“George who? He’s a pain in the ass.” – Gregg Popovich with a smile.
Friday night’s Sacramento Kings matchup against the San Antonio Spurs had a little more meaning than a normal regular-season game. The outcome of the game was inconsequential. San Antonio is heading back to the playoffs for the 18th consecutive season, while the Kings are going home early again for the ninth straight year.
But this game pitted two of the NBA’s coaching titans against each another. George Karl is excited to be back in league after a year and a half layoff. His 1,133 wins rank sixth all-time and first among active coaches.
Gregg Popovich stands at No. 2 in active wins with 1,002, but he has enough rings to fill up a hand. No one is even close to this tandem. Doc Rivers’ 682 wins rank third on the list of active coaches, 320 wins behind Pop and 451 wins behind Karl.
The Spurs came in to Sacramento on a slide. Losers of four straight, the Spurs used their experience to out-execute the Kings down the stretch and come away with the 107-96 victory. But even before they took the floor, the grizzled coaching veteran knew enough not to take the Spurs lightly.
“San Antonio, whether they’re on a 10-game winning streak or a four-game losing streak, they’re good,” Karl said during pregame. “Someone asked me, ‘What’s wrong with San Antonio?’ I said, ‘I think they’re just playing possum.'”
“Possum” is an apt description. The Spurs love to slow-play the season and then slay the Western Conference in the playoffs. They are perennial winners that have appeared in the playoffs an astounding 35 out of 39 seasons since joining the league before the 1976-77 season.
While Popovich has captained the most steady ship in the NBA, Karl has a long history of turning teams around. Karl has led his team to the playoffs in 22 of his 25 seasons in the league.
“He’s a lifer, he’s a real coach,” Popovich said of Karl. “I found a good situation, so I was smart enough to just stay there. He’s a real coach where he’s been in several different places and done well in every single one of them and made an impact on players and teams.”
Both NBA legends, Karl and Popovich worked together in 2002 with Team USA at the FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis. A sixth-place finish in the tournament changed the direction of USA basketball, and it also forged a strong bond between the two coaches.
Karl has coached star players, but he has made his name on a high-octane style that utilizes all of the talent in his pool. Popovich is known for the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Each coach has done it his own way, but they have a common theme among them. Their teams play hard each and every night they take the floor.
“I think, more than anything, George does two things,” Popovich said. “He understands how the fundamentals of the game win basketball games. It’s not about a magical play or anything like that. And then the second thing is, he reminds me of Nellie (Don Nelson) in that he understands matchups as well or better than most.”
Karl lives and breathes the philosophy of his mentor, college coaching legend Dean Smith. The former North Carolina Tar Heels coach passed away Feb. 7, but his legacy will live on through his tremendous coaching tree.
“Carolina philosophy in coaching from coach Smith is get better, get smarter every day,” Karl told Cowbell Kingdom. “There’s so much information now, and there’s so much video and ability to get better mentally and physically.”
Popovich is known as a strict disciplinarian. Despite working alongside Duncan for 18 seasons, you still catch the veteran coach pulling one of the game’s greatest players aside for a coaching minute. Same goes for Parker (14 seasons) and Manu Ginobili (13 seasons). The Spurs are Pop’s team, and if you want to play for him, you understand that.
“I love coaching against Pop,” Karl said of his longtime friend. “I think he’s the best in the NBA. I know everybody’s going to put Phil (Jackson) above Pop, (but) I think Pop is the toughest guy I’ve ever coached against.”
You can’t argue with the results. While Jackson made his name in major markets with a steady stream of the game’s greatest players, Popovich has plugged away in one of sports’ smallest markets in San Antonio.
At 66, Popovich’s run won’t last forever. Of course, we thought that a few years back, and then he rattled off consecutive Finals appearances and another championship. Karl, 63, is getting a fresh start in a new place. He signed a four-year deal to man the Kings, and he has his sights set on Nelson’s all-time mark of 1,335.
The two have seen it all. They are competitors, but the respect they share for each another is tremendous. For the first time in a while, these two titans of the game got a chance to test their skills against each other. Karl may be a “pain in the ass,” but Pop got the best of his friend one more time.