- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- The names of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan will forever be intertwined in NBA history.
They have more postseason wins than any coach-player duo in league history. More than Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, more than Magic Johnson and Pat Riley, and more than Bill Russell and Red Auerbach.
And in the twilight of their legendary partnership, in what could be their final postseason run together, they open the playoffs against the man who nearly came between them, not once, but twice -- Doc Rivers.
Rivers laughs when he is reminded about it after practice on the eve of Game 1 of the San Antonio Spurs-Los Angeles Clippers first-round series. He's not much for strolls down memory lane, especially this time of year, but he says he believes he almost came between Duncan and Popovich only once -- not twice -- but we're getting ahead of ourselves.
It's hard to imagine Popovich being on any type of hot seat now. He's the gold standard of the coaching community and will retire as one of the greatest coaches in basketball history.
"I think every coach in the league wants to be like Pop," Rivers said. "Players want to be like Mike. We want to be like Pop."
That was hardly the case in early 1999 as Popovich was beginning his third season as the Spurs' coach. The team began the lockout-shortened season with championship expectations but stumbled out of the gate to a 6-8 record. Not only was there pressure to remove Popovich, but there was a growing sense he would be replaced by Rivers, a former Spurs player who was a member of the broadcast team at the time.
In fact, if the Spurs hadn't beaten the Houston Rockets on March 2, 1999, the feeling among many was Popovich would be gone and Rivers would be named his successor soon after.
EPSN's Marc Stein chronicled the moment in his must-read feature on the Duncan-Popovich partnership last season.
"If we lost that game, they were going to fire Pop and bring in Doc," former Spurs forward Malik Rose told Stein.
Said Avery Johnson: "There was a lot of noise about Pop being potentially replaced by Doc."
Before departing to play Houston, Johnson and David Robinson met Popovich at his home, and the team responded by blowing out the Rockets. The Spurs would go on to win 31 of their next 36 games and claim the first of Popovich's five titles in San Antonio.
While the turning point of the Spurs' season and Popovich's career is hard to argue, Rivers says he doesn't believe he was one loss away from replacing Popovich in San Antonio.
"The only talk I had back then was I made sure I wasn't a part of all that bulls---," Rivers told ESPN.com on Saturday. "I don't think it was as close as people thought it was. Maybe it was. I've read that it was. I tried to stay out of it."
Rivers and Popovich are extremely close now, with Rivers regularly chatting with Popovich in the offseason, but he admits the rumors about him taking Popovich's job put a momentary strain on the relationship.
"It did make things very uncomfortable for me," Rivers said. "The natural talk when that stuff starts to happen is, 'Are you behind it?' Me and Pop weathered that and we were fine."
So what would have happened if Rivers did take over for Popovich that season? Rivers had never coached before but would go on to win NBA Coach of the Year honors the following season with the Orlando Magic. He wouldn't win his first title until 2008 with the Boston Celtics.
"I wasn't ready," Rivers said. "I wasn't ready for that."
Rivers wasn't able to coach Duncan in San Antonio in 1999 but nearly pried him away from San Antonio in the summer of 2000 with the hope of bringing him to Orlando to play alongside Grant Hill.
It seems almost impossible to imagine Duncan playing for any other team now, but 15 years ago Duncan was coming off his third season in San Antonio and wasn't as synonymous with the city as the Alamo and River Walk. He was 24 and was intrigued by the possibility of starting a new chapter in his career in Florida.
"I thought we had him," Rivers said. "I thought we had a great shot at him. He was leaning towards coming, but I really think he had loyalty to Pop."
Rivers and the Magic put the full-court press on Duncan, even enlisting Tiger Woods as a recruiter while Rivers and Duncan played a round of golf at Woods' course. It looked as if Duncan would join until David Robinson cut short his vacation in Hawaii to come back to San Antonio and, along with Popovich, persuaded Duncan to stay.
"We never had him, but it felt like we did for a moment there," said Rivers, who would be fired 12 games into the 2003-04 season in Orlando before being hired the following season by the Celtics. "It was close."
After nearly derailing the Popovich and Duncan partnership twice, Rivers can smile about it now as he sees what the two have built over nearly two decades together. It is not only the gold standard in the league, but the blueprint he now uses as a coach and executive.
"They are the best," Rivers said. "San Antonio is the benchmark. They're clearly, in my opinion, the franchise everyone wants to be. They've done just an amazing job on and off the floor with the way they pick their players. They have been the model."
It's a model he nearly had a hand in breaking twice, and one he has been trying to replicate everywhere he has coached since.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers downplays his role, but there were two times when he nearly had a hand in unknowingly derailing what became a dynasty.