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Gregg Popovich’s ability to adapt is what makes him the GOAT NBA coach. This week we dedicate to the G.O.A.T. Across a wide range of sports, we will debate and remember the Greatest Of All Time, and look ahead to who’s next. Follow along here.
Sometimes, in these debates over who’s the GOAT, you have to admit that one argument sways you completely because it’s perfectly crafted.
In the debate over who’s the greatest NBA coach of all time — much like with the players — it’s the one-name legends that come to mind. Red. Phil. Pat. Nellie. Jerry.
But it’s Pop — Gregg Popovich, in case you’re not familiar — who finishes above those giants. And it’s because of an argument made by a player he didn’t coach during his decades-long tenure with the San Antonio Spurs.
Back in 2017, LeBron James called him the greatest of all time, and here was his argument:
“You’ve got to be (the greatest) to do what he’s done in the era of basketball when it’s changed so much and he’s been able to have a growth mindset and be able to change with the game. He’s continued to build around Timmy [Duncan] and Manu [Ginobili] and Tony [Parker] and bring pieces in and out throughout his whole tenure.
“It went from a league where it was like, inside/outside. Like every time you bring the ball down, throw it to the big. Then it goes to every time down, pick-and-roll. Then it goes to every time down, shoot a three. Pop has been able to adjust every single time and still somehow keep those guys under the radar. I don’t understand that.”
Absolutely spot-on correct. He’s the same guy who coached a pair of big men in Tim Duncan and David Robinson to a title, in an era centered mostly around mid-range and back-to-the-basket offense. Just look at these highlights that feel pretty unrecognizable in today’s NBA:
Here are highlights from 2005, with Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. There’s some of that inside stuff with Duncan, but there’s more ball movement and picks and drives.
And earlier this year against ex-Spur Kawhi Leonard, it’s a mix of everything. Some inside, some outside, some slowing down, some threes, some fast breaks:
What I love so much about Popovich’s adaptation is that he’s notorious for despising the three-pointer, and openly so. But he knew he had to utilize treys in order for the Spurs to stay in the hunt for a ring.
Here’s how it’s goink: If you don’t adapt, you’re done. Jackson, for example, won his 11 rings with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal over the years by implementing the triangle offense. When he tried to bring it to the Knicks as their president in recent years, he was laughed out of New York because, in part, he struggled to adapt to the modern game.
But not Popovich. He was smart and flexible enough to change along with the game and his roster.