LAS VEGAS – The conclusion of the Olympic Games Rio 2016 not only signaled the retirement of Carmelo Anthony as one of the most decorated players in USA Basketball history, but also was the end of legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure as the bench czar of the men’s national team.
But maybe even more impressive than the gold medals won under Coach K are the sustained winning streaks stretching over a decade. Namely, there was the 76-game winning streak that included 53 straight wins in FIBA competition and the 23-game winning streak in exhibition play. When Krzyzewski departed, Team USA’s last loss came at the bronze-medal game of the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Tokyo on Sept. 2, 2006.
Taking over that legacy is another celebrated coach, Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
“I talked to him often, he’s been great,” Popovich says about Krzyzewski. “I would be remiss if I didn’t bug him to death, asking him billions of questions, trying to learn from him.”
While addressing the media at his first minicamp with the national team since his introduction as coach in 2017, Popovich didn’t seem too focused on how his program would differ from that of Coach K.
“I have no idea, we’ve been here a day,” the three-time NBA Coach of the Year said. “I don’t know how different it’s going to be. I’m going to just be me. We’ve got to pick a coaching staff and decide how we want to play and a lot of that depends on what players are going to be there, which players are going to play. So, you can’t get the cart before the horse.”
The Las Vegas minicamp was the first official opportunity for Popovich, the rest of the coaching staff and the players to get together and begin to set themselves on a course for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, where Team USA will be going for its third consecutive gold medal.
“With what (Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the men’s national team) has done with the USAB program, having us all come out and be together and just get a feel for each other, is important,” 2016 Olympic gold medalist Kyle Lowry said. “Now especially with Coach Pop being the head coach giving him a chance to get his hands on us and show us his vision for the program.”
The passing of the torch from Krzyzewski to Popovich might seem like a culture transformation, but much of the roster remains in flux. Only five team members were new additions to the 35-man roster for the 2018-20 national team.
“This summer in Las Vegas the NBA guys will be coming together again,” Popovich said. “It’s been a while since the guys have been able to get together and there’s no real competition this summer, but it’s still important for them to break bread together, enjoy and laugh with each other, feel that kinship so that we can be a team and be a family as we move forward.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of the players genuinely seemed excited to get the opportunity to work with Popovich.
“I’m really excited. First day, first time, really officially being around him,” 2016 gold medalist Paul George said. “He’s a heck of a leader, heck of a communicator, really charismatic and he’s just a fun guy. There is not much I knew about him personally, but he’s actually just an amazing human being.”
One player destined to be spending a lot of time around Popovich is new San Antonio Spur DeMar DeRozan, who seemed pleased and eager to get to work with his new coach. The Olympic and World Cup gold medalist even got some one-on-one coaching from Popovich during Day 1 of minicamp.
“Everyone knows how good a coach he is,” DeRozan says. “It’s great to get to hear him and feel out what he wants from the team.”
Throughout minicamp, the United States Air Force Academy graduate emphasized that the focus was on just connecting as a team amongst each other, and not any sort of specific X’s and O’s of on-court action.
“Basically, we wanted to create an atmosphere so we could develop camaraderie and relationships between the new players coming in and the players who have been through it before, the coaches, and just start to get a good feel to become a family, to become a real team,” Popovich emphasized. “(We don’t want to model ourselves after) one of the 30 NBA teams but something with loftier goals than that, to play for your country. They exhibited a real energy and taste for that today, I was very impressed.”
Whether it be Russell Westbrook playfully mocking James Harden about his step back or Popovich himself playing some “tough” defense on some of the players, it’s safe to assume Popovich and Team USA got what they intended to accomplish these past couple days.