San Antonio Spurs: Should Popovich return after next season?
By Cal Durrett
Gregg Popovich is set to enter his 26th season as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs and is chasing history. He needs just 26 more wins to surpass Don Nelson to become the all-time winningest head coach in NBA history. It would definitely be a major accomplishment and, perhaps, a great way to end his legendary coaching career after already having won five NBA championships and, most recently, an Olympic Gold Medal.
After all, Popovich is 72 years old, and while he is still among the best coaches in the NBA, it's far from a guarantee that he’ll return after next season. There is a question over whether he ought to continue coaching beyond next year. Bearing that in mind, let's examine whether Popovich should return after next season.
Why Popovich shouldn't return to the San Antonio Spurs after next year
Although San Antonio would be hardpressed to replace Popovich, they’re also entering a new phase and will have to do it sooner than later. Therefore, it may not make sense for him to stay and oversee a possibly prolonged rebuild.
Popovich has proven to be effective at developing young talent, which would obviously come in handy during a rebuild. However, he hasn’t coached a roster quite as young as this one, likely serving as a challenge that he may not want to take on so late in his career.
San Antonio does have options should he decide to retire, namely Becky Hammon. Hammon, who is now San Antonio’s second longest-tenured assistant coach, is one of the most sought-after assistant coaches in the NBA. Given her experience with the team, she appears to be the likely successor to Popovich.
San Antonio has had issues keeping assistant coaches in the past, however, considering they're usually near the top of other team's coaching candidates. Additionally, she has already interviewed for Portland's head coaching job this off-season. Were Popovich to stay on past next season, then San Antonio risks losing his most likely successor to another team.
However, were he to leave after next season, the Spurs could ensure a smooth transition with Hammon as the coach. With a new and younger coach, San Antonio could focus more on the long-term, whereas with Popovich, the front office has tended to focus more on the short term.
For instance, San Antonio could have traded former Spur LaMarcus Aldridge last off-season when he still had trade value, as well as Patty Mills and Rudy Gay. Instead, none of them were moved, likely in an effort to try and give Popovich a team good enough to compete for the playoffs.
The Spurs ultimately missed the postseason and lost out on receiving any assets in return for three of their veterans.
To his credit, Popovich still guided the team to the play-in tournament despite having to constantly shuffle the lineup due to injury and COVID-19 related absences. He also did this while navigating a compacted schedule, showing that he's one of the best at managing personnel and not just coaching.
However, as the league continues to change rapidly, he has been slow to adjust at times. For example, he's known to dislike 3-pointers and that has resulted in his teams ranking in the bottom five in 3-point attempts each of the last five seasons.
Instead, San Antonio has often led the NBA in mid-range jumpers. As a result, the team's offensive rating plummeted to 21st overall last season. As the NBA continues to rely more and more on shooting threes and much less on mid-range shots, the Spurs will need to trend closer to the rest of the league to keep up. That may be difficult for the team to do under Popovich.
Seeing Popovich retire from coaching would certainly be difficult for Spurs fans, though it may make the most sense given the direction of the team and the NBA. Coaching a rebuilding team can be a difficult task, with the priority much more on player development than on winning. While he's obviously qualified to do it, it's perhaps not the best fit for a future Hall of Fame coach who's used to competing for titles and not ping-pong balls.
Although he might not be on the sidelines after next season, it doesn't mean that he'll retire from the Spurs entirely. He is still President of Basketball Operations and could shift into that role full time, allowing his successor to handle the X's and O’s while he shaping the roster behind the scenes.
Overall, with the record for head coaching wins in reach, next season would be the perfect time for him to call it a coaching career, before possibly moving into another role with the organization.