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San Antonio Spurs: Who is Gregg Popovich’s successor?

Dec 13, 2018, 12:39 PM CST
SAN ANTONIO,TX - NOVEMBER 4: Gregg Popovich head coach of the San Antonio Spurs talks with assistant coaches (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO,TX – NOVEMBER 4: Gregg Popovich head coach of the San Antonio Spurs talks with his assistant coaches (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

For as infinite as his presence feels to fans of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich won’t coach forever. When the time comes, who deserves to take his place as leader of the franchise?

Well before he became head coach, Gregg Popovich has been at the heart of the San Antonio Spurs braintrust since the mid-90’s. Pop is responsible for the organization’s extended reign of the NBA for his adaptability, inventive coaching style and reputable personality.

Now just one win behind Jerry Sloan for third in NBA’s all-time coaching wins list, Pop is at the forefront of basketball’s Mount Rushmore of head coaches.

Inevitably a time will come when Pop decides that he’s not up to the stress and travel of his beloved job anymore. There’s been no direct indication about his plans for the future but at 69-years-old, you’ve got to wonder how much longer he can keep this up for.

Most wins by head coaches in NBA history:1. Don Nelson – 1,3352. Lenny Wilkens – 1,3323. Jerry Sloan – 1,2214. GREGG POPOVICH – 1,2115. Pat Riley – 1,210

— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) December 12, 2018

The day that Popovich retires will be a sad one in the Alamo City but his legacy will live on as his five banners hang from the rafters of the AT&T Center. Luckily for the organization, the Spurs bench is full of willing and capable leaders who are qualified to take on the role.

Around the association, executives and coaches from the Popovich tree of coaching are held in high esteem because of their experience with the Spurs franchise. The likes of Steve Kerr, Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown all learned from Pop in San Antonio and went on to lead elite teams of their own.

The possibilities are endless but there is only a small handful of coaches that would truly make sense for the next era of Spurs basketball.

Next: Becky Hammon

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – NOVEMBER 23: Assistant coach Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs sits alongside Bryn Forbes #11 during the game against the Pacers (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Becky Hammon

Just a month after the San Antonio Spurs collapsed at the hands of Miami’s Big Three and Ray Allen in the 2013 NBA Finals, Becky Hammon suffered a torn right ACL in her lone game of the season for the Silver Stars.

During her rehabilitation in the following months, Hammon spent time at Spurs facilities. She quickly began guiding some of the team’s younger players and consulting with Popovich about strategies.

Hammon performed like a well-oiled machine in her playing days, executing plays and using her keen passing vision to open up offense for her teammates. In Spur-like fashion, Hammon’s greatest asset was her attention to detail with the ball in her hands. As she recovered from her injury and prepared for her return, the Spurs made their second consecutive trip to the finals and claimed their fifth title.

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As the confetti cleared from the riverwalk and another offseason drew to a close, the organization brought Hammon on to the staff as the NBA’s first full-time female coach. This decision was a no-brainer for general manager R.C. Buford considering her mastery of the sport and preexisting prominence in San Antonio.

Hammon got to show off her ability in the 2015 NBA Summer League, where she took over the clipboard and served as head coach of a talented group. The Hammon-led Spurs cruised through the regular slate of games and won the Summer League Championship. Jonathon Simmons scored a game-high 23 points next to a youthful Kyle Anderson as Hammon put the league on notice.

This past summer, multiple teams expressed interest in adding Hammon to their staff but nothing ever came to fruition. It was reported that the Milwaukee Bucks considered hiring Hammon as general manager but decided to go in another direction.

Being Popovich’s replacement is a massive undertaking and Hammon is still relatively inexperienced as a coach. Even so, there’s a possibility that Buford swallows his pride and promotes Hammon despite of her lower placement in the hierarchy of Spurs coaches.

Next: Ime Udoka

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – NOVEMBER 23: Assistant coach Ime Udoka of the San Antonio Spurs talks to Jakob Poeltl (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Ime Udoka

Over the course of the Popovich-era, plenty of highly skilled and intelligent players made their way through the locker room. The team culture attracts true students of the game and players who want to learn how to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Though his impact on the court was minimal, Ime Udoka came to embody what it means to be a Spur.

Udoka suited up for San Antonio from 2007-2009 and later rejoined the team for 20 days in 2010. He averaged 4.5 points and 2.7 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game over that span. As a contributor on the court, Udoka was an average NBA player. What set him apart was his exceptional leadership skills and teachability as a veteran, which now garner attention as a coach.

San Antonio assistant Ime Udoka will interview for the Charlotte Hornets coaching vacancy later this week, league sources tell ESPN. Udoka joins Spurs assistant Ettore Messina and David Fizdale among candidates scheduled to meet Charlotte this week.

— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) April 22, 2018

In his first year in the league, Udoka only played four games for the Los Angeles Lakers before heading overseas. Through his willpower, determination and powerful voice amongst teammates. Popovich saw the potential for Udoka to take his veteran skills as a player and translate them to a coaching job.

Shortly after his playing days came to a close, Udoka signed with the Spurs as an assistant coach. It was beneficial to bring along a presence that was familiar with the system as San Antonio transitioned to a new style of play.

Amongst other contributions to the team, Udoka was pivotal in the recruitment of LaMarcus Aldridge in the Summer of 2015. The two played together in Portland early in their careers and used that rapport to bring the All-Star back home to Texas.

Udoka lived through the evolution of San Antonio’s “beautiful basketball” that came to a head in the 2014 NBA Finals. That team-based style of play spawned a new generation of basketball as ball movement and emphasis on building culture seeped into the rest of the league.

By hiring Udoka as the next head coach once Pop calls it quits, Buford can try to instill classic values while adapting to current trends in the sport.

Next: Ettore Messina

OAKLAND, CA – APRIL 24: Assistant Coach Ettore Messina of the San Antonio Spurs reacts to a play during the game against the Warriors (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Ettore Messina

By most accounts, Ettore Messina is the logical successor to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. Over the course of his four years with the organization, Messina has been Pop’s right-hand man on the bench. Messina has stepped in and controlled head coaching duties once in the 2014 preseason.

When Popovich’s wife passed away in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, Messina assumes the role once again as the Spurs fought back against the Golden State Warriors. His creativity when devising game plans comes from his extensive resume of coaching before landing in the NBA.

Over the course of his career, Messina has coached for professional teams in Italy, Moscow, and Madrid before joining the Lakers for one short year in 2011. He took a detour back to Moscow before finally getting hired by Buford shortly after the championship in 2014.

Messina’s head coaching record is extraordinary, winning 74 percent of his games before joining the Spurs. He won the EuroLeague Championship four times across two different teams and has a real knack for creating a winning product. He is as calculated as he is passionate and would very likely step into the job if offered.

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His name has come up in plenty of head coaching searches across the league, but Messina remains patient in hopes of the perfect fit for him. What job would be more perfect than the one he’s already doing?

Messina is already ingrained in the culture and spirit of the team, so it wouldn’t be too difficult of transition, especially because of his rapport with the personnel and dedication to the franchise.

In many ways, Messina could emulate the styles and teachings of Popovich with his own flair and personality. As much as it may be nice to carry on his wisdom heading into the future, the next coach should also be someone who can combat and critique Pop’s strategy.

Any of the aforementioned candidates would do an excellent job but Messina has by far the most extensive list of accomplishments as a head coach.

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Any of the aforementioned candidates would do an excellent job but Messina has by far the most extensive list of accomplishments as a head coach.