SAN ANTONIO — First things first: Gregg Popovich will be back to coach the Spurs next season.
Talking to reporters Monday at his end-of-season news conference, Popovich confirmed that he’s negotiating a new contract with the club.
Popovich, 70, became the Spurs’ coach 18 games into the 1996-97 season and has led the team for 22 complete seasons. He has guided the Silver and Black to all five of their NBA championships and the playoffs each of the last 22 seasons, which is tied for the longest streak in league history.
An ESPN report Tuesday quoted sources saying that the new deal is expected to be for three years and would keep Popovich as the NBA's highest-paid coach.
Pop being Pop, he joked Monday when he was asked if he’s returning to coach the Silver and Black next season.
“That’s up in the air,” he said with his best poker face. “I’m currently . . . I’ve never talked about my contract in all these years. Never had an agent. Never talked about the contract. Just like R.C. (Buford, Spurs general manager) don’t talk about free agents or trades, or anything.
“My contract is basically my business, but I’ll break the rule this time. I’m currently in a negotiation that I could very well end up with the Portofino Flyers or Positano Pirates. I think that it’s like one-third Positano, one-third Portofino and one-third San Antonio, so we’ll see where it ends up.”
That brought a good laugh from the media.
Another indication that Popovich plans to be back next season was what he told reporters as he walked away at the end of the 18-minute session.
“Good luck to all of you this summer,” he said. “Be safe. We live in a dangerous country because nobody has any courage to do what they need to do. So, enjoy and we’ll laugh a lot next fall.”
The Spurs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second year in a row this season, falling to the Denver Nuggets in a seven-game series. The Nuggets held on to edge the Silver and Black 90-86 after leading by 17 points in the third quarter Saturday in Game 7 at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Popovich had a one-word reply when he was asked if he would like to keep the core of this season’s team together: “Absolutely.”
Popovich completed the final season of a five-year contract extension he signed with the Spurs in 2014. He will coach USA Basketball in the FIBA World Cup in China in September and at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Despite the biggest turnover of the Popovich era and the loss of starting point guard Dejounte Murray to a knee injury in the preseason, the Silver and Black finished 48-34 and advanced to the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference.
The Spurs became a team in transition after trading All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard and starting guard Danny Green to Toronto. Manu Ginobili retired and Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets as a free agent. The Silver and Black got DeMar DeRozan, a four-time All-Star guard, and center Jakob Poeltl from Toronto in the trade that send Leonard and Green to the Raptors.
All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge was the only starter from the 2017-18 team that took the floor when San Antonio opened its 2018-19 campaign.
“I think the group did a fine job under some strange circumstances, some tough circumstances,” Popovich said. “Just some circumstances that arose just because the nature of the beast. With the eight new players and the trade, some injuries. I think that when we all reflect on the season, they achieved a lot more than people gave them credit for having the opportunity to achieve.
“I think what I tell the players, and told them again today, I wish the season started today with everything that we’ve learned through this last year about each other. These guys never played with each other before. It was a new system for everybody to try to do that. At the same time, it’s very difficult in a team sport. But they hung tough. They showed a lot of character.”
The loss of Murray can’t be overstated when reflecting on the Spurs’ season. A second-team All-Defense pick last year, Murray was being counted on to be a force on both ends of the court.
San Antonio’s season of transition was turned on its head after guard Lonnie Walker IV, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2018, and Murray sustained knee injuries in preseason games, two days apart in October. Things got worse when Derrick White, who had replaced Murray at point guard, injured a heel three days after Murray was lost for the season.
Walker and White returned and the latter ended up starting 44 of the last 49 games at point guard. Bryn Forbes, who had been thrust into the starting lineup after White was injured, moved to his natural position at shooting guard and flourished.
Popovich acknowledged that the return of Murray and the development of White and Forbes, plus more playing time for Walker, could create a numbers crunch at the guard position.
“That’s always a challenge for every coach, minutes for players,” Popovich said. “But I’d rather have that challenge and Dejounte back than have him gone again, because minutes weren’t a problem. If we have a minutes problem, that’ll be a good one.”
Popovich said Murray is an important piece to the puzzle because he was an all-league defender last year.
“Everybody forgets that, I think,” Popovich said. “That’s where the defense begins and ends, with him at point guard or two guard, wherever he ends up playing. I’m sure he’ll do both. Adding him back to the team and having Lonnie hopefully healthy and ready to go will give us more depth, more athleticism, that we really didn’t have this season.”
Rudy Gay, who finished the playoff series against Denver with two strong games, also got a positive nod from Popovich, who said he hopes the team can re-sign Gay.
“Rudy is a scorer,” Popovich said. “He’s somebody who changes games. He’s a great teammate. He’s got a great personality, great sense of humor, and he’s gotten better rebounding-wise and defensively, which never was really his forte. But he understands the importance of it and he’s just getting better every year, so he’s somebody that we’re hoping to figure out a way to keep him here.”
Aldridge (21.3) and DeRozan (21.2) led the Spurs’ in scoring during the regular season and the playoffs. One of the best mid-range shooters in the league, DeRozan took just 45 three-pointers during the season, making seven. Aldridge was 10 of 42 from beyond the arc.
Popovich said DeRozan and Aldridge could be asked to shoot more threes next season.
“You know, I think that that’s something we really have to discuss and think about, because that’s what the league is all about now,” Popovich said. “As I’ve said, you end the game, the first thing you look at is the three-point shooting and it covers a whole lot of warts. You can get beat on the boards.
“One of the games that we beat Denver, they had 28 second-chance points. But they shot horribly and we shot really well. Game over. It’s not very interesting and not much fun, but that’s the way the league is.”