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.

Devin Harris’ brother dies in car crash

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Just awful news for Devin Harris.

Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News

The brother of Mavericks’ guard Devin Harris died Thursday afternoon after an early-morning crash on Central Expressway, officials said.

According to police, at about 1:40 a.m. Thursday morning Bruce Harris, 38, and a 36-year-old male passenger were in their disabled vehicle in the north bound lane of Central Expressway just south of Walnut Hill. A 23-year-old male driver of an Acura sedan and a 23-year-old male passenger were traveling north bound on Central Expressway and struck the back of the disabled vehicle. The impact caused the gas tank of the disabled vehicle to rupture and catch fire. All occupants were transported to Presbyterian Hospital.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban details his two lottery-reform ideas

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NBA lottery reform passed 28-1-1 with the Thunder opposing and Mavericks abstaining.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wasn’t against changing the system. He just had his own ideas of how to do it.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Cuban pitched other members of the league’s board of governors on a system in which the draft is abolished, with teams getting a pool of money to sign rookies based on their records.

“The team with the worst record gets the most money and the team with the best record gets the least money,” Cuban said. “It’s like a free agency. It makes it a lot harder to tank because you don’t know if you get the best players if you’re horrible all the time. “Nobody liked that at all, not a single person.”

Cuban’s other idea was to lock the team with the worst record into a draft slot — either third or fourth — to force teams to compete to avoid being at the bottom. That idea never got discussed in the board of directors meeting.

“Now all of the sudden, if it’s close at the end, you’re going to see teams play as hard as they can because if they end up with the worst record, they don’t get the best pick,” Cuban said, explaining the logic of his idea.”You basically eliminate them from getting the best player. Everybody else would just be the way it is now.

“Adam didn’t like that. That never got to the board of directors, but that one was my favorite. I brought up [the other proposal], but after that one got shot down, I didn’t bring up the other one. When I got no response on the one, I just dropped the other because it was obvious that what they had proposed was going to pass.”

Strange tactic to introduce the most radical plan first and then not propose a more moderate solution because the first idea gained no traction. It’s almost as if Cuban just wants to be a contrarian

Neither of Cuban’s plans would completely solve the issue, because both still incentivize losing.

In the first, worse teams would still get more money to spend on rookies. There’s also stronger incentive to tank when an established successful franchise is positioned to do so for a single year. Rookies won’t be scared off by an injury-plagued season that devolved into a horrific record. Armed with money to spend and banked credibility, those teams can swoop far down then vault right up.

It’s also important to remember the NBA isn’t simply 30 teams competing against each other. It’s also a single business competing against other forms of entertainment. It’s bad financially for the league to have markets that feel hopeless, even if they’re poorly managed. Giving bad teams a little extra money to spend on rookies might not be enough for them to land young players who instill hope.

In the second idea, teams would still jockey to be second-worst vs. third-worst, third-worst vs. fourth-worst, etc. – just as they do now. Bad teams would have to be more careful, but there’d still be plenty of late-season games where a team is clearly better off losing – the same games that create a perception problem now.

Are either of these plans better than the current system? Maybe. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey believes there’s still time to implement reform better than the just-passed measure.

I’m convinced the league will let several years play out under the new system before even considering an alternative – Cuban’s or otherwise.

GM Bob Myers: Steve Kerr can coach Warriors ‘as long as he wants’

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Rick Carlisle coached 13 seasons, including seven in Dallas, when the Mavericks stated he could coach them as long as he wanted.

Steve Kerr needed just three seasons with the Warriors.

Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area:

Kerr has done an amazing job in Golden State, implementing a pace-setting offense predicated on movement and fine-tuning a quality defense.

It helps to have great players like Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and eventually Kevin Durant. But Kerr has maximized them. He has also played a prominent role in establishing a productive culture throughout the entire organization.

Of course, health is the big catch. Kerr has missed significant time the last two years due to complications from back surgery. He’s looking forward to a long career, but those headaches and pains aren’t far in the rearview mirror.

Kerr clearly knows how to win with this super team, not necessarily as easy of a task as it appears. He has more than earned the right to stay on the bench for the Warriors’ next iteration, whenever that comes.

Hotshot coaches can fade quickly, but Kerr has established an unprecedented amount of goodwill so quickly. Hopefully, he stays healthy enough to take up Myers on his pledge.

Report: NBA not headed toward 1-16 playoff seeding

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league would continue look at 1-16 playoff seeding.

Ken Berger of Bleacher Report:

Silver is well-intentioned on this issue, and open-minded, too—as he is on most agenda items that could, in theory, make the league better. But despite his willingness to discuss postseason reformatting, multiple people familiar with league discussions say it’s not anywhere near the top of the agenda.

After its analysis of the issue in ’15, the league concluded that, for a variety of reasons, it wasn’t sensible to change the playoff format. The two key factors, according to league sources, were 1) travel; and 2) a belief among league officials that conference imbalance was a temporary trend that would correct itself, as it typically has in the past.

For playoff qualification to truly be fair, teams would have to play a balanced schedule. As is, teams play teams in their own conference 52 times and teams from the other conference 30 times.

More 10 p.m. starts on the East Coast and 4 p.m. starts on the West Coast would hurt TV ratings.

Plus, as relative conference strength exists now and has existed for several years, 1-16 playoff seeding would make it harder for bigger Eastern Conference markets and easier for smaller Western Conference markets to qualify for the postseason.

Quality of competition matters, and there would be value in the NBA building a playoff field of its 16 best teams. But follow the money. There isn’t nearly enough urgency with this issue to overcome the direct financial setbacks reform would cause.