It’s weird to picture the San Antonio Spurs sideline with anyone other than Gregg Popovich patrolling it. He’s been the team’s coach since the year Tupac dropped “California Love” — 1996. More than two decades. While he has trained more than one capable replacement (Popovich’s NBA coaching tree is in full bloom around the league), it still would just feel odd.
Yet that day is coming. Sooner rather than later.
And it’s an interesting subplot of the coming Kawhi Leonard and Popovich meeting to figure out if the star’s relationship with the franchise can be repaired. Groundwork for that meeting has been laid, and the sense around the league is that the two sides will work it out, but when they meet this issue will come up, something ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski gets into in his latest breakdown of the situation.
Since the Spurs won a fifth NBA championship in 2014, (Spurs GM R.C.) Buford has had to be prepared for the possibility of Popovich, 69, coaching a final season and moving onto NBA retirement. Every year, they need to make sure there will be one more season for Popovich. It’s only natural this deep into his career.
Few in his orbit expect Popovich to coach the Spurs beyond the 2020 Summer Olympics, and there always has been the possibility that he could spend the 2019-20 season traveling the NBA and globe, preparing for his national team duties.
Popovich will walk away from the NBA as one of its greatest coaches ever. Unquestionably. Only Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson have a resume that can compare. Popovich’s influence on what is seen as the right way to build a franchise culture permeates the league, and there are a lot of disciples of the “Spurs Way” on the bench or front office of teams around the league as they try to mirror that success.
Popovich has earned the right to walk away whenever he wants — but Leonard absolutely should ask about the succession plans if he is going to sign a long-term deal to stay in San Antonio.
It’s just one more thing on the agenda for that Leonard/Popovich summit, but not the biggest issue in the room. Trust has to be there again before anything else matters.