San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich won the 1,000th regular season game of his 19-year career last night, joining eight coaches to pass the 1,000-win milestone.
Popovich is the ninth head coach in NBA history to reach 1,000 victories, but he is the only one of those nine with a winning record against every opponent he has faced (Popovich has opposed 29 teams in his career). His best record against a particular team is 55-11 (.833) versus the Warriors. His winning percentage against the Pacers is .824 (28-6); that ranks second highest among those 29 teams.
Every other member of the 1,000-win club has faced 30 teams. The only head coach in that group with a winning record against at least 28 teams is Phil Jackson. Jackson has a .500 winning percentage versus two teams: the Spurs (30-30 W-L) and Lakers (9-9). And how did he fare versus Popovich in the regular season? Jackson won 23 of 45 such games.
Popovich also became the third fastest to reach the career milestone.
Fastest to 1,000 Wins, @NBA Head Coaches 1. Phil Jackson: 1,423 Games 2. Pat Riley: 1,434 3. Gregg Popovich: 1,462
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) February 10, 2015
It has been a sustained period of excellence for Popovich who has won five NBA championships, earned NBA coach of the year honors three times — all with just one franchise. In fact, he is the only coach to win his first 1,000 NBA victories with the same team.
So it is clear Popovich is among some of the best NBA coaches of all time, and makes the argument as being the second best coach in NBA history behind Phil Jackson since the three-point line was put in effect.
In terms of NBA championships, no one holds a candle to Jackson, who won 11 titles with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.
Red Auerbach won nine championship rings, but the game was much different back then: there were only 10 teams in the league during his first season with Boston (1950-51) and there was neither a shot clock nor a three-point line. Plus, offense as a whole was watered down. For example, in Auerbach’s first championship season (1956-57), the league average field goal percentage was 38 percent. When the Spurs won the title last year, the worst shooting team in the league, the Chicago Bulls, shot 43.2 percent from the field and the average was 45.4 percent. Same for John Kundla and his five titles. In Kundla’s championship years, the highest average shooting percentage was 37.2 percent.
The same pattern can be seen for points per game per team.
So that leaves Popovich, Jackson and Pat Riley vying for the NBA’s best coach of the modern era.
Popovich had more success than Riley and as much success as Jackson during the regular season. According to the Simple Rating System, which adjusts margin of victory for strength of schedule, Jackson’s teams were 5.94 points per game above average. Popovich’s Spurs were 5.44 points per game above average. Riley is a distant third.
And Popovich’s success came more consistently and more often than Jackson. The chart below shows how close together Popovich’s seasons (designated by the silver/black circles) are in terms of not only beating opponents (margin of victory) but against better-than-average competition as well (strength of schedule). Jackson’s (green circles).
So while Popovich likely won’t catch Jackson in terms of titles won, he was the best at keeping his teams competitive at a high level for most of his tenure.
“I’ve been here a long time and I’ve had good players. That’s the formula,” Popovich said.