Can any active coaches break Gregg Popovich’s all-time wins record? Only a few have reasonable shots

Don Nelson won his 1,333rd game as an NBA head coach in 2010. That made him the winningest coach of all time. He won only two games after that before ultimately retiring with his name in the history books. He held that record for 12 whole years before Gregg Popovich passed him with win No. 1,336 on Friday. Popovich, like Nelson, isn’t expected to hang around all that much longer. He might retire at the end of the year, he might prowl San Antonio’s sideline for a few more, but at 73 years old, he probably doesn’t have that many wins left in his illustrious career. It won’t be too long before Popovich’s final tally is carved into the record books.

That number is going to be the new benchmark, and based on his 300-win lead over all other active coaches, his contemporaries might need more than 12 years to finally catch him. So with Popovich’s record now official, let’s take a look at which active coaches could one day challenge his win total and what it will take for them to actually get there. For a coach to reach to Popovich, they’ll need three things above everything else:

  • Longevity. Winning more than 1,300 NBA games means coaching more than 1,300 NBA games. You’d be surprised how few coaches actually get to do that. Even if a coach went undefeated, they would need more than 16 full seasons to reach Popovich. In the most likely scenario in which that coach doesn’t go undefeated, we’re probably looking at a 30-year career out of any possible record-chasers.
  • Winning. Yes, another obvious one… the winningest coach in NBA history needs to actually win games. But it’s not just volume that matters here. It’s speed. It took Nelson 2,398 games to set his record. Popovich set his in 2,030. He won so consistently and at such a historic rate that he was able to set the record despite not coaching his first NBA game until he was 47. It’s not enough to be decent for a long time. You have to coach reliably excellent teams, which brings us to the third factor.
  • Luck. Popovich consistently credits Tim Duncan for his successful career. Had the ping pong balls bounced a different way, this story might be about Rick Pitino. In addition to skill and longevity, any coach hoping to chase Popovich will need to be lucky.

With that in mind, here are a few coaches to watch out for as possible record-chasers.

The old heads

If any coach is going to take an immediate run at the record, it is going to be Doc Rivers. He currently sits 304 wins behind Popovich, but he’s also 13 years younger. He picked up some early wins in Orlando before periods of sustained contention in Boston and Los Angeles led him to Philadelphia. Now, with Joel Embiid in his prime, there’s no reason to believe he can’t average 50 wins or so over the next few seasons and make a real run at this thing if his team stays healthy. Even if things go south in Philadelphia, his championship with the Celtics all but assure him another opportunity if he wants it. If Rivers is interested in breaking the record, he should have ample opportunity to do so. It would be fitting, too. Rivers played for the last Spurs team Popovich didn’t coach during the 1995-96 season.

A much longer shot would be Rick Carlisle. He’s a year older than Rivers, and unlike his counterpart in Philadelphia, he doesn’t have an entrenched superstar to help him win games consistently. He had one in Dallas. Had he been able to maintain his relationship with Luka Doncic, he might have positioned himself for a real run at history. Instead, he finds himself almost 500 wins behind Popovich. Never say never. Maybe the Pacers win the lottery and give Carlisle the generational star he needs. But for now, Rivers looks as though he has a much better shot.

The established veterans

Erik Spoelstra had the advantage of starting his coaching career at a very young age. He was promoted to the top job at the age of 38, and his two championships have bought him a lifetime of job security. Now he’s 51 and roughly halfway to Popovich—652 wins in total—and the only real question is how long he plans to stay in his current position.

That’s not as certain as one might think. Pat Riley would’ve set an unbreakable record had he held onto his coaching position as he aged. He finished his career with 1,210 wins, but coached his last game at the age of 63 and nearly retired from coaching in his 50s. He remained with the Heat as their general manager, but at 76, that is a position he’s not likely to hold forever. Spoelstra was a remarkably successful succession plan 14 years ago. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he was promoted to replace Riley again and, in turn, hired a new coach to lead the Heat on the floor. If Spoelstra wants to keep coaching indefinitely, he can give himself a real shot here. It’s just no guarantee that he wants to stick around that much longer.

Ty Lue feels more like a coaching lifer. At 44, he could conceivably still have three decades of coaching ahead of him if he wants it. His 2016 championship is going to keep him employed, and he currently has a Clippers roster that is absolutely loaded when healthy.

But Lue has a long way to go. He’s won just 210 games in his career thus far, and he’s had some pretty bad luck with timing. Getting fired six games into the 2018-19 season probably cost him two years worth of head coaching opportunities. Had he left the Cavaliers at the end of their 2018 season, he might’ve been hired away by another team immediately. It’s also not as though his Clippers are built to contend indefinitely. Kawhi Leonard is 30 and coming off of a torn ACL. Paul George is 31 and has a torn UCL. He’ll contend when he has his full roster, he just won’t have it for much longer. That makes his future too uncertain to predict a real run at the record.

The next generation

It is way too early to proclaim any of these coaches true candidates for the wins record, but they’re young and positioned for periods of sustained success. Taylor Jenkins is just 37, already has over 100 wins, and most importantly, has a 22-year-old Ja Morant on his roster right now. If everything breaks right, the Grizzlies are going to contend for the next decade and Jenkins should find himself in a somewhat similar position to the one Spoelstra is in now. If you want to get a bit more theoretical, Mark Daigneault is also 37, and as poorly as his Thunder team is playing right now, their overflowing war chest of draft picks makes it virtually impossible for them to not eventually become contenders. They may never land a franchise-altering star, but those picks afford them almost limitless flexibility to add veterans and upgrade their roster. The Thunder are going to be good for a long time.

Again, it is far, far too early to suggest that either is going to make a run at Popovich, but they both fit a profile of what a record-chaser should look like. They are young and in relatively stable and promising basketball situations. Should they succeed within those situations, they are likely to remain employed long enough to earn a significant number of wins. Will those wins be enough? History says probably not. After all, there’s a reason Popovich is the one that set this record. He is a once-in-a-generation coach, and he’s going to take a once-in-a-generation coach to catch him.

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