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.

Hornets sign undrafted Virginia center Mike Tobey

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 27:  Mike Tobey #10 of the Virginia Cavaliers celebrates in the second half against the Syracuse Orange during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional Final at United Center on March 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The Hornets are plenty deep at center with Cody Zeller, Roy Hibbert, Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky.

Just in case…

Hornets release:

Charlotte Hornets General Manager Rich Cho announced today that the team has signed center Mike Tobey.

Tobey went undrafted after four seasons at Virginia then played well for the Hornets’ summer-league team. He’s a good offensive rebounder, and he has some touch with the ball. But his lack of length and athleticism really limit him.

There’s an outside chance Tobey competes with Aaron Harrison, whose salary is unguaranteed, for Charlotte’s final regular-season roster spot. Tobey’s standing and the Hornets’ center depth will work against him.

Most likely, this is just a way for Charlotte to stock its new D-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm. The Hornets can waive Tobey after training camp and assign his D-League rights to the Swarm. A partial guarantee on his NBA contract would probably entice him to join the D-League rather than play overseas.

Ex-Wizard Glen Rice Jr. charged with felony robbery, aggravated battery and possession of marijuana

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 02: Glen Rice Jr. #14 of the Washington Wizards looks to pass while being guarded by Solomon Jones #22 and E'Twaun Moore #55 of the Orlando Magic during the second half at Verizon Center on December 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. 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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Glen Rice Jr. — the No. 35 pick in the 2013 NBA draft — continues his fall.

He spent a couple years with the Wizards, got waived and then was shot and arrested in a single incident.

Now, he faces more charges.

TMZ:

the 25-year-old was arrested for robbery Monday morning in Georgia … less than a year after he was shot in a bizarre gunfight at T.I.’s restaurant.

Here’s what we know … Rice was booked at 6:37 AM this morning for felony robbery, aggravated battery and possession of marijuana. He has since been released from custody.

Tyler Johnson on $50 million contract: ‘I threw up a couple times when I heard the number’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  Tyler Johnson #8 of the Miami Heat looks on in the second half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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You thought it was crazy two teams — the Nets with an offer sheet and the Heat matching it — valued Tyler Johnson at $50 million over the next four years?

Check out his reaction.

Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald:

That’s a lot of money for anyone, especially someone who went undrafted just two years ago. But Johnson worked his way up from the D-League and impressed with his athleticism, feel for the game and outside shot.

There’s a school of thought that sometimes players are better off as restricted, rather than unrestricted, free agents. That was probably true for Johnson, whose status led to Brooklyn going over the top on an offer. Add a skyrocketing salary cap, Johnson was in the right place at the right time.

Ex-Cavalier Sasha Kaun retires

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Sasha Kaun #14 of the Cleveland Cavaliers works against Joel Anthony #50 of the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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Accompanying their signing of Chris Andersen, the Cavaliers paid Philadelphia to take Sasha Kaun. Cleveland, facing a steep luxury tax, didn’t want to pay both big men. It was cheaper to send the 76ers cash and have them waive Kaun rather than the Cavs doing it themselves.

But perhaps the Cavaliers could’ve just waited out Kaun.

Gary Bedore of the Lawrence Journal-World:

Sasha Kaun, one of only two Kansas University basketball players, along with Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette, to win an NCAA title (2008), NBA title (2016) and medal in the Olympic Games (2012 bronze), has decided to retire from pro ball at the age of 31.

“I was very blessed and fortunate to play as long as I have. I had a great experience for the (Russian) national team and professionally. Overall, it’s been phenomenal,” Kaun said Saturday in a phone conversation

Kaun said he started thinking seriously about retirement “toward the end of the season. I kind of feel my ankle has been bothering me awhile. With the amount of pain I was going through, I just wanted to be done. It’s something I’ve had all my career,” he added of right ankle problems. “It was definitely getting worse and worse, year by year. Especially coming here (one year in NBA after seven seasons in Moscow) … the intensity of the game I just kind of realized I don’t think I can go and do it any more.

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be happy playing. I’m not going to be happy not playing. I think it’s a good time to call it quits.’’’

Kaun joined the NBA at age 30 last year — eight years after being the No. 56 pick in the 2008 draft. He played just 95 minutes in 25 games for Cleveland in his rookie and only season.

Perhaps Kaun wouldn’t have retired if he had a roster spot on the defending NBA champions. At minimum, being a free agent made it an easier call.

Kaun was best known professionally for playing for David Blatt both with the Russian national team and the Cavs and not being Kendrick Perkins.