Gold standard at home, agony abroad
Time is running out for Gregg Popovich to achieve long-awaited success internationally on par with his San Antonio standards
When Gregg Popovich finally stops coaching and the reverential reviews commence, recitals of his career achievements are bound to sound fictional. Five NBA championships, more than 25 seasons in charge of the same franchise, boundless loyalty from Tim Duncan and countless San Antonio Spurs … all for a man whose prior head coaching experience came at Division III Pomona-Pitzer.
Very little of it, when you scroll through the résumé, seems plausible.
The same, strangely, can be said of his association with USA Basketball, which has delivered nearly 50 years of lows and ache to counter every Alamo City high — with Popovich powerless, so far, to bring a halt to the cycle. For seemingly every burst of glory in San Antonio, there has been national-team torment going all the way back to 1972, when Popovich, known then as a defensive pest from the Air Force Academy, was cut from the team that went on to controversially lose the gold-medal game to the Soviet Union at the Munich Olympics.
Who knew, when Pat Riley so famously distilled the profession down to winning and misery, that he would also be pinpointing the dueling extremes of Popovich’s two jobs?
The latest dose of red, white and blue despair congealed for Popovich on Sunday, when the United States absorbed an 83-76 loss to France in the teams’ Olympic opener. It was the 10th defeat in major international competition for USA Basketball with NBA players on the roster. Popovich has had an official role with the team for nine of those losses — six as an assistant coach in 2002 and 2004 and three as the head coach.
How much culpability Popovich has for the Americans’ sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis or their bronze-medal showing at the 2004 Olympics in Greece can be debated, since George Karl and Larry Brown were the head coaches of record for those pratfalls. Popovich, by contrast, wore every ounce of the United States’ humbling slide to seventh at the 2019 World Cup in China, even though Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton were the only All-Stars on the 12-man roster.
Tokyo is where that pattern was supposed to change, with a traveling party headlined by Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum. One game in, on top of exhibition losses earlier this month on U.S. soil to Nigeria and Australia, Popovich is facing the loudest criticism of his coaching life … or at least since his early days in San Antonio when it took two championships to win the locals over.
Popovich insisted after the France loss that it was an insult to the victors to paint the result as a surprise. Mark down the heat he’s facing now as another non-surprise: His longstanding combative ways with reporters, combined with such an outspoken nature on political matters in recent years, has only ramped up the blowback.
Although USAB’s roster for Japan proved not as starry, in the end, as initially expected, Popovich has more than sufficient talent to win gold. His cause is helped by Spain’s aging roster (four key Spaniards are 35 or older), Argentina’s weakest team in years and the failure of Serbia (Nikola Jokić) or Greece (Giannis Antetokounmpo) to qualify like Luka Dončić's Slovenia.
While true that a lack of practice time and a distinct continuity deficit compared to a team like France are very real issues for Popovich to confront, they are the same issues that every team assembled by USA Basketball has faced throughout the 2000s. Defensive intensity that generates turnovers and leads to fast-break opportunities is always the Americans' best counter to such shortcomings, but the required level of force was lacking in multiple areas against France, from ball pressure and transition defense to simple screening and cutting. The coach, ultimately, is responsible for such failings.
It's no accident that Milwaukee's Jrue Holiday, who routinely embraces dirty work, stood out as the Americans' best player in defeat, despite his delayed arrival in Japan after the NBA Finals. Yet another challenge for Popovich and his staff in addition to the need for more Holidays: All the switching that NBA players do defensively, which Popovich has adopted with this team, is a problem internationally when a group of players doesn't really know each other. Communication breakdowns are inevitable.
There is still time for the Yanks to bounce back, provided they handle their remaining pool-play games against Iran and the Czech Republic without incident, and that murmurs of player discontent with Popovich’s offense don’t mushroom into something bigger. But Popovich, deep down, must be nearing (or at) the point of wondering if he has already used up all his good coaching karma with the Spurs. The frustrating wait for the chance to take over for Mike Krzyzewski spanned more than a decade, after he lost out in the race to replace Brown in the wake of the Athens debacle, but actually succeeding Coach K was never supposed to be this hard.
It was another loss to France, remember, that knocked the Americans out of medal contention in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2019 and sent them spiraling to the lowest finish in program history. I remember speaking to Brown before that France game, as he rooted for Popovich from afar to “put a lot of things behind us all.”
“I still haven’t gotten over that,” Brown said of the 2004 experience, “and I’m sure Pop hasn’t, either.”
Since my conversation with Brown, Popovich has won just three of his last eight games with the national team (including exhibitions). To add to the suffering, France just made it two wins in a row over the most feared basketball nation on the planet by playing 7-footers Rudy Gobert and Vincent Poirier together for much of the second half. That’s an outdated strategy by modern NBA standards, but it worked wonderfully in smothering a small U.S. team, recreating a Duncan/David Robinson effect that Popovich could have done without.
“They are better individually, but they can be beaten as a team,” said France’s Evan Fournier, who tossed out that dagger after scoring a game-high 28 points.
Part of the reason outgoing USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo finally chose Popovich as Krzyzewski's successor in 2015, beyond defusing years of tension between them by handing Popovich his dream job, was the belief that stars would want to play for him. Durant confirmed such pull recently by saying that "it's always been a dream of mine to learn under Coach Pop," who turns 73 in January.
Trouble is, since this team came together in Las Vegas on July 6, it has faced a steady stream of COVID-19 intrusions, roster adjustments, player shortages and chaos. Pop’s next dreamy day on this job will be his first.
No one would dare suggest that the Popovich legacy is riding on a turnaround in Tokyo, but these next 10 or so days likely amount to his last shot to rewrite some of the eyesore chapters of a mostly storybook journey.
"We'll win the gold medal," Don Nelson, another longtime Popovich friend and fan like Brown, said over the phone the other day.
"He'll figure it out,” Nelson said.
Instinct tells me that the ever-patriotic Pop, if he can’t, will have a hard time letting go of the misery to revel in all he has won.
Draft Week Buzz
As deliberations continue on how to best deploy this space with a worthy successor to the Corner Three franchise, devoting it to the latest chatter from the league grapevine is the appropriate play on this Newsletter Tuesday as Thursday's draft draws near:
Rival front offices continue to wonder: Are the Detroit Pistons legitimately cooling on Cade Cunningham as the No. 1 overall selection … or simply trying to encourage stronger 11th-hour trade offers for the top pick? One league source insists that one of the factors keeping the Pistons from committing fully to the selection of Cunningham is Jalen Green’s recent stellar workout that apparently made the strongest of impressions.
The Dallas Mavericks' post-draft focus, sources say, will be the pursuit of Kyle Lowry (along with Miami, New Orleans and Philadelphia) and their bid to re-sign Tim Hardaway Jr. Dallas was initially expected to wait and see if Kawhi Leonard gave any indication that he was open to leaving the Clippers, but the Mavericks have moved off of those plans.
Given the understandable pessimism in circulation about the Pelicans’ ability to win the Lowry Sweepstakes in competition with a number of teams closer to true contention, New Orleans has also been increasingly mentioned as a likely suitor for Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie when free agency officially starts Aug. 2.
Great anticipation surrounds the New York Knicks' offseason, given the considerable cap space they possess, but the Knicks continue to be cited in league circles as perhaps the most likely destination for Portland's Damian Lillard if — stress if — there is a change of plans in the Pacific Northwest and the Trail Blazers make Lillard available via trade earlier than expected. Something to keep in mind when the Knicks are linked to other point guards.
One of Thursday’s major curiosities remains Golden State’s intentions with the No. 7 and No. 14 picks in the lottery. The Warriors, as covered in last Friday’s This Week In Basketball column, want a certifiable star if they part with those picks, meaning either Lillard or their widely presumed top choice: Washington’s Bradley Beal. Since neither Lillard nor Beal appears to be available, and with doubts persisting about whether Golden State has enough to offer to assemble a trade package to move to the front of the line for either player should they become available, Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers said Monday that “right now, yeah, we’re drafting” at both 7 and 14. If you’re rooting for trade action — I’m kidding; I know that’s what you’re rooting for — please note that Myers did add this: “Don’t get mad if we don’t [keep the picks] in three days because that means something changed.”
The United States' loss Sunday to France in its Olympic opener was the program's 10th in major competitions (Olympics or the FIBA World Cup) since it was allowed to use NBA players starting in 1992. (Two additional losses at the 1998 Worlds in Greece were excluded from this count since they occurred during an NBA lockout with players under NBA contract precluded from participating.)
The Americans have lost their last two games to France (2019 and 2021) to match their longest losing streak in the NBA era. Argentina posted consecutive victories over the United States in 2002 (FIBA Worlds in Indianapolis) and 2004 (Athens Olympics). The United States has also lost two consecutive exhibition games to Australia in 2019 and earlier this month in Las Vegas.
Three countries besides the United States have at least six current NBA players on their rosters in the 12-team Olympic men's basketball field. Nigeria has eight NBA players on its 12-man squad, followed by Australia (seven) and France (six).
There are a record 49 current NBA players on Olympic rosters. Iran is the only country in the 12-team field without one; Iran's Hamed Haddadi last played in the league in 2012-13.
Leave it to The Orange County Register's Mark Whicker, so often billed in the newsroom as the columnist who knows your beat better than you do, to point this one out: Washington's Russell Westbrook was the only American among last season's top 11 rebounders. Eleven! Westbrook finished sixth in the league at 11.5 rebounds per game.
Nine other countries were represented among those top 11 rebounders: Switzerland (Atlanta’s Clint Capela), France (Utah’s Rudy Gobert), Lithuania (Memphis’ Jonas Valančiūnas and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis), Montenegro (Chicago’s Nikola Vučević), Turkey (Portland’s Enes Kanter), Greece (Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo), Serbia (Denver’s Nikola Jokić), Cameroon (Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid) and the Bahamas (Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton).
The NBA Finals, taking place in July for the first time, averaged 9.9 million viewers, representing the fourth-lowest figure this century, as noted Monday by my Axios counterpart Kendall Baker. The only three Finals to pull in smaller audiences were last season’s Finals from the Walt Disney World bubble (Lakers vs. Heat) that were staged much later than usual in October, 2007 (Spurs vs. Cavaliers) and 2003 (Spurs vs. Nets). The league has long maintained that such audience measures are incomplete, since they roughly account for only 10% of international markets and do not include figures from social media platforms or its League Pass streaming service.
After grossing an estimated $31 million in theaters in its opening weekend, LeBron James’ “Space Jam: A New Legacy” suffered a drop of 69% to $9.5 million this past weekend in American cinemas. The movie was also distributed via the HBO Max streaming service as opposed to theaters-only availability.