The Whiteboard: The Gregg Popovich coaching tree is really a forest

Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images
Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images /

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A seven-point win over the Los Angeles Lakers has Gregg Popovich is on the verge of making history. He is currently tied with Don Nelson with 1,335 career wins, the most all-time. At some point in the next few days, he’s likely to become the winningest coach in NBA history.

Popovich’s career accolades are well established and have been celebrated as he’s passed each coaching milestone on the way to the top. He is also, rightly, lauded for his role in helping build a culture in San Antonio that has endured and sustained success for more than two decades. That infamous Spurs’ culture has seemed to permeate every public-facing part of the organization, from how they scout and find undiscovered talent, how they handle player relationships, help young players develop and continue to innovate and adapt their on-court style.

It’s hard to know exactly how much of that culture to attribute to Popovich but it seems fair to give him a considerable amount of credit considering his role, tenure and the ways in which colleagues and players have publicly celebrated. Trying to trace the connections between the Spurs organization and the rest of the NBA is a common exercise but the beauty of the exercise is that it changes every year as players and coaches change teams and move up.

And trying to assess just how large an impact Popovich has had over his 26 years as a head coach reveals not just a coaching tree, but an entire old-growth forest, expanding and self-perpetuating.

The Gregg Popovich player tree

As of this morning, 4,707 players have appeared in at least one NBA game. And exactly 200 of them have appeared in at least one game for the Spurs during Popovich’s head coaching tenure. Among that group are Hall-of-Famers Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Dominique Wilkins, and future Hall-of-Famers Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard.

And in the group are countless players who have already retired and made their way into jobs as coaches and front office executives, and countless more who will make that leap when their playing days are over.

The Gregg Popovich coaching tree

Of the 29 other current NBA head coaches, six have worked directly under Popovich as an assistant (Mike Budenholzer, James Borrego), a player (Steve Kerr, Monty Williams, Doc Rivers) or both (Ime Udoka). Another five — Alvin Gentry, Taylor Jenkins, Willie Green, Jamahl Mosley and Mike Malone — can trace their coaching lineage back to Popovich in one step, having spent at least one season as an assistant under a head coach who previously worked under or played for Popovich. I’d also consider Quin Snyder, who coached the Spurs G League affiliate, the Austin Toros, for four years to be part of this second wave of growth from the Popovich coaching tree.

And, he’s now been around long enough that we are seeing a third wave of Popovich coaching tree growth. Chris Finch, current head coach of the Timberwolves, and Wes Unseld, current head coach of the Wizards, both worked as an assistant under Mike Malone with the Nuggets. Malone spent four years as an assistant under Mike Brown with the Cavaliers, after Brown had spent three years as an assistant for Popovich. Tom Thibodeau worked under Doc Rivers, who played for Popovich.

And the growth doesn’t just work in this direct head-coach-to-assistant way either. Of the 13 current head coaches with no direct link to Popovich as they came up as assistants, four more (Mark Daigneault, Nate McMillan, Steve Nash, Ty Lue) have a former Popovich assistant as an assistant on their current staff. And the Popovich coaching tree has even spanned leagues — former assistant Becky Hammon just took over as the head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces.

That is not to say that Popovich was the formative or even primary coaching influence or mentor for each of those coaches, but more than half of the league’s head coaches have direct or trickle-down experience with his coaching and management style.

The Gregg Popovich management tree

Not every front office uses the same titles and hierarchy but every team has someone in one of the following positions — General Manager and Assistant General Manager, Team President and President and Vice President of Basketball Operations.

Of the other 29 teams in the NBA, seven teams have someone in one of those positions above who spent at least some time working in the Spurs organization during Popovich’s tenure as a player, coach or front-office employee — Hawks, Nets, Mavericks, Pacers, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Thunder. At least a half-dozen more could be connected if we went one circle outwards and looked at executives who cut their teeth under Sam Presti, Scott Layden or Sean Marks.

It’s a spider web that could never really be fully untangled — 2,028 games, 1,335 wins, five championships, 200 players, 19 current NBA head coaches with a concrete connection, a protege ready to take over the WNBA and seven other teams currently working with front office leaders steeped in Spurs’ culture. That is Gregg Popovich’s legacy.

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