CLEVELAND -- In his first season as an NBA head coach 18 years ago, Gregg Popovich went 17-47 and was roundly criticized, first for how he got the job (he gave it to himself), and then how he performed in it (poorly).
He'd never last, it was widely believed. He was seen as a placeholder until David Robinson got healthy and after the San Antonio Spurs cashed in on a lottery pick they would get from what seemed like a world-class tank job to land Tim Duncan.
"No matter what success anyone has, a certain amount of it is good fortune, serendipity or good circumstances," Popovich said Wednesday as he looked back on his career. "There are a lot of coaches and GMs that aren't successful win-loss wise, but it doesn't mean that they didn't do a good job. Sometimes circumstances affect all of us in our jobs ... I just tried to concentrate on what I thought I needed to do and if it was good enough, fine. If it wasn't, that's fine too."
In the years since, Popovich has become a deity among coaches, his success removing any specks of varnish from his personality as his words took on an ever expanding gospel-like quality. He's been a mentor to countless coaches, acting as counsel in late-night phone calls, long dinners over bottles of wine and as host to those making pilgrimages to south Texas for unofficial workshops.
One of them is new Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, who truly could use a fresh round of Popovich's advice and perspective these days. Blatt, predictably, has found himself thrashing around in his first days as an NBA head coach as the Cavs move through an underwhelming first month of the season.
Blatt was generally overmatched Wednesday night as the Spurs beat his team 92-90, the final score masking just how things unfolded. The Cavs are now 5-5, even if that isn't all that meaningful at this point in the season, and Blatt is scrambling in an attempt to find some traction.
Popovich was 5-5 in his first 10 games as an NBA coach and probably made dozens of mistakes. But did he didn't have to do it with "SportsCenter" going live from the sideline before and after his games and national television crews showing up weekly, like Blatt is experiencing at the moment.
Blatt is making $3 million to coach the Cavs this year, way more than they pay in the Adriatic League where he's spent most of the last 20 years. But at times it probably seems like it's not nearly enough.
"I don't take all the credit for anything," Blatt said. "I'd like not to take all the blame for everything, but that's part of my job so I have to do that."
Wednesday night was a bit of a mess for Blatt.
He ran out of timeouts after he took three in a 53-second span in the fourth quarter. When it was a one-possession game with 10 seconds left, he had none and Popovich was holding three. LeBron James had a ridiculous self-inflicted turnover that ended the game, for which he rightly accepted blame. But if Blatt had kept a timeout, as most coaches would have in that situation, James wouldn't have been forced to push the ball upcourt after getting a rebound.
Blatt played rookie Joe Harris the final 17:28 of the game without taking him out. Manu Ginobili scored what ended up being the game-winning basket on Harris -- thanks to a perfectly-executed play by the veteran Spurs, it must be said -- in the final 30 seconds.
Twice in the game, Blatt had James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the bench all at the same time, including the final two minutes of the third quarter as the Cavs lost the lead. As is their custom, the Spurs dominated the final two minutes of each quarter.
After James mentioned to the media that he needed to reduce his minutes, Blatt reacted quickly and played him 34 minutes, less than even the minutes-conscious Popovich used prized possession Duncan on the night.
Blatt has been making little bobbles like these recently as he adjusts to a 48-minute game after 30 years of 40-minute games in Europe. These growing pains, especially as he tries to get several star players to squeeze into unfamiliar roles, were completely expected.
But, being honest, it hasn't been the greatest start for the new coach.
"What you see now [from the Cavs], you can multiply by two or three [later]," Popovich said. "They're going to be one hell of a team. But it's a new system, new bodies and it doesn't happen quickly. I'm glad we played them now, they'll be a whole lot tougher later on in the year."
This is also expected. When the Cavs and Blatt find a rhythm, as they recently tasted on a four-game win streak, they are primed to create momentum and soar. But Blatt, who recoils at times when it's implied he's a rookie head coach because of his European and Olympic experience, has as much room for growth as anyone.
While getting a team with three All-Stars and working for an owner who has no problem spending money sure qualified as a dream job, the hand Blatt was dealt was a little more complicated than it looked on the surface.
The Cavs hired the man who finished as the runner-up to Blatt, Tyronn Lue, as his lead assistant coach and then paid him $1.4 million, the highest assistant coaching salary on record. Lue and Blatt had no previous relationship, which is not ideal for a coach and his top assistant, but there is the inherent circumstance that a man that badly wanted Blatt's job is now sitting next to him on the bench.
James didn't meet face-to-face with Blatt for nearly a month after signing with the Cavs, a supposed product of scheduling issues, though it is safe to assume the team gladly would've flown Blatt to any location in the world to spend time with James as the new coach was preparing for his new job over the summer.
Since then, James has been polite when talking about Blatt and has praised his offensive system. But the two have not formed much of a relationship yet. And James has not passed on opportunities to passively nip at him, this week's complaint about minutes being just one example. You can be sure this isn't lost on James' teammates.
What Blatt has is a really hard job, and he's got a long way to go. He has a strong belief that he will successfully learn on the job and make progress as this season goes along. As Popovich the philosopher says, it'll either happen or it won't.
"You either know what you're doing or you don't," Popovich said. "You either can develop or garner respect from players or know how to deal with a group and be able to lead it or not."