Tim Duncan will serve as head coach for the Spurs against the Hornets
The longtime Spur turned assistant coach will take over as the team’s head coach for Tuesday’s game against the Charlotte…
The longtime Spur turned assistant coach will take over as the team’s head coach for Tuesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets. Head coach Gregg Popovich will miss the game due to “personal business.”
Tim Duncan may have spent two decades starring for the San Antonio Spurs on the court, but his coaching career is still quite new. He joined Gregg Popovich’s staff this summer and is still in his first season on the bench, but despite that inexperience, Duncan was tapped to fill in for Popovich as head coach of the Spurs on Tuesday against the Charlotte Hornets, as Popovich was out dealing with personal business, the team announced. The Spurs defeated the Hornets, 104-103, to move back within 3.5 games of a playoff spot.
Technically, this wasn’t the first time Duncan held the role of Spurs head coach. When Popovich was ejected from a Nov. 16 game against the Portland Trail Blazers, he confirmed afterward that Duncan took the role of acting head coach in a 121-116 loss.
The choice itself, though, invites the sort of controversy that the Spurs typically avoid. Becky Hammon has been an assistant coach with the Spurs since 2014, when Duncan was still a player, and she was widely presumed as the favorite to become not only the first female head coach in NBA history, but the long-term replacement for Popovich when he eventually retires. Those suspicions have only grown in recent years, as a number of longtime Spurs assistants have left for other jobs. James Borrego took over as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets before the 2018-19 season, whereas the 2019 offseason saw Ime Udoka leave the Spurs to join Brett Brown’s staff in Philadelphia and Ettore Messina return to Europe to coach Olimpia Milano.
Duncan’s return to the Spurs as an assistant was fairly unprecedented, though, as players of his stature are usually capable of leaping directly into head-coaching jobs. Fellow multi-time MVP winners Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, for instance, were both given chances to lead franchises based on their reputations as players alone, while Michael Jordan was able to secure a position as president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards with no front-office experience. Typically, stars of Duncan’s caliber don’t need to prove themselves after their playing careers.
It created a fascinating dynamic within one of the most stable franchises in all of sports. In one corner is a well-respected assistant coach who already broke barriers merely by getting hired as an assistant. In the other is the most iconic player in franchise history, but someone who has not proven himself as a coach over a sustained period yet. While the choice to place the latter in control of the team in Popovich’s absence doesn’t necessarily indicate that the Spurs plan to hand Duncan the job upon his boss’ retirement (or that Duncan even wants it), it does at least suggest a shift in what had seemed like fait accompli over the past several years. Hammon may not be the heir apparent, after all.