When evaluating coaching careers, it’s natural to focus on career wins and championship rings. It’s why the New York Knicks are currently stuck with Phil Jackson as their president. While this line of thinking makes sense on the surface, it blinds us from seeing the entire picture: Gregg Popovich is the greatest coach of all-time.
Yes, Jackson undoubtedly owns the most successful coaching career in NBA history. He has more championship rings, 11, than he does fingers. That alone doesn’t mean he’s the greatest coach of all-time. If we’re talking teams, privileged is not a strong enough word to describe Jackson’s career. The man had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles — enough said. You can say the same for Red Auerbach in Boston and Pat Riley in L.A./Miami.
Popovich, meanwhile, has done more with less than any coach in hoops history. Sure, Tim Duncan is an all-timer and David Robinson is a Hall-of-Famer, but neither of those guys were as transcendent as Jordan. There was no comparable Kobe-Shaq duo in San Antonio. Despite this, Pop still owns more wins than Auerbach and only 66 fewer than Jackson in the same number of seasons. He’s also won the same amount of titles (five) as Riley.
In an era where it’s nearly impossible to be relevant without a super-team, Pop’s continued success solidifies his legacy as the GOAT. He simply doesn’t get enough credit for winning an NBA Finals in five games over the Miami Heat’s “Big Three.” Or for coming one Ray Allen shot away from defeating Miami in back-to-back Finals. Furthermore, if that shot doesn’t fall, Pop would be a perfect six-for-six in Finals appearances. Those incredible series have certainly made an impression on former “Heatle” LeBron James, who earlier this year called Popovich the greatest coach of all-time.
“I think he’s the greatest coach of all-time. You have to be sharp, mentally and physically, when you go against his ballclub. If you were an NFL player, it’s probably the same as going against a [Bill] Belichick team. What they’re going to do, they’re going to do and you have to try to figure it out.”
James, via ESPN
It’s no surprise that James would cite the mental aspect of facing Pop’s Spurs teams when explaining his reasoning. There are no “off-nights” when facing San Antonio — even when Popovich opts to rest all of his stars. In a way, the Spurs’ approach is similar to a well-run college program. While the players make it work, the system and the coach are the foundation of the success.
Popovich is by no means finished, either. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ come-from-behind 2016 Finals victory over the Golden State Warriors proved the latest super-team can be defeated. Assuming San Antonio does not form its own super-team in the coming years, a Pop and Kawhi Leonard-led title over the Warriors would be even more impressive. Then again, nothing Popovich accomplishes going forward should come as a surprise. He is the GOAT, after all.