Of course they had to leave him. Gregg Popovich understood this, probably even better than they did. He couldn’t help them anymore.
But last month, amid an emotional celebration Popovich would call “the best feeling (he’d) ever had in basketball,” he wanted to thank them anyway. So he made his way across the court in Saitama, Japan, sought out Ime Udoka and Will Hardy, and hugged them both.
Udoka and Hardy had outgrown the Spurs, and outgrown Popovich. He couldn’t have been prouder of them.
Another assistant coach in Saitama Super Arena that day was a bushy-haired 6-foot-10 Australian named Matt Nielsen, and he might outgrow the Spurs someday, too. That’s the plan, anyway.
Two years ago, when Udoka left San Antonio and made a lateral move to become an assistant in Philadelphia, he was replaced on the front row of the Spurs’ bench by Hardy. This summer, as Hardy makes a lateral move by becoming an assistant on Udoka’s new staff in Boston, he’s being replaced in San Antonio by Nielsen.
In a sense, the details of this turnover exemplify the Spurs’ franchise-wide focus on development. In recent years, every time Popovich has had the chance to hire a new assistant, he has opted not for a veteran right-hand man out of the P.J. Carlesimo or Brett Brown mold, but instead has promoted from within the organization’s stable of up-and-comers.
To be sure, part of this has to do…