve Nash a two-time MVP. Pick-and-roll, attack the basket and kick out to lethal three point shooters. In the modern age of the NBA, this system is incredibly effective, as the Rockets have made more three pointers this season than any other team in NBA history, including the Warriors.
Disadvantage: Kerr and Popovich. D’Antoni is most people’s favorite to take home this award, and you really can’t argue that decision. On paper, the Rockets are not a three seed caliber team, especially with the roster currently constructed in Los Angeles (Clippers). Again, if the voters value winning over other attributes, the award becomes a two-man race.
Coach Kerr took over the Warriors in 2014-2015, and the rest is history. In his first season, the Warriors went 67-15, and won the NBA championship. In his second season, the Warriors broke the regular season wins record by going 73-9, and lost in the NBA Finals. This year, the Warriors are 65-14, with three games left in the season.
Advantage: Kevin Durant’s injury. With Durant, it was hard to give this award to Kerr considering the caliber of talent on the Warriors. Four of their five starters were voted to an all-star game, two of which started in the Western Conference. However, when Durant got injured, people were skeptical as to whether the Warriors could be (as) successful as year’s past, considering the depth they gave up to acquire Durant in the offseason.
On February 28th, Durant was injured, and the Warriors lost that game against the Wizards. They lost their next game against the Chicago Bulls. After winning the next two, the Warriors dropped three straight for the first time in the Kerr era, and were on the verge of losing the first seed. Since then? The Warriors have not lost, winning 13 straight games, including at San Antonio.
Disadvantage: Repetition. NBA voters are always trying to find new candidates to give the award to, much like James and the MVP award. Technically, James is the MVP every year, but it would be boring to give it to him every year, so they find other candidates. If the voters value winning over all, then Kerr is your Coach of the Year. If they weigh in other factors, the next candidate might win.
Coach Popovich, the longest tenured coach on this list (by far), and took over the Spurs in 1997. Outside of his first year when he took over 18 games into the season, the Spurs have never missed the playoffs, and he has won Coach of the Year three times. If he wins this year, he will be the only coach in NBA history with four Coach of the Year awards.
Advantage: Overachievement. Duncan retired, Ginobli is 39, Gasol is 36, and Parker is 34. When a team loses their best player in franchise history, they can expect to struggle. The Spurs? They just managed to win 60 games, and have the second best record in the NBA.
They have done this with just one superstar (Leonard). The Rockets have one superstar, and the Spurs have seven more wins than they do. The Celtics have one superstar, and the Spurs have 10 more wins than they do.
Oh, and against top-5 teams in the NBA, the Spurs are 9-2, by far the best mark in the NBA.
Disadvantage: Kerr. It took Kerr winning a record 73 games last year to win the award over Popovich, who quietly won 67 games, the highest mark of his career. This year, the Warriors have five more wins than the Spurs do, and puts voters in a similar predicament. Reward the wins, or reward the wins and the quality of players?
The Final Case for Popovich
As i’ve mentioned, if winning is the end all, be all, then go ahead and give Kerr his second Coach of the Year award. He has the best record in the NBA, including a crucial victory in San Antonio with the one seed on the line.
However, if you take into account the quality of players on the roster, along with injuries, Popovich should win this award. Kerr, by far, has the best roster on the planet. Durant did get injured on February 28th, but the Warriors had already played 50+ games with him. Without Durant, they still have the two time reigning MVP Steph Curry, with Thompson and Draymond Green to go alongside him.
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The quality of players on the Spurs and Rockets is relatively equal, and the Spurs have beat them three out of four times, and have seven more wins on the season.
Yes, we must give credit to Leonard, who has played at an MVP level all season, and if it weren’t for Harden and Westbrook being completely out of this world, he’d be in serious contention to win.
With that being said, it’s Popovich’s system that has led them to another 60 win season in the wake of Duncan’s retirement. The Spurs are first in defensive efficiency, and second in points per game allowed to their opponent.
No matter who is on the roster, Popovich always has one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. That, in large part, is due to his schemes, more so than the players.
Popovich is to coaches what James is to players. Every year, the best player in the NBA is James, and the best coach in the NBA is Popovich. When you’re so consistently great at your job, people overlook that greatness because they are so used to seeing it.
However, this season, is not the season to overlook Popovich. Duncan is gone, Manu is near retirement, while Gasol and Parker are shadows of the players they once were. Still, the Spurs are standing here with a 60-win season, and the second-best record in the NBA.
To the analysts voting for the NBA Coach of the Year:
Popovich should be your choice.