It is not true to say Gregg Popovich would have given up a major organ to get Kevin Durant on the USA Basketball squad for Tokyo. A smaller one, however, might have been negotiable. Durant is the headliner for the U.S. squad heading to the 2020 Olympics later in July. Popovich, a veteran international coach, is a first-time Olympic head coach.
By contract, Durant is an international veteran. He’s played in 39 games in the Olympics or FIBA World Cup and won gold medals each time. Besides winning gold in London in 2012 and at Rio de Janeiro four years later, the Brooklyn Nets superstar was on the championship USA Basketball team at the 2010 FIBA World Championships.
But Durant didn’t waver his commitment to the U.S. program, so Popovich didn’t have to resort to anything drastic to get him on board.
Kevin Durant’s scintillating return included some challenges
Many skeptics were waiting for Kevin Durant as the 2020–21 NBA season neared. The 32-year-old was coming off one of the worst injuries in basketball, a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. No one knew what to expect from Durant.
He responded by looking just like Kevin Durant used to. He averaged 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 1.3 blocks in 33.1 minutes per game in his first season on the court with the Nets. Additionally, Durant shot 53.7% overall, a career-high 45% from 3-point range, and 88.2% at the line (almost identical to his career 88.3% mark).
But he missed more than half of the season with injuries unrelated to the Achilles’ problem. Durant was out with thigh and hamstring injuries and also missed time in COVID-19 protocols. In the playoffs, Durant was the only one of Brooklyn’s Big 3 to make it through unscathed, and he shouldered a huge load. Durant put up 34.3 points per game in 12 postseason games while averaging 40.4 minutes a night. He went all 53 minutes in the Nets’ overtime loss in Game 7 to the Milwaukee Bucks.
None of that, however, stopped him from heading to Tokyo. Obviously that made Gregg Popovich’s life much easier.
Gregg Popovich was ready to employ desperate measures to get KD
When Kevin Durant committed to play for USA Basketball, CEO Jerry Colangelo told the New York Post he was not surprised.
“This guy is a very special individual. I remember him as a freshman at Texas, thinking about entering the draft. I remember meeting him at the Final Four and invited him to USA training camp. His eyes were as big as you can imagine. He said, ‘I’ll be there.’”Jerry Colangelo
Gregg Popovich, the longtime coach of the San Antonio Spurs, was relieved to have Durant’s veteran presence, beginning with the Olympic team’s training camp in Las Vegas. However, he would have taken extreme measures if necessary, per the New York Post.
“Well, first of all, if he said ‘no,’ I would have begged, cried, anything I could do to change his mind. That’s pretty obvious. But what it says about him, number one, is that he loves the game. He really loves to play basketball. He loves to win. He loves the camaraderie.
“He wants to be part of this all the time, as we all know. And that’s his motivation at the core. That’s what he loves to do. And luckily for all of us, that’s who he is. So it’s a testament to his character and just desire to be part of a team and have a challenge and seek the success.”Gregg Popovich
Besides Kevin Durant, only Draymond Green and Kevin Love have previous Olympic experience. Undoubtedly, Popovich will lean on Durant’s experience in Tokyo.
Popovich closing in on a significant milestone
While Gregg Popovich has never coached Kevin Durant in the NBA, they’ve battled each other throughout Durant’s career. With the Spurs, Popovich has 1,310 wins in nearly 25 seasons. In the playoffs, he’s added another 170 victories and five NBA titles. With 26 wins next season, he will pass Don Nelson (1,335) and Lenny Wilkens (1,332) as the winningest coach in NBA history.
Though the Spurs have missed the playoffs the last two years, Popovich’s teams made a record-tying 22 consecutive postseasons from 1998–2019. That matched the mark set by the Philadelphia 76ers (and their predecessors, the Syracuse Nationals) from 1950–71.
However, Popovich’s first foray as an international head coach could have gone better. At the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, Team USA finished seventh, the worst ever using NBA players.
With Kevin Durant and a raft of All-Star talent on board this time around, Gregg Popovich hopes to follow predecessor Mike Krzyzewski to the top of the medal stand in Tokyo.