Five thoughts on USA Basketball naming Gregg Popovich its next coach

The next round of Dreams Teams will be guided by the most respected and accomplished coach in the NBA today  
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The next round of dreams teams will be guided by the most respected and accomplished coach in the NBA today.

USA Basketball announced Friday that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will succeed Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski following the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Popovich will guide USAB at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Krzyzewski, 68, has compiled a 75–1 record since taking the National Team’s head coaching role in 2005, leading USAB to gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2012 London Olympics, the 2010 FIBA World Championship and the 2014 FIBA World Cup as well as a bronze medal at the 2006 FIBA World Cup. His tenure will be remembered as a return to greatness: together with USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo, Krzyzewski transformed a wavering program into a juggernaut. He will remain with USAB as a special advisor.

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​USAB’s announcement of its succession plan formally ends years of speculation about Krzyzewski’s participation. Dating back to the 2012 London Olympics, Krzyzewski has flirted with handing over the reins, with Popovich, Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Celtics coach Brad Stevens all finding themselves mentioned as possible replacements.

Ultimately, Popovich emerged as Colangelo’s pick, and the USAB chairman claimed at a press conference Friday that he was the first and only name considered.

“I had a short list. It started and ended with Pop,” Colangelo said. “All roads led to Pop, it’s as simple as that. His character, his leadership, he’s a winner, his self-sacrificing attitude in terms of being a military guy. He’s respected by everybody in the basketball world. His legacy relative to his championships is extraordinary.”

Here are five thoughts on the announcement.

1. Why now?

The timing of Friday’s announcement might seem a bit strange, given that the Rio games are still almost a year away and the entire NBA world is focused on next week’s season openers. Colangelo told reporters that he wanted to get this done “early,” thereby laying out a clear path for the program after Rio and doing it before the NBA and NCAA seasons began.

The early announcement prevents the possibility of any distracting speculation during the run-up to the games and it sets the terms clearly for Krzyzewski in Rio. This will be his last run, which could represent a little added motivation for his longtime USAB players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. Not that they needed it.

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2. Why Popovich?

Of course, no other current coach can match his track record: five titles, three Coach of the Year awards, 18 straight playoff appearances and 16 straight seasons with 50+ victories. In addition to that winning track record, though, Popovich fits for a number of reasons. First, his ties to USAB date all the way back to 1972, when he was invited to try out for the Olympic team. He wasn’t selected. “I got screwed,” he joked Friday.

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Second, Popovich has ties to the military: he attended the Air Force academy and later served there as an assistant coach. Similarly, Krzyzewski attended and later coached at the United States Military Academy, and Popovich allows USAB to continue the close relationship with the armed serves that developed during Krzyzewski’s tenure. That relationship wasn’t only about public service events and patriotism. Rather, USAB under Colangelo and Krzyzewski has painstakingly implemented a structured developmental system that emphasizes sacrifice and duty. Those themes are central to Popovich’s coaching vision and San Antonio’s systems as well.

Third, Popovich is probably the NBA coach most closely associated with the international game, given San Antonio’s regular use of international players. Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobili, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Marco Belinelli—those are just a few of the recent examples. Every Olympics is a potential Spurs reunion when you think about it. Stylistically, Popovich will be in for an easy transition from the NBA to FIBA play.

3. Age and legacy

Tabbing Popovich to replace Krzyzewski doesn’t exactly amount to a youth movement. In fact, Popovich will be 70 when the 2020 Olympics take place, a year older than Krzyzewski will be next summer. Last summer, Popovich reportedly told LaMarcus Aldridge that he planned to coach the Spurs through the end of his current contract in 2019 and this commitment to USAB surely wasn’t undertaken lightly.

“I’m not ready to plant tomatoes day in and day out,” Popovich said Friday. “I think [coaching USAB] makes me sharper for the Spurs.”

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Indeed, this is excellent news for Spurs fans, who might have worried in recent years that Popovich might follow Tim Duncan into retirement. Instead, the coach will outlast his ageless star.

It’s still way too far off to consider this possibility, but perhaps the 2020 Olympics will represent Popovich’s last hurrah. Either way, the next four years have legacy-cinching potential for Popovich, whose brief tenure as a USAB assistant coach produced only a bronze medal at the 2004 Greece Olympics. Gold medals at the 2019 FIBA World Cup and the 2020 Olympics would therefore represent the first such victories of his career.

“When I was in my early 20s, we all had a dream to make an Olympic team, and that never leaves you,” Popovich continued. “You grew up and watch the Olympic Games on TV and you always want to be a part of something like that. And I’m no different from anybody else.”

4. Who’s next?

It might be mildly surprising that Popovich is willing to undertake such a long-term commitment this late into his coaching career, but it would be a true shock if he stayed on past 2020. So, one box of speculation closes and the next one opens. Who will be in line to coach USAB after Popovich and will USAB look to find a coach who can preside for an extended period of time a la Krzyzewski?

Some names to consider for way down the line include: Rivers (54), Stevens (39), Steve Kerr (50), and Erik Spoelstra (44). Needless to say, USAB’s coaching depth chart might be as formidable as its player roster.

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5. Roster impact?

One major question to ask with Krzyewzki officially leaving after 2016: Will James, Anthony, Paul and others follow him into the sunset? James will be 35 by the time the 2020 Olympics rolls around, and he still hasn’t officially committed to play in Rio. Will Popovich try to lean on their mutual respect and pitch James on a honeymoon Olympics in Tokyo? That’s a question to watch moving forward.

If there’s a big winner in this announcement, though, it would seem to be Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who may be squeezed off the 2016 Rio team given the number of spots that will likely be reserved for returning USAB members. Leonard hasn’t yet played for USAB, but his positional versatility and defensive talent make him an exceptional candidate for USAB. He will be 29 during the 2019 FIBA World Cup, making him a possible centerpiece of that roster. Popovich’s hire should help Leonard’s standing in both 2019 and 2020. Who knows? Maybe Popovich can put in a good word to Krzyzewski next summer too.