2011 NBA All-Star Game Practices

Was Doc Rivers one game from replacing Gregg Popovich as Spurs head coach?

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Imagine an NBA general manager who, mid-season, fires the coach with the best winning percentage in franchise history.

Then, despite having no head-coaching experience outside something called Pomona-Pitzer, the general manager names himself head coach.

He goes 17-47 the rest of that season. Yet, he lucks into the No. 1 pick in the draft and selects the arguably the most NBA-ready rookie of all-time, a future Hall of Famer to pair with the one his team already has. Then, with two future Hall of Famers, he wins just one playoff series. In year three, he starts 6-8.

Think that coach belongs on the hot seat?

Well, Gregg Popovich was in 1999.

By March 2 of the lockout-shortened 1999 season, the Spurs coach faced intense scrutiny from within and outside the organization.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

A popular former Spur named Doc Rivers also happened to be a member of San Antonio’s broadcast team in those days. The fans’ clamor for Rivers, who was already being billed as a coaching natural, to replace the what-has-he-ever-done Popovich got louder with every loss suffered during that slow start.

But by the time the Spurs were headed to Houston for the 15th game of a truncated schedule that left no time for early slumps, pressure on Pop wasn’t coming solely from the public or the media. The belief among many of Pop’s players was that the coach was on the brink of being fired. Or being forced, at the very least, to return to a GM-only role.

“It was different from the regular pregame,” former Spurs forward Malik Rose said, rewinding back to the game in question against a Rockets team headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen.

“David [Robinson] usually didn’t say much beyond a prayer in the huddle when we brought it all in, but [before this game] David was saying, ‘We’ve got to get it together, we’ve got to do this, this is a big game.’

“If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc … that was the rumor. I would have to say it was real because of the gravity in the locker room. I’ll never forget it.”

Said then-Spurs guard Steve Kerr: “I can’t say I felt like he was close to getting fired, but there was a lot of discomfort with the way things had started [that season]. Pop wasn’t Pop yet. He didn’t have a name. The fans still didn’t really know who he was.”

[Avery] Johnson, Pop’s point guard and the most vocal of leaders on that Spurs team, says today that he has no doubt that Houston game was the ultimate must-win for the third-year head coach.

“Absolutely,” Johnson says. “Things had been communicated to us. It was really real.

“There was a lot of noise about Pop being potentially replaced by Doc, so David [Robinson] and I went to Pop’s house before we got on the flight to go to Houston. Pop talked to us and … what I will say is we came out of there feeling so strongly about Pop that we knew we had to go win that game.”

“I don’t know that I’d say the end was near,” said longtime Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, now coach of the Atlanta Hawks. “But there was a real concern that we weren’t meeting expectations. It was real. It was genuine. We knew we needed to start playing better and start playing better soon. So I would say it was real.”

Said Johnson: “At the end of the day my allegiances were to Pop because he had put such great faith in me. I felt if he would have gotten fired [after replacing Hill], I’d have been one of the reasons he got fired, because I wasn’t viewed as a starting point guard that could lead a team to the championship. So I really took that personal. [And] it was the most passionate pregame speech David ever gave. He was foaming at the mouth.”

The Spurs beat the Rockets by 17, sparking a 31-5 finish to the regular season and a run through the playoffs that ended with a championship. Popovich obviously stuck around, and Rivers eventually broke into coaching with the Magic.

Yet, this story – one of many told by Stein in an excellent feature on Popovich and Duncan – leaves so many fun and unknowable questions unanswered. The two that stand out to me:

  • How would Rivers had done with the Spurs?
  • Was Popovich already a great coach in March 1999, or did this one win give him time to grow into the job?

This – what if the Spurs had lost to Houston that Tuesday night? – is definitely one of the great what-ifs in NBA history.

Way too early look: Who could make up USA’s 2020 Tokyo Olympic basketball team?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan and Kyle Lowry #7 of United States stand on the podium after defeating Serbia in the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Let’s start with the obvious: This is an exercise in futility. There is no way to predict accurately what the 2020 USA men’s basketball team headed to the Tokyo Olympics will look like. There will be injuries that sideline guys. There will be contract situations where key guys decide it’s in their best interest to sit out. Plus, there could be a guy just now entering his junior year of high school who we don’t know well yet but in four years will be a clear choice for the team.

Now that we’ve gotten through the tedious disclaimer, let’s have fun:

What will the 2020 USA Basketball team look like?

First, it will have a bit of a business attitude — Gregg Popovich is coaching now. Not that Mike Krzyzewski ran a college party Team USA, far from it, but with Popovich’s demeanor and the scare put into the 2016 team (and some improving world powers, such as Canada), expect the USA to be a little more focused next time around.

For the roster, who from the 2016 gold medal team in Rio returns for more gold? At the top of the list: A 31-year-old Kevin Durant will be back for one more run (and to climb on top of the USA Olympic scoring list). He will be the unquestioned team leader. The alpha. It will be his team.

After that? Young stars who want one more go at it such as Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Klay Thompson will seriously consider a return. Maybe Jimmy Butler. Those guys will have a leg up having Olympic experience and a commitment to the program.

After that, some big names that passed on Rio are going to suit up in Japan. There will be far less defection of top talent this time around — the fears around Brazil will be gone, and NBA players wanting to sell more shoes in Asia will be eager to sign up. I expect you will see Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and maybe James Harden decide they are in for the next round. LeBron James said he felt left out and may consider a return, but he will be 35 years old with 17 NBA seasons on his body by that point, does he want to put his body through an international curtain call? Probably not.

Rounding out the roster, expect a few guys from this year’s USA Select Team — the team the Olympic squad practiced against in Las Vegas at the start of camp — to make the leap up (as Kyrie Irving and others did this year).

Who? That’s the hardest thing to predict, it depends on development. Guys to watch include Victor Olidipo, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and Jabari Parker — some of them will be ready to make the leap.

One clue to the 2020 roster: Players that you see in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup will be more likely to make the 2020 team. (Yes, the World Championships are now the year before the Olympics, welcome to more of FIBA’s wisdom, as is the fact the Cup qualifiers fall during the NBA/Euroleague seasons.) Guys from the select team now that head to China in three years and perform well in that setting will likely have the USA across their chest in Japan.

Whatever team we send will have the most talent in those games. The question is will that be enough?

Check out the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays from last season

AUBURN HILLS, MI - APRIL 24: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for tip off against the Detroit Pistons in game four of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Palace of Auburn Hills on April 24, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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With athletes such as LeBron James and Kyrie Irving on the team, you know the Cleveland Cavaliers Top 10 plays of last season were going to have some special moments.

Yes, the block by LeBron and the stepback three by Irving that sealed the first Cleveland title in 52 years are on top of the list.

But there are some other ridiculous Irving handles and even a Timofey Mozgov dunk in there (a $64 million dunk, apparently).

Watch Spurs’ Dejounte Murray throw off-the-backboard alley-oop to himself in pickup game

Washington guard Dejounte Murray, center, dribbles the ball past Mount St. Mary's center Taylor Danaher (50) as Washington forward Marquese Chriss, right, watches duirng the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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Just a suggestion for rookie Dejounte Murray: Don’t do this in front of Gregg Popovich. You may not like his reaction.

That said, the Spurs needed to get more athletic this off-season — landing Pau Gasol certainly didn’t help that cause — so enter first-round pick Murray, who pulled this off in a recent pickup game.

Murray is going to be brought along slowly in a backcourt where Tony Parker and Patty Mills will be splitting time at the point. Murray is more of a combo guard and is going to have to shoot a lot better than he did in college (28.8 percent from three) to get some run. But this is a situation where the Spurs can groom him, bring him along slowly, and see if they have another draft steal.

He’s certainly got the athleticism.

Corey Brewer: “James (Harden) is going to play defense this year”

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 18:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets walks across the court during their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Toyota Center on March 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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James Harden‘s defense is not as bad as its reputation.

Well, at least it wasn’t two seasons ago — his near MVP season he was in good enough shape that he could put in a respectable effort on that end and still handle his massive offensive load. There were still some mental lapses, but his focus was better and his improvement lifted the team defense. Last season, he regressed back to youtube “highlight” defense Harden — his conditioning was not where it needed to be, he didn’t expend as much effort on that end, and it showed.

Harden got a massive contract extension this summer, and Dwight Howard is Atlanta’s problem — now Harden has to lead the Rockets. By example. Corey Brewer told ESPN you’re going to see that on defense.

“I think this year he’s going to play better defense, We’re going to let the past be in the past. It’s the future of the Rockets, man. James is going to play defense this year.”

We’re all Missourians on this one: Show me.

Remember that the Rockets will be out and running — Mike D’Antoni is the coach now, and Daryl Morey is going to get the up tempo ball he wants (which Kevin McHale had them doing, but Harden didn’t like him so…). D’Antoni’s teams in Phoenix played better defense than their reputation — points per possession they were middle of the pack — but that has never been his focus.

Will Harden be able to run like he needs to on offense and still defend at a reasonable level?

If he can, it’s a big step toward the Rockets being a dangerous team in the West because if he does it others will follow. Otherwise, every Rockets game will be a shootout, which is entertaining but not going to get a team deep into the playoffs.