2011 NBA All-Star Game Practices

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


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.

JaVale McGee apparently makes Warriors regular-season roster

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15:  JaVale McGee #1 of the Golden State Warriors brings the ball up the court against the Los Angeles Lakers during their preseason game at T-Mobile Arena on October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Golden State won 112-107. 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 Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr warned us, but it’s still difficult to digest.

The NBA’s best team will have the league’s most foolhardy player.

Yes, the Warriors are apparently keeping JaVale McGee.

Golden State waived its other three players without guaranteed salaries today: Elliot Williams, Phil Pressey and Cameron Jones. That drops the Warriors’ roster, including McGee, to 15, the regular-season limit. Unless Golden State prefers to open the season with a vacancy, McGee made the team.

McGee earned the job with a strong preseason. No Warriors match his rim protection, giving him clear value in certain matchups

Zaza Pachulia remains Golden State’s starting center, and Draymond Green will play plenty at the position. But I wouldn’t be surprised if McGee outperforms an aging Anderson Varejao (whose primary skill is flopping) and a rookie Damian Jones (who’s recovering from injury) to become a rotation regular.

McGee also has potential to add comic relief to what’s already a tremendous viewing experience.

Report: Kings and Thunder were ‘seriously engaged’ on Rudy Gay-Cameron Payne trade until Payne got hurt

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 03:  Rudy Gay #8 of the Sacramento Kings during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 3, 2016 in Dallas, 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Kings are still looking for answers at point guard.

Darren Collison? Not for the season’s first eight games, at least.

Ty Lawson? Um…

Seth Curry? Too late.

Ricky Rubio? Not right now.

Goran Dragic? I mean, maybe, I guess.

Cameron Payne?

If it weren’t for Payne’s foot injury, perhaps Rudy Gay would play for the Thunder.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Kings were seriously engaged with Oklahoma City on a Rudy Gay deal that would’ve included the Thunder’s second-year point guard, Cameron Payne, but those talks stalled after Payne broke his foot in September, league sources said.

This suggest the Kings are not as steadfast on keeping Gay as they’ve suggested, so perhaps we’ll see more trade rumors involving him.

A deal based around Gay and Payne would’ve made sense for both teams.

Sacramento would get a younger player (22 to Gay’s 30) and someone under greater team control (three more years on a rookie-scale contract then restricted free agency rather than Gay planning to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent). Payne would give the Kings much-needed hope at point guard, and he could grow with a team trying to retool around DeMarcus Cousins.

Oklahoma City is far more capable of winning now, even without Kevin Durant, and Gay would help by replacing some of Durant’s scoring punch at small forward. Such a deal could hinder the Thunder down the road, but they seem so intent on making a statement behind Russell Westbrook this season. The bigger concern than swapping Payne’s future for Gay’s present might be Gay opting in and interrupting Oklahoma City’s bigger goals for next summer.

Alas, Payne’s injury puts such a trade on hold, if not closing the window for it entirely.

Elton Brand retires ‘for real, this time’

BOSTON, MA - MAY 12:  Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrates a shot in the first quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Elton Brandretired” last year, though he left the door open for a return.

The 76ers, desperate for a veteran presence, signed him last January. They even re-signed him this offseason.

But Brand wont stick with Philadelphia into the regular season.

Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly:

Brand had a $1 million guarantee on his contract. It’s unclear how much, if any, of that money he’ll get. The first $980,431 would come from the 76ers, any more would come from the league. Philadelphia is far enough below the salary floor to give him a parting gift with minimal team-building constraint.

There had been talk of Brand surviving from the 20-man offseason roster to the 15-man regular-season roster, but this provides clarity for the 76ers. Undrafted rookies James Webb III, Brandon Paul, Cat Barber and Shawn Long are the other likely cuts.

If this is truly the end for Brand, he had a fantastic career since the Bulls drafted him No. 1 overall in 1999. Neither his peak (seventh in 2006 MVP voting, leading the Clippers that year to their first playoff-series victory in Los Angeles) nor longevity (17 seasons, including eight averaging at 20 points and nine rebounds per game) have been properly appreciated.

J.R. Smith denies racism toward Jeremy Lin

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 19:  Jeremy Lin #17 of the New York Knicks reacts with teammate J.R. Smith #8 during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at Madison Square Garden on February 19, 2012 in New York City. 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 Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Jeremy Lin sensibly noted how his Asian-American heritage has influenced his basketball career, for better or worse.

Among the negatives: It made it harder for Lin to gain acceptance as a basketball player.

But did J.R. Smith show that prejudice against Lin while they played together with the Knicks? That’s what Craig Carton claimed when Lin appeared on Boomer & Carton.

  • Carton: “Let me say directly what we think went on, and you tell me if you felt it or if I’m right. There’s the thought – and I believe this, so I’ll say it’s my thought, maybe no one else’s – that there’s a racial component that because you’re a Chinese-American player, that certain African-American players in your locker room, J.R. Smith being one of them, did not want to accept you as a ballplayer. And when you were offered money to play and this big contract comes your way, there’s resentment because of where you’re from and who you are. Did you ever feel that?”
  • Lin: “Yeah, I don’t know. That’s such a hard question, because I’ve never spoken to him or anybody directly about it. So, it’s all speculation. Do I think that – I’ve never spoken to J.R. about it. I’ve never spoken to whoever else you might think about it. And so it’s hard for me, because I don’t want come out and speculate. I will just say, the one thing I will say is that race has been a huge part of my journey ever since I was a child trying to play basketball. So, I do think there’s always that type of component that would be involved, but again, I’ve always said, it’s a double-edged sword. It comes with the good. It comes with the bad. And the bad is, yeah, sometimes I’m different. I look different, and I’m treated different, and that’s a negative thing. And in some ways that’s a really positive thing, too. Linsanity wouldn’t have been Linsanity if I was white or black or whatever. Part of the reason why it was so crazy is because I’m Asian. So to answer your question, I do think race definitely plays a part into it. I think it always has. And to what degree or to how much or to who felt what, that I can’t really specifically give a good answer for you.”

Smith responded emphatically:

I can’t speak to what’s in Smith’s mind, but I’m going to need better evidence than Carton’s unsubstantiated claim that Smith showed racism toward Lin before I believe it.