Gregg Popovich now serves as the longest-tenured active coach in all of America’s major sports leagues.
It would seem that ever since Gregg Popovich completed his first full season as San Antonio Spurs head coach, there are now three things certain in this world — death, taxes, and the Spurs making the NBA postseason. Of course, a lot of this also has to do with Spurs management, but you can’t deny that the hitherto-unknown Coach Pop has made a huge impact on the Spurs and the NBA itself since he took over midway through the 1996-97 season. And did we tell you he also served as the team’s GM from 1994 to 2002 before he handed the reins over to R.C. Buford?
It’s been more than two decades since Popovich took over the coaching job from Bob Hill, and since San Antonio hasn’t had another coach in between, Pop now serves as the longest-tenured active coach in all of America’s major sports leagues. He’s coached some great players who may one day be, or have already been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame but he’s also coached some absolute duds, either players who were clearly past their prime and not doing the Spurs any favors, or players who weren’t very good to begin with.
With that said, let’s look back at the past two decades of the San Antonio Spurs’ history, and count ’em all down — the ten best, and ten worst players ever coached by Gregg Popovich.
NOTE: In order to qualify for “worst,” a player needs to have played at least 20 games for the Spurs. This is in order to eliminate any ten-day contract guys who were only in San Antonio for the proverbial cup of coffee.
20 JAMIE FEICK (WORST)
Once upon a time, Jamie Feick was one of the NBA’s top rebounders, showing the potential to become the player we eventually saw in Reggie Evans a few years later. He was just 27 when an Achilles injury ended his career after the 2000-01 season, but if you go back to his rookie year, it’s easy to see why rebounding was his sole calling card in the pros.
Playing 38 games for the Spurs in 1996-97, Feick was quite the per-36-minute guy on the boards, but he was atrocious on the offensive end for a 6’9″ power forward with limited range, shooting 35.7 percent from the field and 50.7 percent from the line. That’s even worse if you consider that offensive rebounding was his specialty — think of all those missed putbacks!
19 DOMINIQUE WILKINS (BEST)
Although he was already in the twilight of his career and coming off the bench for Pop’s first-ever Spurs team, Dominique Wilkins was still putting up the numbers at the age of 37. The Human Highlight Film was a surprisingly budget-priced pickup for the moribund, mostly David Robinson-less Spurs of 1996-97, and he willingly took up the offensive slack, averaging a team-leading 18.2 points and adding 6.4 rebounds a game as San Antonio stumbled to a 20-62 record.
Wilkins’ services were no longer needed in 1997-98, as Jaren Jackson came on board and delivered on the defensive end, excelling in an area where Nique wasn’t quite cutting it in his one season in San Antonio. Still, it was a nice way to seemingly end a Hall of Fame career… if only he hadn’t played one more season as a Magic third-stringer.
18 SEAN MARKS (WORST)
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The first-ever New Zealand-born NBA player, Sean Marks is now the general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, and it would seem as if crunching numbers, trading and signing players, and working a desk job in a suit and tie has been a better fit for him than banging bodies inside as a backup center/forward. In 11 NBA seasons, he was always there to sign as somebody’s off-the-bench enforcer, though as his career numbers (2.8 points, 2.2 rebounds) suggest, he wasn’t very good.
That applies to his two-season stint as a backup to Tim Duncan at power forward. From 2004-06, Marks averaged only 3.3 points and shot just 42 percent from the field with the Spurs, and if it’s any solace to him, he did win two rings with the Spurs, one as a player (2004-05), and another as an assistant coach (2013-14).
17 DEREK ANDERSON (BEST)
Derek Anderson is another one of those one-season wonders with the Spurs, though unlike Dominique Wilkins, he was onboard while the team was winning, and offered a more complete skill set than the Human Highlight Film did in his one season in San Antonio in 2000-01. He had one of his better seasons playing for a team that finished 58-24 and made the Western Conference Finals, but that was sadly as good as it got for the versatile, two-way wingman.
For the 2002-03 season, Anderson and Steve Kerr were traded to Portland for Steve Smith and a second-round draft pick. His career would then be derailed by a toxic “Jail Blazers” locker room and injuries, though he did still win a championship ring later on in his career, playing for the 2005-06 Miami Heat in an off-the-bench role.
16 JAMES ANDERSON (WORST)
James Anderson is of no relation to fellow Spurs first-rounders Cadillac and Kyle or one-year-wonder Derek, and he is one of three with that surname on this list. That’s because he’s a quintessential example of how not every low first-rounder Gregg Popovich and/or R.C. Buford touch in the draft turns into gold. A big-scoring wingman with Oklahoma State, Anderson was drafted in 2010 as a potential replacement for the aging Manu Ginobili at the two or the declining Richard Jefferson at the three, and potentially a younger version of the then-recently-retired Bruce Bowen, but with more offensive firepower.
Anderson did impress with his strong defense, but as a Spur, he seemingly left his offensive game in college. In two and a half seasons, he struggled to shoot more than 40 percent from the field, and while he did put up solid numbers for the 76ers in 2013-14, we should remember that those are Sam Hinkie and Brett Brown’s 19-63 Sixers. Anybody could have posted career numbers for those Sixers teams.
15 BRUCE BOWEN (BEST)
Compared to many of his San Antonio Spurs peers, Bruce Bowen was mostly invisible on the stat sheet. He never averaged in double figures despite starting seven straight seasons at small forward, was a subpar rebounder and passer, and typically averaged less than a steal and less than a block per game. But you know the deal, right? Good defensive stats oftentimes don’t translate into defensive stardom, and vice versa.
While his oftentimes-dirty play made him one of the most hated players in the NBA, you can’t argue with Bowen’s defensive prowess, as he made eight All-Defensive Teams in his 13-year career, seven of them with the Spurs. He’d probably rank a bit higher if he had a slightly more complete game, but as it is, everything else was gravy on top of his stifling defense.
14 CADILLAC ANDERSON (WORST)
Greg “Cadillac” Anderson (again, no relation to Derek, James, or current Spurs player Kyle) is the oldest player in this list, having been drafted late in the first round by the Spurs in 1987. With San Antonio still waiting for David Robinson to finish his Navy service, Anderson got big minutes in his first two seasons, and while he bounced around as a journeyman in the coming years, he did finish among the NBA’s top rebounders in 1991-92, playing for the Nuggets.
In 1996-97, Anderson was back with the team that drafted him, and he was, for the most part, the guy tasked to fill in for the then-injured Admiral. With averages of 3.9 points and 5.5 rebounds, Anderson was almost useless on offense, and while he still offered good rebounding and defense, it was far from what he used to contribute in his younger days. No surprise the Spurs finished 20-62 that season.
13 AVERY JOHNSON (BEST)
Before Tony Parker took over the play-calling duties for the Spurs, there was Avery Johnson, a longtime Pop pet project dating back to their time in the 1993-94 Golden State Warriors. That stint helped the 5’10” Johnson transform from journeyman reserve to competent starter, and when Gregg Popovich took over as Spurs GM in 1994, he made sure to bring Johnson with him and make him starting point guard in San Antonio.
For the first four and a half years of Pop’s tenure, the “Little General” thrived as a floor leader, making up for his subpar outside shooting with crisp, precise playmaking. As he reached his mid-30s, he was supplanted by the likes of Antonio Daniels and a similarly aging Terry Porter, though the Spurs soon found an even better replacement in 2001 in Tony Parker.
12 AUSTIN DAYE (WORST)
Is it possible for a mediocre first-rounder’s son to become even more mediocre than his dad despite being drafted higher? Austin Daye proved that it was possible. The son of former NBA reserve Darren Daye, Austin was a long 6’11”-220 small forward with tons of potential, but he simply lacked the strength, bulk, confidence, and consistency to excel in the pros.
In six NBA seasons, Daye played for five teams, and one of those teams was the Spurs, whom he played 40 games for in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. And while Coach Pop did try to give him some minutes, he didn’t make the most of them, shooting just 35.8 percent from the field in those games. He was a liability in his short tenure with the Spurs, though it’s not like they had a bum starting at the three position — they had Kawhi Leonard, and he was certainly on the rise back then.
11 LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE (BEST)
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He won’t be as good as Tim Duncan was, especially on defense and rebounding. But there’s no doubting that LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the best the NBA currently has at the power forward position, and that the Spurs were fortunate to sign him as a free agent for the 2015-16 season, ensuring that they wouldn’t miss a beat once time came for TD to call it a career.
With his current averages of 17.3 points and 7.5 rebounds, Aldridge isn’t putting up the same production he did with the Portland Trail Blazers for most of the nine seasons prior to his arrival in San Antonio. But he’s still putting up good numbers for a much better team, and may further be relied on in the near future, provided his heart condition doesn’t flare up again as it recently has.
10 DANNY FERRY (WORST)
Like his dad Bob, Danny Ferry appears to be better-predisposed to serving as a basketball executive than playing in the NBA. That is, until he was the proverbial messenger getting shot in the recent Atlanta Hawks racist leak controversy. But prior to that, Ferry was expected to be the second coming of Larry Bird after a sensational career with Duke. Instead, he became the rich man’s version of Fred Roberts.
With NBA fans resigned to the fact that Ferry ended up as one of the league’s biggest draft busts of all time, not much was expected from his final three seasons playing for the San Antonio Spurs. He did offer some off-the-bench shooting, but he was mostly a stat sheet afterthought, and wasn’t really a good shooter percentage-wise for the most part. But hey, he probably isn’t complaining as that run with the Spurs earned him his only NBA championship ring in his final season in the NBA.
9 MANU GINOBILI (BEST)
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Most of today’s fans know Gregg Popovich mainly as a coach, but he was, for several years, juggling the twin roles of coaching and managing the Spurs, and was responsible for many a great draft selection, including that of Argentine star guard Manu Ginobili. Drafted near the bottom of the second round in 1999, Ginobili debuted three years later, immediately making an impact off the bench, and moving to the starting lineup in 2004-05, his third season in the league. Now you don’t expect to see that from someone picked 57th overall in the draft.
Although Manu has made only two All-Star Games and two All-NBA Teams in his 14-year career, he probably deserved more of them. He was, and still is a capable player on both ends of the floor, and while he’s now 39 and in the twilight of his career, he’s made a good case for future Hall of Fame consideration.
8 CHARLIE WARD (WORST)
Charlie Ward remains, to this day, the only Heisman Trophy winner to play in the NBA, and by and large, he made the right decision, as the NFL simply wasn’t willing to give a shot to a short, spaghetti-armed rookie quarterback, Heisman notwithstanding. But the New York Knicks took a chance on him late in the first round of the 1994 draft, and he would eventually win a starting job, mainly excelling on the defensive end.
Ward was already declining in 2003-04 when the Knicks sent him to Phoenix in the trade that brought them Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway. And with the Suns waiving him before he even played a game, the Spurs claimed him off the wire. But as a veteran backup to the then-youthful Tony Parker, Ward was a brick-layer (34.6 percent from the field) who couldn’t get to the line or convert his passes into assists. Perhaps the Suns knew something the Spurs didn’t when they dumped his fat contract.
7 DAVID ROBINSON (BEST)
Back in the 1989-90 season, David Robinson had a tremendous rookie year after completing his military commitments and joining the Spurs two years after being picked first-overall in 1987. “The Admiral” turned the once-sorry Spurs into overnight contenders, but a broken foot ended his 1996-97 season after just six games, and it was back to the bad old days once again in San Antonio.
While Robinson was always at least a step or two slower in the Popovich era, he remained one of the NBA’s top five centers before the 2000s hit and he began slowing down in earnest. Major props to him as well for willingly ceding franchise player status to Tim Duncan when the Big Fundamental arrived as the first-overall pick in 1997. Now that’s a true team player.
6 DAMON STOUDAMIRE (WORST)
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If the Spurs were getting the Damon Stoudamire who torched defenses with the Toronto Raptors in his first two-and-a-half seasons in the NBA, it would have been like winning the lottery. If they got the solid-but-unspectacular guy he was for most of the remainder of his career, that would have been fine too. But midway through the 2007-08 season, the Spurs got an aging, creaky Stoudamire who was as far removed from stardom as you can get.
Instead of “Here I come to save the day,” it was “Here I come to botch some plays” for the player known as “Mighty Mouse.” As a backup to Tony Parker, Stoudamire shot an appalling 30.1 percent from the field, and had a poor 1.77 assist-to-turnover ratio to boot. At the rate he was going, the Spurs should have left Stoudamire on the waiver wire after Memphis cut him in January 2008.
5 KAWHI LEONARD (BEST)
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The main reason why Kawhi Leonard is the third-best in the Popovich era is the fact he’s only in his sixth season, thus putting him far behind the two guys ahead of him in terms of experience. But the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year is looking like an MVP candidate as he continues to wreck his old career-best numbers – currently, he’s averaging 26.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.9 steals per game, and there doesn’t seem to be anything “The Claw” can’t do.
Prior to this season, Leonard also made it to the All-NBA first team in 2015-16, and as we mentioned above, he’s a fixture on the All-Defensive Teams. He’s only 25, and barring injuries or sudden regression, he’s on track to becoming an all-time great. Not bad for a “mere” 15th-overall draft pick, huh?
4 FELTON SPENCER (WORST)
In the early-‘90s, WWE Superstar Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig shot a series of vignettes with mostly Minnesota-based professional athletes – baseball’s Wade Boggs, hockey’s Mike Modano, pro football’s Steve Jordan, and basketball’s Felton Spencer. No prizes if you guess who’s the odd man out in this list. While Boggs, Modano, and Jordan were All-Stars in their respective sport, Spencer was an utter bust as the sixth pick of the 1990 NBA draft, and he was somehow still in the league as he suited up for the Spurs in the 1999-2000 season.
At the very least, Spencer was a good rebounder and interior defender in his youth, but as a 32-year-old Spurs third-stringer, he was slow, foul-prone, and not even worth a spot start in case someone went down. Yet he still played two more seasons for the Knicks after his Spurs deal was up! Goes to show you how being over seven feet tall ensured so many poor-to-mediocre centers long NBA careers back in the day.
3 TONY PARKER (BEST)
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For many, it seems hard to believe that Tony Parker is “only” 34 years old, and turning 35 in May of this year. That’s probably because it feels like he’s been around forever, as he made his NBA debut in 2001 as a 19-year-old rookie from France, and a late first-rounder who was expected to back up Antonio Daniels. Instead, he took over the starting job early on in his rookie year, and went on to become an elite point guard well before his 25th birthday.
Compared to many of his American counterparts, Parker was hardly flashy or exciting. But like his pick-and-roll partner Tim Duncan, it was all about doing the basics, and doing them flawlessly. You can call the pick-and-roll boring, and you can call it repetitive when done by Parker and Duncan, but it was a go-to play executed by two All-Stars, oftentimes to perfection.
Parker remains the Spurs’ starting point guard in his first post-Duncan season, though it might not be long before Patty Mills takes over, as age appears to be taking its toll on TP’s game.
2 CHEROKEE PARKS (WORST)
Remember when people once thought Cherokee Parks could become the next Christian Laettner? As far as ex-Duke big men go, Parks wasn’t even the next Alaa Abdelnaby, even if he lasted much longer in the NBA. He had the height and the heft alright, but he was slow, unathletic, subpar on defense, and far from being the offensive force he was in college. He was an utter bust as the 12th pick in the 1995 draft, and it was a miracle he was still in the NBA for the 2001-02 season.
That season, Parks was signed by the San Antonio Spurs to back up the aging, fading David Robinson, but he ended up being outplayed by another deep reserve that year, Amal McCaskill. Who was seeing his first NBA action in five seasons. Who narrowly avoided this list by playing good defense. Parks, meanwhile, averaged just 1.5 points and 1.4 boards in 5.6 minutes a game, shooting a miserable 36.1 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from the line.
1 TIM DUNCAN (BEST)
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Really, were you expecting anyone else to be ranked first-overall as the greatest Spur ever mentored by Coach Pop? For a good 19 seasons, the Spurs were led by one Timothy Theodore “Tim” Duncan at power forward, and on occasion, center, and as the first-overall pick of the 1997 draft, he was a godsend for the unexpectedly horrible Spurs, who, as mentioned multiple times above, went 20-62 the year before. He didn’t do much, except lead San Antonio to five NBA championships, and win a truckload of individual awards, including two regular season MVPs, three Finals MVPs, and 15 All-NBA, All-Defensive, and All-Star Game appearances each. Truly, this is someone who will be in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
If we may finally address the elephant in the room, we do realize he wasn’t an exciting player by and large. One of his nicknames — “The Big Fundamental” — says it all. But that also meant he knew how to play the game, he knew how to make his teammates better, and he knew how to win, all of which he achieved in an NBA career that only ended last season.
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