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.

Report: Minnesota “intent” on trading Ricky Rubio to get more shooting

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It’s easy to look at the trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota now and think “that team will make the playoffs next season and be a contender in a few years.” They have set themselves up for that potential run.

But with those three on the floor, Minnesota needs shooters at the other two spots to provide spacing. Butler may have hit 36.7 percent of his threes last season, but he is far more dangerous as a slasher getting to the rim. Same with Wiggins (who shot 35 percent from three). Obviously, Towns operates around the basket. The defensive strategy against the Timberwolves is not hard to envision: Pack the paint and make them shoot over the top of you. Take away the inside.

Minnesota needs shooters. To get that they are dangling Ricky Rubio, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Rubio should have value, and he makes a reasonable $14.3 million next season and $15 million the one after (a fair price for a point guard of his quality). He remains one of the best passers in the league, a guy with amazing court vision. He’s also one of the better defensive point guards in the NBA. He shot the ball well after the All-Star break last season (35.3 percent from three) and was more aggressive getting his shot, but Tom Thibodeau is clearly not sold that’s a permanent change.

Minnesota has some cap space and could chase a player like Patty Mills at the point or Kyle Korver as a free agent to give them shooting, plus try to trade Rubio. They have options, although they don’t have the money to chase the J.J. Redicks of the world.

If you hear of a shooter being available, know that Thibodeau is lurking, trying to land him.

Report: Cavaliers, Nuggets, Pacers three-way trade involving Paul George “very unlikely”

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We knew back on the night of the draft that as the Cavaliers desperately looked for a way to pry Paul George out of Indiana, they started involving third teams in the talks (because Indy had no interest in Kevin Love for Paul George straight up, not should they). Phoenix was involved, but that fizzled. So did talks involving Denver.

But those latter ones didn’t die the night of the draft, according to reports that came out over the weekend. Denver, Cleveland, and Indiana were still talking about a three-team deal that would land Love in Denver and George in Cleveland. The challenge for Cleveland was finding the combination of young players and draft picks that Indiana wants in a deal — Indy is rumored to want a lottery pick (preferably high lottery) and a young player or players.

Now that Denver three-team is “very unlikely” to happen, according to Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

As first reported by ESPN, the Cavs engaged the Nuggets as a possible third team to facilitate a trade for the All-Star George on draft night, but a source said the discussion was “nothing serious” and “very unlikely” to happen now…

The Nuggets had the No. 13 pick in Thursday’s draft and traded it to Utah for Trey Lyles — obviously giving up on getting Love, at least for the time being.

Indiana would have wanted the No. 13 pick, because future Dever picks are likely to be outside of the lottery as this is a team poised to make a leap into the playoffs, with Nikola Jokic leading them. As for players, Denver had shot down all requests for Jamal Murray. Indiana likely asked for Gary Harris, but if Murray was off-limits then Harris likely was as well. Emmanuel Mudiay was available but that wasn’t going to get the job done.

Denver likes its roster and what it’s building. While Love could have been an upgrade over Danilo Gallinari‘s role, it wasn’t enough to get them to break up the team to make it happen. And that ultimately has been Cleveland’s challenge in getting a deal done — Love isn’t commanding as much as they hoped on the trade market.

In the same article, Varden has an update on Cleveland’s discussions with Chauncey Billups about becoming the president of basketball operations.

The Cavs are still in discussions with Chauncey Billups to lead Cleveland’s front office after the departure of David Griffin. They’re also remaining active in the trade market, with a host of remaining front-office personnel, including Koby Altman, an assistant GM under Griffin, working the phones.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, speaking on the Lowe Post podcast with Zach Lowe, said Billups is weighing a lot of things, on and off the court, in making a complex decision. He likes living in Denver (his hometown) as does his family, and with his television schedule, he can be home a lot. On the other hand, he knows the importance and need for more African-American executives in the NBA had how important it could be for him to be in that role. There’s no easy answer for Billups.

The lesson here should be one for Dan Gilbert (and other owners): If you are going to fire a GM right before the draft and the start of free agency, you must have a replacement ready to go. Plan B has to be set. To fire a guy not having that plan, then go searching right before a critical off-season for your team, is how long-struggling teams operate.

Video Breakdown: Cavaliers elevator doors fake out vs. Warriors in Game 4

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The 2017 NBA Finals are over but we just can’t quite move on to the summer without mentioning this play from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 4 onslaught from 3-point range.

Yes, the Cavaliers hit a myriad of insane, falling over, lucky shots in their record-setting Game 4 win. But they also had a number of excellent plays drawn up by head coach Tyronn Lue, with one of them coming here in the first quarter.

The thing I love about this play the most is how it combines multiple actions to confuse one of the best defensive teams in the NBA in the Golden State Warriors. Cleveland mixed Floppy action with a sideline elevator doors play, getting both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to overreact to Kyrie Irving.

Meanwhile, the real shooter ended up being one of the elevator doors screeners in Kevin Love.

Cleveland will need to regroup for next season if they hope to take on the Warriors yet again in the NBA finals in 2018. Meanwhile, check out this sweet video breakdown of a play that is straight out genius.

Watch Allen Iverson’s first bucket in Big3 League debut

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The Big3 League came to Brooklyn and put on a show (which you can see broadcast on FS 1 Monday night).

That includes coach Allen Iverson putting on a jersey and playing a little.

He got his first bucket taking a ball saved from going out of bounds, dribbling up to the elbow, and knocking it down. The crowd loved it. Iverson coached/played his team to victory thanks to Andre Owens putting up 20 points and 15 rebounds.