As the NBA playoffs begin to wind down, many are surprised by the absence of the San Antonio Spurs from this year’s Western Conference Finals. After being defeated by the far younger, far more athletic Oklahoma City Thunder in six games, the Spurs were sent packing despite many believing that they had the greatest potential to rip the NBA Championship from point guard Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs’ departure begs many questions: Is this no longer San Antonio’s league? Is this the end for the Spurs’ dynamic trio of guard Manu Ginobili, point guard Tony Parker and center Tim Duncan? How much longer will coach Gregg Popovich remain at the helm? 

While analysts could discuss for hours the implications of San Antonio’s relatively early playoff exit, many around the league have found themselves preoccupied by the wild coaching carousel that continues to spin, leaving tenured bench-commanders by the wayside if they fail to meet expectations. 

Since Popovich and Duncan began their meteoric rise 20 seasons ago, the NBA has seen a staggering 265 coaching changes. As the carousel spins madly on, Popovich remains a symbol of continuity.

While Popovich enjoys an unrivaled sense of job security, other league coaches are not as fortunate. Time and again it has been made clear that most coaches operate on a short leash. Perhaps most surprising, this year’s Conference Finals features bench-commanders with a combined 10.5 seasons of head coaching experience, seven of which belong to Dwane Casey, headman of the Toronto Raptors, alone. The Oklahoma City Thunder are under their first year of guidance by former University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan. Though Steve Kerr’s quick success may lead some to forget his short track record, he is in just his second season as the Warriors’ head man. What’s more, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue took the reigns in the middle of the season after the somewhat surprising firing of former head coach David Blatt. 

While the on-court matchups featured in this year’s Conference Finals will undoubtedly prove entertaining, the less-covered storylines are of even greater intrigue. In a league that was for decades dominated by coaching legends such as Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Popovich, it seems the NBA is reaching a head-coaching crossroads. How these new coaches handle not only the Xs and Os on the floor but also the pressure and great many distractions off the court will be fascinating to watch.

The Spurs head back to San Antonio with a laundry list of questions to be addressed, but perhaps the most interesting one is whether or not this is Popovich’s league anymore. Though the seemingly unhesitating willingness to fire coaches may come off as disheartening to some, it is clear that these franchises are simply looking to strike gold in their next hire — looking to find the next Gregg Popovich.

What the Spurs have built should go down in history as an unconventional dynasty. 

Their greatness would never have manifested in championships without the brilliant, elastic guidance of Popovich and the historically great career of Duncan. 

It is rare to have a team that features a superstar and super-coach pairing for over 20 seasons. If this really is the end for the Spurs’ big three, San Antonio fans should rejoice knowing that they have all-stars center Lamarcus Aldridge and small forward Kawhi Leonard primed to lead the Spurs back to greatness. One must wonder, however, if the coaching carousel will make its way to San Antonio before that happens. 

—Gabriel Goldstein

-Noah Hessdorf