Gregg Popovich – winningest of all time?

Marco Benitez
SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 12: Head Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 12, 2014 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Last Monday (PHL time), the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Phoenix Suns, 112-95, and gave head coach Gregg Popovich another coaching milestone: his 1,156th career victory. The win pushed him past the Zen master and 11-time champion, Phil Jackson, for sixth all-time. Of the top 6, only Popovich is still active, and among them, he has the highest winning percentage (.694). Of the top 10 all-time, he is second only to Phil Jackson’s .704 winning percentage, as it took him 1,665 games to reach that milestone, though he is the only to have done it with one team. In the Playoffs, Pop has amassed the third most number of wins (166), behind only Pat Riley (171) and Jackson (229).

At the rate he has won – approximately 53 wins per season – Pop is on track to surpass the five others ahead of him – George Karl (1,175), Pat Riley (1,219), Jerry Sloan (1,221), Lenny Wilkens (1,332) and Don Nelson (1,335) – and become the winningest all-time in the next couple of seasons.

Undeniably, Gregg Popovich ranks among the top-three coaches of all time. Not only is his greatness measured by his place on the all-time winning list, but the manner by which he has consistently won year in and year out is what makes his coaching career so astounding. Over the course of his 21 years with the Spurs franchise, Pop has led the team to six conference titles, five world championships, and probably the highest winning percentage of a team in the last two decades. Since he started coaching the Spurs, they have only missed the playoffs just once, making them one of the most successful franchises in NBA history.

While it is true that Phil Jackson may have more rings under his belt (11), some may argue that he had on his teams four all-time NBA greats in Michael & Scottie (Bulls) and Shaq & Kobe (Lakers). In contrast, Pop has been able to remain a contender throughout the past 2 decades with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker (28th pick), Manu Ginobili (57th pick), and a continuous stream of role players and grizzled veterans whom he has turned into vital cogs to keep the San Antonio train rolling. Pop’s ability to draw out the best from players by making them buy into a winning system, whether they are journeyed veterans, overlooked draftees, aspiring developmental league stars, or even unheralded rookies, is probably what sets him apart. That and choosing high character franchise players – like Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili – who did not mind taking a step back and playing slightly smaller roles, and even taking less salary, to be able to bring in and accommodate fresh talent, is probably one of the secrets to Popovich’s and the Spurs’ success. 

The culture that Pop and General Manager R.C. Buford have ingrained in San Antonio, so successful that it’s been coined the Spurs’ Way – a system that promotes equal opportunity, player development, ball movement, defense, and trust in the collective rather than the individual – is now being emulated by many other franchises, convinced of its effectiveness in terms of sustainable success. And the coaches that have come from Popovich’s coaching tree, like Steve Kerr, Mike Budenholzer, and even Quin Snyder, have developed their own version of it, with Kerr already reaping tremendous success in Golden State.

Again, it’s only a matter of time before Gregg Popovich, the hard-nosed, sometimes gruff, sometimes-a-reporter’s-worst-nightmare, head coach of the NBA’s most successful franchise in the last two decades becomes the winningest coach in NBA history. Already he has steered San Antonio smoothly through the post-Tim Duncan era, is preparing the way for Manu and Tony’s eventual retirement; and, if not for Kawhi’s sprained ankle, could have even made it all the way to the NBA Finals last season. In many ways, through his coaching, and recently his being more outspoken on political issues, he epitomizes the culture that he has tried to ingrain – that is is never about the individual, but the good of the whole that is important; and, that individual success must always be in the greater context of the team’s success.

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