Rest assured that Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs were always going to cope well with whatever punishments were doled out by David Stern in the wake of Restgate 2012. You can make that forecast even when so many questions raised by Stern's "substantial sanctions" remain unanswered, because we all know there isn't a better deal-with-it team in pro sports than the NBA's silver and black.
While waiting for that $250,000 fine that the Spurs ultimately incurred Friday night, wondering like everyone else about what sort of precedents will be set leaguewide now that San Antonio's bill has been sent, I found myself fixated just as much on the other big Pop story that will play out before the playoffs.
Popovich's chances, namely, of being named Team USA's next coach.
Or as conspiracy theorists would surely put it: Will the most public wedge ever driven between the commissioner and the famously stubborn coach in his league emerge as a factor that hurts Pop's chances of succeeding Mike Krzyzewski?
I so want to believe the GM who insisted to me Friday: "Absolutely, positively not. The league doesn't get in USA Basketball's way like it used to."
The final call on who coaches the national team, of course, belongs to USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo. As it has since 2005.
The league, though, does get to register its input, which means Stern will have a voice until his Feb. 1, 2014 retirement. It's thus not much of a stretch to imagine the league (re: Stern) lobbying USA Basketball to view this whole chaotic episode, no matter how far Stern overreached, as a prime example of Pop's long-perceived reluctance to be more of a partner with the league office than they've historically been.
Let's be real: If Krzyzewski is really leaving the Team USA bench as he's vowed for months -- and Coach K is rightfully getting the latitude to take his time making the decision after winning his last three major competitions and his last 45 games in a row -- Popovich is the clear-cut best candidate to take over. With four NBA championships over a span of 16 seasons with the same franchise, bottomless patriotism dating to his days in the Air Force Academy, copious knowledge of the international game after all the overseas stars San Antonio has imported and his unquestioned status as the most respected bench leader in the modern pro game, Pop makes infinite sense no matter what Stern thinks.
There are other unquestionably worthy names under consideration, according to sources close to the program, starting with Boston's Doc Rivers and another college coach who knows how to deal with the one-and-done nature of tournament basketball like Coach K: Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Rivers, meanwhile, has been pushing the candidacy of Philadelphia's Doug Collins, insisting that the best redemption for the injustices of the '72 Olympics would be setting up Collins to coach the Americans to the gold that eluded him and alternatively vowing to make Collins an assistant if he gets the gig.
Yet you really have to strain to suggest that Popovich -- who confidantes say does want the job -- isn't the ideal choice. There's no doubt Rivers has a deft touch when it comes to managing stars, like any Team USA coach must, but the sheer giddiness you see from Kobe Bryant and other Western Conference All-Stars when they get the chance to spend a weekend in February playing for Pop suggests that hiring San Antonio's hoops patriarch would hold great appeal to a certain Finals MVP down in Miami who, after three straight Olympics, isn't sure he wants to commit to a fourth.
My suspicion is that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and any other Team USA mainstay that Colangelo wants to survey for input would nominate Pop as their top candidate to take over.
Such is the reverence around the league for how he has always put his players first, which has never been more evident than it is now through this very public fight with Stern in the name of keeping his stars fresh. And while it's undeniably true Colangelo and Popovich clashed in 2005, when he and Krzyzewski took over the program after the failures of 2002 in Indianapolis and 2004 in Athens and Popovich took great exception to Colangelo's suggestion that he "wasn't as enthusiastic as Mike" in their respective job interviews, Colangelo has insisted for months that Popovich is a leading candidate now and that what happened seven years ago is a misunderstanding he's eager to bury.
"Jerry," says one longtime Colangelo colleague, "is going to do what's best for USA Basketball."
The assumption after what we've witnessed this week will nonetheless persist that Stern, no matter how close he is to Spurs chairman Peter Holt, will be backing Rivers, Izzo or anyone else he sees as a more collaborative coach with the league when the NBA is asked to weigh in.
The Commish could apparently stomach Pop's mischief when it stopped at scratching Tim Duncan from the lineup without warning and listing that coach's decision as DNP-Old. But sending four starters home hours before a nationally televised showdown with Miami to undercut what TNT billed as a potential Finals preview -- in the season's first month as opposed to its sixth -- triggered Hurricane Commish.
So the mind inevitably wanders. There's a lot to ponder over the weekend, starting with this outstanding array of spinoff questions and issues outlined by my former fellow beat-writing colleague Scott Howard-Cooper at NBA.com.
Some of us, though, can't stop ourselves from fast-forwarding to February or March.
When I spoke to Colangelo this week, before Restgate erupted, all he'd disclose about his presumed coaching vacancy is that (A) he still hasn't abandoned hope of convincing Krzyzewski to come back for one more ride and that (B) he hasn't yet spoken to Popovich or Rivers but says both deserve "great consideration."
After initially targeting the end of 2012 to have all this resolved, Colangelo also revealed that he plans to have Coach K's replacement "set this spring for sure" if his pleas go unanswered.
"I've had preliminary conversations with Coach K about the future," Colangelo said. "He has a really good team at Duke and that's where his mind should be right now. I think he went through a very tiring experience in London and he made statements to that effect, but I think he was having early withdrawals a few weeks after he was home, which is typical when you're on such a high. He's such a big part of USA Basketball. We're so close, as close as can be, so I only want what's best for him. I really want to have some discussions with him that brings some finality to it. And we have haven't had those yet.
"So I'm waiting before speaking to other candidates. ... (Popovich and Rivers) are great coaches, both of them in their own right, and I think they would do an outstanding job, either one of them."
Asked specifically if the ship has sailed in terms of trying to woo Krzyzewski back with the usual doses of pizza and wine, Colangelo stressed: "No ship has sailed anywhere."
Please, then, consider this strongest, loudest, most substantial vote we can muster for a seat on the Good Ship Pop, bound for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, if Coach K opts to stays away. No matter where the slippery slope of Restgate has left us.
NBA -- Gregg Popovich's shot at Team USA coaching gig - ESPN
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