Every superhero has some sort of flaw. For Superman it’s Kryptonite; for Aquaman it’s land, and for Gregg Popovich, who is distinguished enough to be considered a superhero in the NBA coaching world, it’s an oversized ego. In light of Team USA’s recent struggles under the leadership of Popovich, this ego has been scrutinized more than ever before.
Popovich has proceeded through his NBA head coaching and lesser-known executive career with an “I know best” attitude, an attitude that when challenged by players, coaches, and even the media has led to some pretty drastic revelations about the professional character of Popovich. I want to emphasize that this is a professional character examination of Popovich, and not a personal one. I have no doubts that away from basketball, he is a selfless and altruistic individual, as he has proven throughout his life.
The first appearance of Popovich’s inflated ego was in 1996, when the Spurs’ executive fired then-head coach Bob Hill and proceeded to hire a former NBA assistant coach. That Spurs executive was (and still is) Gregg Popovich, and that former NBA assistant coach was- pencil in your final answers- also Gregg Popovich. He fired his subordinate and then hired himself for that same lower-ranking position. On that egotistical note, the Popovich head coaching era was now underway.
Let’s skip forward all the way to June 17, 2013 (this date may resonate with Spurs and Heat fans). Up to this date, Popovich has enjoyed an illustrious NBA head coaching career of four NBA championships, all of which were led by one of the most selfless (you will see why this matters) superstars ever in Tim Duncan.
Returning back to June 17, the Spurs held a three-point lead over the Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. The Spurs were a defensive stop and free throws away from their fifth championship in franchise history. While the play that proceeded is one of the most memorable in NBA history, Popovich does not get criticized enough for keeping Duncan (an 8x NBA All-Defensive First Team member and one of the greatest defenders in NBA history) on the bench in favor of Boris Diaw. This was a prime example of Popovich letting his ego get the best of him by making an “I know best” decision instead of the obvious one.
The most telling example of Popovich’s massive ego was the disaster that was Kawhi Leonard’s injury debacle of the 2017-2018 season. Leonard was dealing with a right quadriceps injury throughout the preceding offseason, and while team doctors cleared him to resume playing, Leonard chose to have a second opinion away from the Spurs medical staff. He obviously knew his body better than any other doctor could, thus he decided to sit out the remainder of the season after a short nine-game stint.
Leonard at this point was a superstar, a superstar that was expected to carry out the selfless ways of Duncan into the next generation of Spurs basketball. Popovich thought he struck gold once again by developing an egoless franchise cornerstone. The events that took place during this injury-riddled season for Leonard suggested otherwise.
By seeking a second opinion on his injury, Leonard had done what no all-star player for the Spurs had done before: act on the best interest of himself and not the team. This type of behavior was unheard of in the Spurs’ organization. Leonard became disgruntled by the lack of support from Popovich and his fellow teammates, and on June 15, 2018, he did the unthinkable. He demanded a trade. If Popovich put his ego aside and voiced his support for the face of the Spurs’ franchise, Leonard might still be a Spur today.
Fast-forward to the present, and Popovich is considered by many as one of the main issues regarding the struggling Team USA, who at the time of this article are fresh off a surprising 76 to 83 defeat to France. Popovich is being criticized mostly for his offense, as he is running a Spurs-based motion attack, which does no favors for the iso-heavy personnel of Team USA. Popovich’s “I know best” attitude is presenting itself once again, and judging by his post-game comments, he seems reluctant to take accountability for his team’s loss.
Gregg Popovich is a tremendous coach, possibly the greatest NBA coach ever, but his massive ego has shown to be damaging to not only his legacy but to the players he has coached, and unless he changes, it will continue to be damaging in the future.
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