This year’s NBA Finals is a battle of Gregg Popovich’s protégés, former player Steve Kerr at the helm of the Golden State Warriors, former assistant coach also fits Popovich, Ime Udoka leads Boston Celtics.
By the end of the month, the former Popovich player will win a ring as a coach. His leadership is undeniable.
Before Game 1 of the Finals, commissioner Adam Silver commented on Popovich’s legacy: “Thank you Greg Popovich. He pretty much runs an academy there [in San Antonio] For future coaches, not just coaches, but team executives. He did an excellent job. “
Popovich is the longest-serving coach on the same team among 122 teams (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) in all major professional sports. He is the most championship-winning coach in NBA history, including five championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014), making him one of three active coaches in the league with multiple Finals titles.
Popovich’s legacy can be gleaned from his vast and successful coaching tree. The seven active NBA head coaches came under Popovich’s tutelage in San Antonio. Coming into the season, that group included former head coaches Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz) and James Borrego (Charlotte Hornets).
The vast network of assistant head coaches includes Will Hardy of the Celtics, Jacques Vaughn of the Brooklyn Nets and Joe Plenty of the Atlanta Hawks.
Even two current general managers — Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Sean Marks of the Nets — have fallen into Popovich’s rainforest.
Popovich also brought Becky Hammon into the Spurs’ coaching staff, the first woman to coach a major U.S. men’s professional sports team after being ejected from a game in December. Hammon now coaches the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA, which have a league-best 10-2 record.
Here’s a glimpse of current NBA head coaches from the Popovich tree branch:
Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Budenholzer was an assistant coach in San Antonio under Popovich, and the Spurs reached the NBA Finals five times (and won four) between 1996 and 2013. Before landing in Milwaukee, Budenholzer was the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks from 2013-18.
Ime Udoka, Boston Celtics
Udoka played two seasons for Popovich in San Antonio and was an assistant coach for the Spurs in back-to-back Finals in 2013 and 2014.
The first-year head coach said his mentor left him a “great voicemail” after the Celtics reached the Finals, but after witnessing Gregg Popovich being sacked during the playoffs. After his former assistants were “broken”, Udoka said he had made a point not to pester his former coach.
Tyler Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies
Jenkins, 37, started his NBA career with a front-office internship with the Spurs. By age 30, Jenkins had already been named head coach of the Spurs G-League affiliate and head coach of Memphis at age 34, after serving as one of Budenholzer’s assistants in Atlanta.
Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns
Williams, this season’s NBA Coach of the Year, was a player for the Spurs during Popovich’s first two years in charge and was a coaching intern during the Spurs’ 2004-05 championship run.
Under Williams, Phoenix had the league’s best regular-season record (64-18, the most wins and winning percentage in franchise history, .780) before losing to the Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Kerr played for Popovich in San Antonio from 1998 to 2003.The two also coached together in Tokyo, where Team USA won a gold medal, and Kerr named Popovich’s successor as men’s national team head coach in December.
As Kerr’s coach this year, he’s made six NBA Finals and has a chance at a fourth. He was the league’s 2015-16 Coach of the Year.
Dr. Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
Rivers played his last two NBA seasons in San Antonio from 1994 to 1996, when Popovich was the team’s general manager, before he took over as head coach. Rivers was part of the Spurs broadcast team in 1999, in Popovich’s third season as coach, and reportedly nearly his last as his championship-caliber team went 6-8. The score kicked off a shortened lockout season. There’s a sense that Rivers will be asked to replace Popovich if the team doesn’t improve. As history knows, the Spurs improved to 37-13 this season and won their first NBA championship.
Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings
Brown was an assistant under Popovich during the 2000-03 season before serving as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers. In his final season in San Antonio, the Spurs won a championship. As head coach of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, Brown ultimately lost to Popovich in the 2007 NBA Finals. He’s currently finishing with the Warriors as an assistant before leading the Kings next season.