With Gregg Popovich reportedly coveted by the Nets, Spurs CEO R.C. Buford said he’s “under the assumption” that the five-time champion will stay in San Antonio. Still, his statement offered no promises or guarantees.
The Nets’ season ended with a first round playoff loss to defending champion Toronto, letting general manager Sean Marks’ coaching search begin in earnest. And while Jacque Vaughn is the interim coach and Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue a perceived co-favorite, Popovich is predictably viewed as a top priority.
Popovich is the dean of NBA coaches with a 22-year-playoff run tied for the longest in league history. But he’s also Marks’ mentor. The Nets GM won a ring with the Spurs in 2005 as a player and 2014 as an assistant coach.
Marks took over in Brooklyn two years later, and nine others with Spurs links have followed him. It’s only natural that reports surfaced that Popovich is Marks’ No. 1 priority in the Nets’ coaching search. When asked about the persistent rumors, Buford told CNBC that the Spurs are “under the assumption” Popovich is coming back.
“Pop’s shown nothing other than how we’re going to build our team for next year,” Buford said.
And when Popovich himself was asked earlier this month if he’d be back in San Antonio next season, he shot back, “Why wouldn’t I?”
Marks has publicly downplayed the talk of luring the 71-year-old Popovich.
“Pop has a job, so I’ll say that,” Marks said last month on WFAN. “And, obviously we all know he’s an amazing, amazing coach, and to be quite frank, an even better leader. So, I’ll let Pop continue to coach for the Spurs. He owes it to them and they owe it to him. I’m sure he’s quite happy there.”
Vaughn acquitted himself well with a 7-3 record as interim coach, including a surprising 5-3 mark prior to the playoffs at the Orlando restart despite having a threadbare roster devoid of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie.
Lue coached Cleveland to three straight NBA Finals and won the 2016 title with Irving. He wants $7 million annually according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and is a strong candidate if he doesn’t end up with the 76ers or Pelicans.
Still, no candidate can be stronger than Popovich. The issue will be prying him out of San Antonio, where he’s been the past two dozen years.
The thing that’ll make gauging Popovich’s interest in the Nets easy is also one of the franchise’s prime selling points — the relationship with Marks.
“[Marks] is a great friend of the whole family,” Popovich told The Post last year. “We’ve been rooting for his success and the success of their group since he went. It’s obviously very positive and going in the right direction, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
The Spurs are in need of refurbishing, both their roster (missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997) and their infrastructure, AT&T Center being among the older areas that hasn’t undergone a recent facelift.
While Buford called Popovich the “North Star” guiding light in the Spurs’ success, he did acknowledge the venerable coach won’t always be there for them.
“Pop’s vision will be in play long after his presence,” Buford said. “That doesn’t mean it’ll be him in there making those decisions, but we’ve all learned together, and you’re not going to step away from a values-based, team-building aspect that focuses on culture and coming to work every day and working on it.”
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