Are Popovich and Belichick learning the same lesson?

The San Antonio Spurs missed the post-season in back-to-back campaigns for the first time during the 27-year tenure of Gregg Popovich. San Antonio enjoyed a dynastic run in the NBA, spanning two decades with Tim Duncan leading the team on the court, with the brilliance of Popovich on the sideline orchestrating runs to five championships. The last came in the 2013/2014 season when the new era of the Spurs appeared to be blooming as Duncan passed on the baton to Kawhi Leonard.

However, Popovich could not keep Leonard happy in San Antonio and was forced to trade his superstar, which has resulted in a tremendous decline for the franchise. The Spurs will now be underdogs for those betting on the NBA games with Betfair after losing another key piece during the last off-season in the form of DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs currently stand at odds of 100/1 to be crowned the Championship winners. Popovich now has a roster filled with fresh-faced up-and-comers in the NBA but is faced with the massive challenge of competing in the process of a rebuild.

There are key similarities between the Spurs and the New England Patriots in the NFL where Bill Belichick and Tom Brady dominated the league for a period of 20 years. The Patriots won six Super Bowls between the 2001 and 2018 seasons before Brady opted to leave Foxborough after failing to agree on a new contract with the franchise.

Much has been made of his departure, including strong insinuations of a fallout between Brady and Belichick regarding personnel and his value to the organisation even into his mid-forties. Brady proved a point in the 2020 campaign just as Kawhi immediately after his departure from San Antonio by winning a title with another team. Whereas Belichick has shared the struggle with Popovich and is trending towards a second season outside of the playoffs due to a lack of talent on his roster.

Both Belichick and Popovich excelled in their strategy on the field and court, respectively. They found icons that they could successfully build around to the tune of multiple titles. The two coaches should be commended for their long-term success. However, both coaches appear to be failing to understand their respective sports in the modern era where player-power is more important than ever. Duncan was a loyal leader on the court throughout his tenure in San Antonio, while Brady too was the complaint figurehead of the Patriots’ lockerroom for the majority of his time in New England.

Popovich was not ready for the challenge of controlling Kawhi and opted to trade away his superstar to attempt to maintain order, backing his own coaching brilliance and a strong locker room to maintain the Spurs’ run of success. It has backfired spectacularly on the 72-year-old, and he and the franchise have now been forced into a dramatic rebuild and are well off the pace in terms of competing in the Western Conference. It would not be a surprise to see the Spurs finish bottom of the standings in the 2021/22 campaign even with the promise of a few of their fledgling talents.

Belichick too gambled and believed that his own philosophy was greater than the sum of one player. It worked in the past with Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Logan Mankins. However, Brady was a step too far and it resulted in a 7-9 campaign in 2020. Although Mac Jones has offered hope for the franchise for the future in 2021, the Patriots are a long way from the dominant franchise of the past.

It has been a humbling experience for two of the greatest coaches of all time, and perhaps even a lesson for them even with their experience that the power lies with the superstars on the court rather than on the sideline.