Written by: Daniel Ruiz – Staff Writing Intern (@danielruizpoet)
LeBron James drew attention from the media this week not just for his remarks about the Cavaliers’ play of late, but also for saying he believes Gregg Popovich is “the greatest coach of all time.” And he couldn’t be more right.
Now, LeBron is more than a living legend with unparalleled athleticism and a genius-level basketball IQ. He’s a student of the game. Hell, he’s got a PhD in it. From its small inception to the league’s lengthy history of dominant dynasties and broken backboards, James’s understanding of NBA basketball encapsulates the development of the sport. He’s an all-star, an MVP, and a champion. His opinion, all things considered, holds a lot of weight.
Since 2004, when Gregg Popovich was an assistant coach for Team USA and he was fresh off a predicted-yet-deserved Rookie of the Year campaign, LeBron James has admired Coach Pop’s commitment to progressing the sport, putting him on what some people would call “the right side of history.”
In a time where household, big-market franchises like the New York Knicks have been locked into a conservative living legend’s recipe for victory, Pop has done more than keep the San Antonio Spurs—one of the oldest teams in the league—yearly contenders for an NBA title: he’s kept them on the cusp of the game’s evolution.
Gregg Popovich is one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, leading his Spurs to five championships. Moreover, Popovich—in an era that idolized Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson’s “hero-ball” tactics—pioneered a pass-first, motion offense that caught even the league’s best defenders with their backs turned as Spurs players cut backdoor for easy lay-ins. Or walked down the middle of the paint, unguarded, for a wicked slam. Or wide open along the perimeter for an easy three. In addition, he hired the first female NBA coach to his staff, Becky Hammon, and trusted his teaching enough to let her coach the Spurs pre-season team, which won the Las Vegas Summer League Title.
He’s a developmental mastermind, responsible for the evolution of Jonathan Simmons, who paid $150 for a D-League tryout a few years ago, and Kawhi Leonard, who’s become so much more than a defensive specialist. Leonard, the Spurs’ best player, has been in the MVP discussion the last two years and shoots more efficiently (read: fewer shots, higher percentage) than Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and even Steph Curry.
LeBron praises Coach Pop, whom he’s faced in three NBA finals (losing twice): “Basketball has changed so much and he’s been able to have a growth mindset and change with the game . . . We went from a league where it was inside out, where every time you came down it was throw it to the big, and then it goes to every time down pick-and-roll, and then it goes to every time down shoot a three. Pop has been able to adjust every single time.”
Growth mindset. Change with the game. Adjust. Gregg Popovich is not “The Zen Master.” He, like LeBron James, is a basketball scholar—a distinguished one—and James’s comments, which came before the Spurs beat the Cavs in overtime 118-115, demonstrate a mutual respect among luminaries, one champion nodding to another.