Golden State Warriors fans get an opportunity to congratulate their former assistant on becoming the winningest head coach in NBA history when Gregg Popovich leads the San Antonio Spurs into San Francisco for a Sunday night matchup.
Popovich joined Don Nelson’s staff in Golden State for the 1992-1993 season and was alongside the previous record-setting coach for two years.
During that time, the Warriors improved from 34-48 to 50-32, making the playoffs in Chris Webber’s rookie season in 1994 before falling to Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
Popovich moved to San Antonio (where he had previously been an assistant coach) to become the Spurs’ general manager under new ownership. Two years later — 18 games into the 1997 season — he fired coach Bob Hill and moved downstairs to begin a 1,337-win run.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played for four seasons in San Antonio under Popovich and helped the franchise to the 1999 and 2003 championships (two of five under Popovich), was one of the first to congratulate “Pop” after his historic win on March 11.
“Let me just say thank you,” gushed Kerr, a Popovich assistant on the gold-medal-winning 2020 USA Olympic team. “What is really meaningful to me and to all of your former players is just what you’ve meant to us on a personal level, how much you’ve helped us grow as people, the experiences that you provided for us and the incredible run that we were all a part of in San Antonio. You are just an amazing coach and an amazing man.”
Nelson, whose 1,335 career wins included 422 with the Warriors, also applauded the moment, saying, “I’m so proud of you. I couldn’t wait for this day to happen.”
Popovich and Kerr are 12-12 in their career head-to-head in the regular season, with the teams having split a pair earlier this year, each winning on the road. The Warriors also have beaten the Spurs in two playoff series since Kerr became coach in 2015 — 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals in 2017 and 4-1 again in the Western first round in 2018.
The Spurs are scrambling simply to get into the Western play-in tournament this time around. Having lost eight of 11 surrounding Popovich’s historic win, they enter their final 11 games 2 1/2 back of the 10th-place New Orleans Pelicans.
San Antonio blew a chance to gain ground on the Pelicans in a 124-91 home loss Friday night in a game in which Popovich was ejected for two technical fouls in the second quarter after it appeared referee Bennie Adams accidentally hit him on the side of the head while making an out-of-bounds call.
Afterward, Popovich called it, “One of those games we won’t watch film. Win them together, lose them together, we move on.”
Meanwhile, the Warriors not only suffered a home drubbing of their own in their last game — 110-88 at the hands of the Boston Celtics on Wednesday — but also lost star guard Stephen Curry to a strained ligament in his left foot in the process.
Curry is expected to miss at least two weeks and perhaps the rest of the regular season, during which the Warriors will continue dueling the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz for the 2-3-4 playoff slots in the West behind the Phoenix Suns.
The Warriors do have reinforcements prepared to step into Curry’s huge void, including the expected return of Andrew Wiggins from an illness and Gary Payton II from a back injury, as well as the possible season debut of James Wiseman, who has yet to play an NBA game following offseason knee surgery.