On Dec. 10, 1996, regular unleaded gasoline across the United States cost an average of $1.25 per gallon, the top album on the charts was the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and the Dot-com bubble was still over three years from bursting.
In NBA circles, the day will be forever known as the start of a modern dynasty.
Dec. 10, 1996, saw Gregg Popovich, then-General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations for the San Antonio Spurs, fire head coach Bob Hill and name himself Spurs head coach following the team’s 3-15 start.
Even with Popovich at the helm, the Spurs turnaround did not happen overnight. Centerpiece David Robinson was among a number of Spurs battling injuries during the 1996-97 season and the team won only 17 games after Popovich took over, finishing 20-62.
Capitalizing on their poor season, the Spurs secured the top pick in the 1997 NBA Draft Lottery and used it to draft Wake Forest University’s Tim Duncan. Popovich and Duncan have since become one of the most successful coach-player pairings in NBA history.
An era of nearly unmatched success began in Popovich’s first full season as coach and Duncan’s first season as the team’s centerpiece. Robinson returned to good health and Duncan secured Rookie of the Year honors during a 1997-98 season which saw the Spurs win 56 games, a 36-win improvement from the previous season, and advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Popovich won his first title as Spurs head coach after the Lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. The Spurs were a league-best 37-13 and steamrolled their way to an NBA Championship, going 15-2 in the postseason on their way to the title. Tim Duncan was the MVP of the NBA Finals.
With Robinson aging, the team began stocking up on younger players to build a new nucleus around Duncan. The team drafted 21-year-old Manu Ginobili in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft, and Ginobili played in Italy for a couple more years before joining the Spurs in 2002. The Spurs also took Tony Parker in the first round of the 2001 NBA Draft.
From 1999-2002, the Spurs remained competitive but could played second-fiddle during a period which saw a Los Angeles Lakers team led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant three-peat under head coach Phil Jackson.
Prior to the 2002-2003 campaign, Robinson announced his plan to retire following the season. With Duncan and Robinson down low and Ginobili and Parker in the backcourt, the Spurs went a league-best 60-22 during the regular season. Duncan was the MVP of both the regular season and the NBA Finals, and Robinson walked away on top at age 37. Popovich also won the first of his two Coach of the Year awards.
Even without Robinson, the Spurs continued rolling. The team captured titles during the 2004-05 and 2006-07 seasons. In the 2005 series, Duncan captured his third Finals MVP award while Parker earned the honor during the 2007 series.
The Spurs have made the playoffs in all 16 of Popovich’s full seasons as head coach. Duncan has been at the heart of the Spurs’ success during the Popovich era, and at age 37, is still the heart and soul of the San Antonio franchise.
Popovich is the longest tenured coach in the league with his current team, at nearly 17 years.
Just to provide context, the second-longest tenured NBA coach is the Boston Celtics’ Doc Rivers who has been with his team for nine years. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia (hired in 1999) and Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz (1997) are the only other coaches in major North American sports leagues with tenure dating back to before the turn of the 21st century.
Entering this year’s postseason, Popovich’s regular season winning percentage was .681, trailing only Jackson’s mark of .704 and the .698 mark of Billy Cunningham who coached the Philadelphia 76ers squad led by Julius Erving and Moses Malone during the 1970s and 1980s.
Popovich trails only Jackson and Pat Riley for most postseason victories as an NBA head coach, and is Top 10 among NBA coaches all-time in postseason winning percentage.
With all this in mind, it should come as no surprise Popovich’s Spurs are one of four squads left with a shot to win the 2013 NBA Championship.
Popovich has never had the widespread popularity of Jackson who flourished in large Chicago and Los Angeles markets. In very much the same way, Duncan has never been viewed by the casual fan as a star in the same light as Bryant, O’Neal or from Jackson’s Chicago days, Michael Jordan.
Still, after nearly 20 years of superior coaching, Popovich has undeniably earned his spot among the greatest NBA coaches ever.