I’m in a pissed off mood and about to blaspheme a legend so fasten up.
Riddle me this, Batman. Why is Gregg Popovich coaching this Olympic USA Basketball team?
To be perfectly clear from the outset, Coach Pop is an NBA legend. He is without question one of the top five NBA coaches ever. That being said, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want Phil Jackson coaching this team either. He’s old, out of date and dare I say, antiquated.
There comes a point where elderly coaches simply become out of touch. This might just be the case with Gregg Popovich.
Popovich is currently 72 years old and while he may have forgotten more about basketball than anyone reading this claims to know, he is taking a talented yet ragtag group of young Americans (sans Harden, sans Curry and sans LeBron) against perhaps the most talented international field we’ve ever seen. Tall task for some tall dudes.
Here’s how much times have changed. In 1992, Team USA’s opponents were asking guys like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson for autographs… right after they got run off the floor by fifty-something points. They considered being decimated an honor. These days, after beating Team USA in an exhibition, Team Nigeria didn’t even celebrate. Nights later, Team USA would lose to Australia, losing consecutive games for the first time in thirty years! Team Australia didn’t celebrate after their win either. They knew they were the better team.
This was not Chuck Daly throwing the Dream Team’s opening match against college all-stars to humble them and prove they were beatable. This was Team USA getting beat by, dare I say, better teams or at a minimum, teams that have been playing together for more than just a week.
Less than a month ago, we lauded Kevin Durant as the world’s greatest scorer. Against Nigeria, he shot 4-of-13. Do you want to know how improbable this loss was? Mike Brown was the opposing coach. Need I say more? Las Vegas had Nigeria winning that game at 25-to-1! I understand that Team Nigeria has NBA players… but name one.
Pop is the proud owner of five championship rings. The only problem is he hasn’t won one since 2014. The last two seasons, his teams finished well under .500. His recent record in international play isn’t much better. The 2019 USA World Cup Team, also coached by Pop, finished in seventh place. They were, at best, an afterthought.
I get that as the most tenured coach in the NBA, 25 years with the San Antonio Spurs, Pop was the natural choice to replace Mike Krzyzewski, who won three Olympic gold medals and tallied a 75-1 record in international competition. Those are big shoes to fill. Pop brought ample help, nominating Erik Spoelstra (the second most tenured coach in the NBA) as his chief assistant but one could make the argument (am I?) that this should really be Coach’s Spo’s team and not Coach Pop’s.
Pop is my parent’s age. My folks, not nearly as crotchety as Pop but equally as zany, are both retired. Happy, healthy, but retired and not missing work one damn bit. They’re also quite out of touch with the younger generation, i.e., the average age of people playing professional basketball. Heck, so am I but I’m not asking to coach this team either.
Perhaps I’m overstating the exhibition losses to both Nigeria and Australia, calling for Pop’s head and all, but if you think other teams in this tourney like Spain, France and oh yeah, a Luca-Doncic led Slovenia team are going to be in any way intimidated by Team USA, I have a time machine with a flux capacitor to sell you.
After Team USA’s loss to Australia, Pop’s frustration was evident. That’s why he went full Pop, arguing post-game with reporters about questions he deemed inappropriate. He is not currently playing with a full deck and no, I’m not referring to his mental capacity. Three players are missing from his roster, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton who are all still playing in the Finals. While Pop has two of the greatest scorers on the planet, if we’ve learned anything from these NBA playoffs (and for that matter, every one before it), individual scoring does not equate into championships. Team USA plays way too much isolation ball. One could make the argument that’s what the NBA has devolved into, a bunch of players trying to get theirs. If Pop doesn’t shake them of this tendency, we’ll lose our first gold medal since 2004.
Perhaps its Americentric of me to just assume we will continue to dominate the basketball landscape for years to come and for the record, I don’t think that. The margin has been narrowed significantly. Ever since Michael, Magic, Larry and company went overseas for the first time in 1992, that clock started ticking. In fact, one can make the case that the three greatest players in today’s NBA were born outside the United States.
Perhaps its agist to assume Gregg Popovich is not the man to inspire this team, even though he’s clearly earned the right, a lifetime achievement award if you will, to coach them. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to assume we’re still better than everyone else. It’s also possible that Popovich has lost his mind. Those paying attention over the years must have noticed his spiraling dissent into lunacy. Belittling journalists, even if their wrong, is not a good look for a leader of young men.
There is no denying Gregg Popovich has earned the right to coach one more Olympic basketball team but just because he’s earned it doesn’t mean he’s the right guy for the job. Here’s hoping his players can usher him out with a gold medal while drowning out the noise in the process.