SAN ANTONIO – After more than 25 years on the bench for the Silver and Black, San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich is set to become the NBA’s all-time regular season winningest head coach. Pop has led the Spurs since the 1996-97 campaign when he took over for Bob Hill mid-season. He is about to eclipse Don Nelson, who hired Popovich as an assistant coach at Golden State in the early 1990s.
As Pop prepares to break yet another NBA record, we’re taking a trip down memory lane to look at his biggest coaching wins and some other accomplishments.
Pop names himself coach after firing Bob Hill
On Dec. 10, 1996, then Spurs general manager Gregg Popovich fired Bob Hill after the team started the season 3-15. Hill had been successful as Spurs head coach, but the team had some disappointing playoff exits.
The timing of the move was curious. David Robinson had not played that season and was set to return to the lineup. Pop took over when Robinson returned, but the Admiral broke his foot soon after and missed the rest of the season.
It worked out well for Pop as the Spurs won that summer’s lottery and drafted a guy named Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall selection. In 2014, Hill told the Boston Globe that Pop always wanted to be the head coach and he had a strong feeling that if he had the chance to fire him, he would.
Win No. 1
The streak had to start somewhere. On Dec. 14, 1996, Pop won his first regular season game as Spurs head coach four days after he fired Hill. The Spurs beat the Mavericks 106-105 as Dallas guard George McCloud missed a game-winning 3-pointer. Robinson led the Spurs with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
Spurs close out Great Western Forum
On San Antonio’s trek to its first NBA championship, Pop and the Spurs closed out the iconic Great Western Forum on May 23, 1999, sweeping the LA Lakers in the conference semifinals. Duncan was already a star and dropped 33 points and 14 rebounds on the early Kobe-Shaq Lakers squad. It was Pop’s first conference finals appearance.
Memorial Day Miracle
The Spurs swept Portland in the 1999 Western Conference Finals with the signature victory coming in Game 2, when Sean Elliott somehow hit an off-balanced 3-pointer over Rasheed Wallace, with nine seconds remaining, to propel San Antonio to a 86-85 win at the Alamodome. Portland never recovered and the Memorial Day Miracle lives on in Spurs lore.
Championship No. 1
Every Spurs title is significant, but the first one that started a dynastic run for the franchise is even more special. San Antonio beat the New York Knicks 4-1 in the 1999 NBA Finals.
It was Pop’s first title as Spurs head coach and he (along with Tim Duncan!) led San Antonio to the promised land after decades of playoff disappointment.
Convinced Duncan to stay
Arguably the biggest win of Pop’s career was convincing Tim Duncan to re-sign with the Spurs during the summer of 2003, when Duncan was a free agent and on the verge of signing with the Orlando Magic that offseason. Duncan could have joined a super team in Orlando, but Pop and Robinson worked some “magic” and managed to get Tim to remain with the Spurs. Who truly knows what that magic was.
There’s reports then Orlando head coach Doc Rivers’s policy against wives and girlfriends on the team plane led to Tim choosing to stay in SA. Whatever it was, it worked for the Spurs. Duncan won four more titles with San Antonio and is now in the Hall of Fame.
Spurs end Lakers’ dreams for historic four-peat
The Spurs had two embarrassing and excruciating playoff exits to the Lakers in the 2001 and 2002 playoffs, but finally excised those painful memories by eliminating LA in the 2003 West semifinals.
The Kobe-Shaq led Lakers had won three straight NBA titles (2000-02). San Antonio dominated LA in Game 6 at the then-Staples Center with Duncan dropping 37 points with 16 rebounds. This also led to the Lakers crying on the bench, so that was great. Pop and company would go on to win title No. 2.
Chips No. 3 and No. 4
At this point, the Spurs had already established themselves as a yearly title contender under Pop. With Duncan still in his prime, Pop continually added more pieces to improve the roster. Pop’s mentoring of Tony Parker helped elevate TP to an All-Star point guard and Finals MVP.
He also convinced Manu Ginobili to primarily come off bench during this period and Manu flourished in the role. Pop and the Spurs beat Detroit in the 2005 Finals and Cleveland in the 2007 Finals.
The 2014 season
From 2008 to 2012, San Antonio remained in the conversation for the championship, but returned to Finals in 2013 where they suffered a crushing series loss to Miami.
Pop somehow rallied the troops with an aging Tim, Tony and Manu and the Spurs ripped through the 2014 regular season.
Their victory over Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the 2014 West Finals was an iconic franchise moment with Duncan digging deep in overtime to carry San Antonio to a rematch with the Heat.
Spurs crush Heat for title No. 5
Pop cried. Duncan cried. Manu hugged people. LeBron lost. San Antonio went honking. All was right with the world.
Kawhi return game
We’ve hardly focused on regular season games, but this one was a little bit different. The Spurs beat the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 3, 2019 in Kawhi Leonard’s first game back in San Antonio after he forced his way out the previous season. Pop wasn’t a fan of the fans booking Kawhi, but this was a nice win for Pop and the crew. And yes, Kawhi ultimately had the last laugh by winning another title of his own, but for one night, the Spurs won the trade.
Pop becomes all-time winningest head coach in NBA history
Wait, what? I thought he hasn’t done this yet. Well, yes and no.
If you combine playoff and regular season wins, Pop has already broken the record for most wins as an NBA head coach, passing Lenny Wilkens in 2019 when the Spurs beat the Nuggets in Game 1 of their first round series.
This upcoming record is for regular season wins.
Regular season win No. 1,336
This will get Pop the record. I hope it happens in San Antonio, but Pop would probably prefer it happens on the road and chances are when it does happen, he will not talk about it. We’ll have time to reflect on this later, but an early congrats to Coach Pop.