This year’s NBA Finals is a battle of Gregg Popovich proteges, with former player Steve Kerr at the helm for the Golden State Warriors and former assistant coach, who also suited up for Popovich, Ime Udoka leading the Boston Celtics.
By month’s end, a former Popovich player will win a ring as a coach. His leadership is undeniable.
Before Game 1 of the Finals, commissioner Adam Silver sounded off on Popovich’s legacy: “Thank you, Gregg Popovich. He practically runs an academy there [in San Antonio] for future coaches, and not just coaches but team executives. He’s done a fantastic job.”
Popovich is the longest-tenured coach with the same team among all of major professional sports’ 122 franchises (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB). He is the winningest 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. Seven active NBA head coaches stem from Popovich’s tutelage in San Antonio. Entering the season, that group included former head coaches Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz) and James Borrego (Charlotte Hornets).
A vast network of assistant head coaches include the Celtics’ Will Hardy, the Brooklyn Nets’ Jacque Vaughn and Atlanta Hawks’ Joe Prunty.
Even two current general managers — the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Sam Presti and Nets’ Sean Marks — fall in the Popovich rainforest.
Popovich also brought Becky Hammon into the Spurs’ coaching fold, the first woman to coach a major American men’s professional sports team after he was ejected from a game in December. Hammon now coaches the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA, who boast a league-best 10-2 record.
Here’s a glance at each of the current NBA head coaches who branch off the Popovich tree:
Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Budenholzer worked under Popovich as an assistant in San Antonio, where the Spurs reached the NBA Finals five times (and won four) between 1996 and 2013. Before landing in Milwaukee, Budenholzer served as the Atlanta Hawks’ head coach from 2013-18.
Ime Udoka, Boston Celtics
Udoka played two seasons for Popovich in San Antonio and served as an assistant coach for the Spurs’ back-to-back Finals appearances in 2013 and 2014.
The first-year head coach said his mentor left a “nice voicemail” for him after the Celtics made the Finals, but after seeing firsthand how much Popovich had been “bothered” by his former assistants during the postseason, Udoka said he has made a point to not hound his former coach.
Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies
Jenkins, 37, started his NBA career as an intern in the Spurs’ front office. By 30, Jenkins had already been named the head coach of the Spurs’ G League affiliate, and took the job as Memphis’ head coach at 34 after working a stint as one of Budenholzer’s assistants in Atlanta.
Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns
Williams, this season’s NBA Coach of the Year, was a Spurs player during Popovich’s first two years at the helm, and a coaching intern during San Antonio’s championship 2004-05 season.
Under Williams’ leadership, Phoenix boasted the league’s best regular season record (64-18, the most wins and highest winning percentage, .780, in franchise history) before falling to the Mavericks in the conference semifinals.
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Kerr played for Popovich from 1998-2003 in San Antonio. The two also coached together in Tokyo, where Team USA won gold, and Kerr was named Popovich’s replacement as the head coach of the men’s national team in December.
This year makes six NBA Finals appearances as a coach for Kerr and a chance for a fourth championship. He was the league’s 2015-16 Coach of the Year.
Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers
Rivers played his final two NBA seasons in San Antonio from 1994 to 1996, when Popovich was the team’s general manager and before he took over as its head coach. Rivers was a member of the Spurs’ broadcast team in 1999, Popovich’s third season at the helm, and reportedly almost his last after his championship-caliber squad opened the shortened lockout season 6-8. There was a sense that Rivers would be called to replace Popovich should the team not improve. As history came to know, San Antonio improved to 37-13 on the season and won its first NBA title.
Mike Brown, Sacramento Kings
Before head-coaching stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers, Brown was an assistant under Popovich from 2000-03. In that final season in San Antonio, the Spurs won a championship. Brown would eventually lose to Popovich in the NBA Finals in 2007 as head coach of LeBron James and the Cavaliers. He is currently finishing up his run with the Warriors as an assistant before leading the Kings next season.