1. The Athletic's Joe Vardon has history with the San Antonio Spurs coach
The Athletic's senior NBA writer Joe Vardon used to be neutral about Coach Popovich, even a fan sometimes. Based in Cleveland, he's written about LeBron James' adoration of the Spurs' coach a couple of times in the past.
Vardon also used to tweet some pretty favorable things about Popovich on his personal Twitter.
However, there were early signs he wasn't particularly fond of how Popovich handles media guys like himself.
Still, as The Athletic's official assignee to Team USA, Vardon mostly painted Popovich in a positive light while he was at the helm of the 2019 FIBA World Cup team that flamed out. In this piece about Pop's famous team dinners, he credited the coach with helping the team bond more than past USA teams.
After Team USA finished a disappointing seventh-place finished in that World Cup, Vardon seemed to defend Coach Pop (subscription required), pointing to the lacking roster as the biggest issue. A team even remotely close to the previous Olympic team would've been "markedly better", said Vardon. Remember that energy as we flash forward to the 2021 Olympics.
After a stunning exhibition loss to Nigeria, Vardon had a different tone (yes, subscription required again), regarding Coach Pop. Asking in what world a team highlighted by Gabe Vincent, Josh Okogie, and Precious Achiuwa could beat the likes of Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, and Jayson Tatum, he says it's "apparently a world where Popovich is coaching."
Two days later, after a July 12th loss to Australia, this awkward interaction between Vardon and Coach Popovich only escalated things further.
From this point forward, Vardon seemed to crank his agenda into overdrive, seeming to start unraveling as time went on. This was his tweet that night:
The comments section of this tweet is full of people calling out Vardon's growing agenda against Coach Pop. "Your conduct at the presser was more embarrassing than any result on the court," said one user. He then doubled down the next day, responding to a tweet by @GeminiHoopz for some reason:
Things were then relatively quiet on the Vardon-Popovich front for a while as the Americans began picking things up with exhibition wins over Argentina and Spain.
Then, of course, the day before Team USA was set to begin Olympic play, this happened:
Yup, that was none other than Joe Vardon asking JaVale McGee...if his mother was still alive.
Fully on tilt after this embarrassing exchange, he then reported on the USA's loss to France like you'd expect someone forced to write about their ex. In his July 25th article (subscription required), he does the following:
- Snarkily takes a shot at Pop's response to a reporter "who flew halfway around the world to watch his team lose."
- Mentions losing isn't a surprise since it's who the Americans have been in two summers under Pop.
- Mentions the team's then 6-3 record in non-exhibition play. Re-emphasizes this fact to end the same paragraph.
- Again brings up the 2019 World Cup seventh-place finish under Pop (whom he previously defended), and brings up the 2-2 exhibition record.
- Then reports that players are frustrated in the locker room about "running the San Antonio offense."
The players "being frustrated" argument was never verified by anyone else but called back by Vardon in a later article as something "reported by The Athletic." In reality, Kevin Durant later praised Coach Pop with keeping Team USA alive in the semifinals against Patty Mills and Australia.
One specific comment in the above Athletic article struck a nerve with me also. Obviously, Vardon isn't to blame for his comments section. Let's be honest: comment sections are generally terrible overall. But the group of people with this mindset also deserve a giant, American old-fashioned callout:
"Call me a traitor or whatever, but I’m kind of rooting against the United States… Pop has been behaving like more than his normal brand of [expletive] lately", said the user.
The comment received 53 likes.
Look, I get that Gregg Popovich is very outspoken with issues outside of basketball. He is also very curt with the press quite often, especially when he feels like the questions he gets are pointless. But rooting against a team full of athletes representing your country just to stick it to him? Get a freakin' grip.
Sadly, some of Vardon's tweets post-conference-incident seemed to have a lilt to them like he wasn't all that happy when they were succeeding. "The Australians have inexplicably let Team USA back in this game," he said during the semifinal game. Am I reading too much into this? Maybe, but there were other similar examples. I mean, could he be any less enthused here?
Again, I may have been influenced by past actions from Vardon and this is probably nothing, but it's hard to blame me at this point.
A couple of days later, Vardon tweets Team USA's inability to score is "inexcusable" given the roster but says it's been a common thread through two seasons under Popovich. In his related article for The Athletic, he brings up his own "frustrated players" argument again, saying they didn't seem to be enjoying playing in Coach Popovich's system. Gee, those poor, miserable guys.
With all of that said, what's the only appropriate way to respond to Vardon's badgering? Buckle up.