Gregg Popovich is the veritable godfather of the NBA. The grey-bearded playcaller has five championship rings, 13 division titles, and three coach of the year awards. He also possesses the record for most wins in league history and boasts a towering and prosperous coaching tree with over 40 proteges plying their trade at every level of the game.
Although his mythical stature in basketball lore can make Popovich seem immortal, the 74-year-old will one day have to trade in his clipboard for a life removed from the sidelines. Several heir apparents to his throne have passed through San Antonio since he took the helm nearly three decades ago, but his longevity has left them looking elsewhere for their chance at running the show.
Becky Hammon, Mike Budenholzer, Will Hardy, and Jaque Vaughn were all pegged as possible Popovich replacements at some point. However, none of them feel like candidates to leave the comfort of their gigs to guide the Spurs through a multi-year rebuild. That leaves San Antonio to scour their organization for an internal resolution, and Mitch Johnson might have put his name at the forefront of that conversation.
When a non-Covid illness forced Popovich and lead assistant Brett Brown to miss last night's matchup against the Indiana Pacers, Johnson stepped up to the plate and took over the head coaching duties.
Despite a bumpy start to the contest that saw the Spurs fall behind by 11 points in the second quarter, Mitch maintained his composure, pulled the right strings, and captained a second-half comeback.
The fourth-year assistant was great in his second go-round as the acting head coach. He mobilized a shorthanded roster without its leading scorer past a double-digit deficit and piloted them to one of their best defensive performances this season. What was most impressive was how he pulled that off while managing players with minutes restrictions and juggling the rotations.
It was also reassuring and heartwarming to learn the guys soaked the 36-year-old assistant in a celebratory cold-water shower after his first career coaching victory. And Johnson followed his triumph with a well-measured postgame press conference, paying homage to the words Gregg Popovich has preached throughout this trying 82-game campaign.
No one is looking forward to the day head coach Gregg Popovich treks to a podium to announce his retirement, but Mitch Johnson demonstrated he has the corporate knowledge to keep this system running. And Spurs fans might sleep easier knowing their hometown team might have a competent replacement waiting in the wings.