Fiesta Shorts: In Defense of Gregg Popovich During These “Unpleasant” Times

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Fiesta Shorts

Hello and welcome to Fiesta Shorts, a new weekly series on Project Spurs. Before today, Fiesta Shorts, “A totally non-serious Spurs blog” existed as a Substack and newsletter, and you can find old posts here. Now, and going forward, you’ll find Fiesta Shorts on Project Spurs, and we (a.k.a. Fiesta Shorts a.k.a. Trace a.k.a. the author) are stoked about it!

I guess I should start this off by saying that I really wanted to avoid this topic, but after being explicitly asked to write about this topic, I will write about this topic. This topic being how much blame should we assign head coach Gregg Popovich when something unpleasant happens to the San Antonio Spurs.

“Something unpleasant” is a little bit vague but I’ll go ahead and define it as anything from trading the team’s best player to the Spurs losing a game

Well, great. 

San Antonio has lost a lot of games over the last three seasons. They’ve also traded away their best player three times in recent years. So, I have a lot to cover in a short period of time.

Gregg Popovich hugs Dejounte Murray after winning his 1,336th NBA regular season game
Gregg Popovich hugs former Spur Dejounte Murray after winning his 1,336th NBA regular season game. Photo: Eric Gay (Keystone)

The Front Office Stuff

Let’s start with the trade of Dejounte Murray because it’s the most fresh version of “something unpleasant” to happen. You might run into a lot of people who were happy about this. So, here’s where I remind you that this is my opinion piece, and we’re calling it something unpleasant. Them’s the breaks, y’all.

Murray was traded for a number of reasons, ranging from the fact that he didn’t want to sign an extension with San Antonio to the Atlanta Hawks being willing to part with multiple first-round picks to acquire his services. It is true that Popovich signed off on the trade? Yes. But is the fact that Murray is no longer a Spur squarely (or even half-squarely) on Pop’s shoulders? I don’t think so.

I think to make that claim, you’d have to successfully argue that it’s largely Popovich’s fault that Kawhi Leonard is no longer a Spur. Murray was drafted to play with Leonard and destroy backcourts around the league on defense, and then mostly get out Leonard’s way on offense.

That, of course, didn’t pan out and left Murray in San Antonio as the lone defensive and offensive playmaker.

I’d love, more than anything, to really know what exactly went wrong with Leonard in San Antonio, but I still haven’t heard anything more substantial than some finger-pointing at the Spurs’ medical staff. That’s hardly enough to indict Pop. And this tangent has gone on long enough – I’m not willing to pin either Leonard’s or Murray’s trade on Popovich.

The Coaching Stuff

Let’s hit the other end of the spectrum – losing games.

The Spurs have had losing records for three seasons in a row, so they have lost a lot of games. More than they’ve won, if I understand the meaning of “finishing the season with a losing record” correctly.

Certainly, a coach who presides over losing season after losing season owns some blame for those losses. What I don’t know how to judge is, how many of these games were lost because of bad coaching decisions vs. bad drafting vs. bad trading vs. bad free agency. How much of the non-coaching failure can we blame Popovich for?

I would hope that Popovich has some say in the draft, in trades, and in free agency. He’s the one who has to coach the players, after all. But much like I don’t think it’s a good idea to let your star player call the general manager’s shots, I don’t think Popovich should necessarily have the most powerful vote in the front office.

There have been some draft busts over the years, but the Spurs also haven’t been bad enough to draft a no-brainer like Ja Morant, Luka Dončić, or Tim Duncan since uh… 1997.

I guess we have to assign a lot of fault for that to Popovich, who oversaw 22 consecutive playoff berths from 1998-2019.

Should He Be Replaced?

Here’s where it gets most interesting for me. Rebuilds aren’t always interesting for successful coaches. They’re often a chore that a hungry, first-time head coach takes as a baptism by fire. So why is Popovich still coaching the not-very-good San Antonio Spurs instead of chasing one last ring with a contender?

Why are Ime Udoka, Becky Hammon, and Will Hardy (among others) all off head coaching elsewhere?

Based on the information available to me, I’d say it’s because this is how Popovich wants to finish his career. He wants to spend the twilight of his career developing players to be great in the future. If you’ve been beating the player development drum, is there a current head coaching hopeful you’d rather have develop these players than Popovich?

Pop knows his Spurs are currently a front-runner to “win” the NBA draft lottery next season, and that his last winning season might be further away than his next winning season.

The Spurs have never seen themselves in this position during the Popovich era. But, if you believe he’s one of the best to ever coach this sport, what’s the argument for hiring someone else – someone who isn’t one of the best to ever coach a basketball team – to lead San Antonio when things are bleak?

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