Gregg Popovich will tell you the franchise’s fortunes turned around the day he drafted Tim Duncan. This is technically true, but it’s also Pop being deflective, minimizing his role in helping the Spurs ascend to championship contention and then stay roughly within that stratosphere for two decades. He claims none and probably deserves little of the credit for winning the lottery, drafting the consensus number one guy, and then watching him become the greatest player of his generation. You get the sense Scott Skiles could’ve won some games with Tim Duncan. That part is not complicated.
But everything else—the Spurs’ legendary knack for talent development, the array of offensive styles they’ve employed over the years, the long list of the middle of the bench yeoman who have given the team exactly what it needs—is difficult and impressive, and most of it is Pop’s doing. If he was not exactly as transformative, when he moved himself from the front office to the bench in December of 1996, as Duncan was when he joined the following summer, then that only delineates the limits of what a coach can be. As a teacher, strategist, and paterfamilias, Pop has been exceptional.
At the time, Bob Hill’s firing was understood to be extremely harsh. Even in retrospect, this isn’t an unreasonable impression. If Hill wasn’t fully realizing the Spurs’ potential, he was at least coming close. 62 wins, a Conference Finals berth, and an MVP for David Robinson in 1994-95. 59 wins and the Conference Semis in 1995-96. Things were going fine. Then the Spurs started the 1996-97 season 3-and-15, in large part because Robinson missed all but one of those 18 games with a back injury, and that was the end of Hill, who headed into his final meeting with Popovich thinking his boss wanted to discuss a contract extension. When Pop boarded the team bus and announced Hill’s firing, the players were silent for a while, and then Dominique Wilkins cried out “you’re kidding!”
Confusion and anger over the decision was widespread. “I fully realize that the timing might look bad,” Pop told reporters. Robinson said he didn’t agree with the move. Vinny Del Negro disputed claims that Hill had lost the team. Popovich was portrayed as cruel and full of himself in the press. The Sun-Sentinel: “obviously fairness never factored into this equation.” The Hartford Courant: “Popovich’s ego may overflow, but don’t look for him to coach beyond this season.” Hill complained about a “lack of manpower” with Robinson on the sidelines and exited the job with this bitterness-dripping quote: “let me tell you, I love this team. I love these players. I did great here. Look at my record. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Robinson returned to the court and almost immediately broke his foot. Shortly after that, Sean Elliott’s right knee started giving him problems. The Spurs shut him down for good in early February and commenced a shameless, before-its-time tank job. Their top five players in minutes played: Avery Johnson, Del Negro, a moderately washed up Vernon Maxwell, a fully washed up Dominique, and Will “All We Got For Dennis Rodman Was This Stupid” Perdue. The team was awful—half by accident, half by design. Robinson’s lost season was beyond Pop’s control, and he was smart to be cautious with Elliott, but he did pick the rest of the roster. Cadillac Anderson getting 20 minutes per night was firmly on him.
So Pop fired a guy with a 124-and-58 record, put himself on the bench, and proceeded to go 17-and-47. All three calls turned out to be correct, but taken together, they were bold bordering on self-destructive. This was Pop’s third year as the organization’s general manager; many would-be visionary execs have been granted less patience than that.
(A brief alternate history: in the summer of ‘96, Pop wanted to fire Hill and hire Don Nelson. Nellie passed on the opportunity to drink Coors Banquets and play poker with Willie Nelson in Maui… rather than inevitably squeezing Pop out and installing himself as coach-GM within 18 months. We all hail the man’s acumen these days, but Pop apparently couldn’t see that installing Nellie would have been signing his own death warrant.)
If the Spurs don’t win the lottery and select Tim Duncan, maybe Popovich loses his job, or maybe he just looks smart instead of brilliant, settling into a Jerry Sloanesque career during which his teams are always a little better than they should be, if never quite dominant. Legacies are built on more luck than we often admit, and you can’t coach anybody to, say, put up 32 and 20 in the opening game of the Finals.
We quickly learned how sharp Pop is, but first he had to pull a maneuver that had everybody wondering who the hell this nobody thought he was. It wasn’t the arrogance—there are plenty of executives and coaches fervently convinced that they know best—so much as the audacity of the move that was extraordinary. It is the kind of Icarus-brained thing that gets people fired. Surely Pop could have ridden out the season with Hill. He didn’t need to put himself on the hot seat and rack up all those losses. But he did so because, as time has revealed to us, you can’t do any better than having Gregg Popovich on your bench. And if the team that he built was going to be terrible, he might as well claim full ownership of the situation, try to lay down a foundation for the next season. It all seemed premature and reckless, until it was proven to be ingenious.
Sometimes selfishness and selflessness run together. This is hard to explain, so Pop didn’t bother. And then when the team started winning again, graciously, he didn’t explain that either.