INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) – LeBron James might make another run at Olympic gold with Gregg Popovich.
James, who already has two gold medals, said that Popovich taking over as coach of the U.S. team will influence his decision on whether to play in the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“It factors a lot,” James said Saturday as the Cavaliers prepared to host Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. “I’ve said that before. He’s just a great mastermind of the game of basketball.”
James skipped last summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to get rest after leading Cleveland to an NBA championship. But he’s still connected with Team USA and Popovich replacing outgoing coach Mike Krzyzewski could be enough to draw James back to the Olympics.
James will be 36 in 2020, but his game is showing no signs of decay and the three-time NBA champ has relished his previous Olympic appearances. He was a key member of the American teams that captured gold in Beijing (2008) and (2012), performances that helped him and the U.S. squad erase some of the disappointment from taking bronze in Athens (2004).
Krzyzewski, the Duke coach who led the U.S. team to three consecutive gold medals, had a hand in naming Popovich as his successor.
For James, the pick was perfect.
“Team USA is in good hands with him,” James told The Associated Press in 2015. “It was in good hands with Coach K. It’s almost like ‘The Godfather.’ We hand it off to Michael Corleone now.”
Earlier this week, James said he considers Popovich, who has led the Spurs to five NBA titles, “the greatest coach of all time. I’ve said that over and over and over. You have to be sharp, mentally and physically, when you go against his ballclub. If you were an NFL player, it’s probably the same as going against a (Bill) Belichick team.
“What they’re going to do, they’re going to do and you have to try to figure it out.”
Popovich joked that James said nice things about him because he owed the coach money.
“He thinks that I’ll forget his debt if he says something nice about me,” Popovich said before Saturday’s game. “He’s also trying to set us up. Devious dude.”
As for James calling him the greatest coach Popovich said, “it’s flattering, it’s hyperbole and untrue.”
James has lost twice to teams coached by Popovich in the NBA Finals – in 2007 with Cleveland and in 2014 with Miami. He admires the way the 67-year-old coach has adjusted and adapted over the years.
“A guy that’s been able to do what he’s done in an era of basketball where it’s changed so much and he’s been able to have a growth mindset and be able to change with the game,” James said. “Obviously Tim Duncan was a huge part of that because Timmy was allowed to change with the game as well, but he’s just continued to build around Timmy and Manu (Ginobili) and Tony (Parker) and bring pieces in and out throughout his whole tenure.”
On Saturday, the Spurs will play their first game without center Pau Gasol, sidelined indefinitely with a broken left hand.
James said that won’t change San Antonio much – because of Popovich.
“It doesn’t matter who is in the lineup for the Spurs,” James said. “They’ll play Spurs basketball and Pop will have them ready. I mean, what’s their record, 33-9, I believe? And if you asked me how things would change without Timmy D., they still pushing forward, man. It’s just nothing out of the ordinary.”