The San Antonio Spurs were able to beat the Memphis Grizzlies in over time last night, earning themselves their 60th victory of the season.
The Spurs and the Golden State Warriors are the only teams to reach 60 wins this season.
However, the Warriors are in their prime, with four perennial all-stars on their team. The Spurs recently retired the greatest player in franchise history, Tim Duncan, and STILL managed to win 60 games the following season. How many other teams can say that?
How were the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan retired (the second time)?
How are the Los Angeles Lakers since Kobe Bryant retired?
How were the Philadelphia 76ers when Allen Iverson retired?
There aren’t many teams that have sustained success after the best player in franchise history retired, never mind winning 60 games and having the second best record in the NBA.
Since 1976, only the Lakers and the Celtics have more 60-win seasons than the Spurs. Just to remind you, the Lakers and the Celtics are the two most storied franchises in NBA history. Had the Spurs been around since the 1950’s, they may have surpassed the Lakers and Celtics.
Nevertheless, the Lakers and Celtics have the championship banners that have earned them the top two spots in NBA history. However, since Gregg Popovich took over the team back in 1996-1997, the Spurs have undoubtedly been the greatest franchise in the NBA.
When Popovich took over 18 games into the 1996-97 season, the Spurs went 20-62, as David Robinson was forced to miss the season with a back injury. The following year, the Spurs selected Duncan with the first overall pick, and haven’t missed the playoffs since.
Yes, the Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs in more than 20 seasons. Some franchises in the NBA haven’t made the playoffs 20 times in their entire existence.
How have the Spurs been able to sustain this success?
The three C’s: Coaching, Culture, and Creativity.
This train doesn’t run without it’s conductor, coach Popovich.
The man is a first ballot hall-of-famer, and some would argue he is the greatest coach in NBA history. He’s won FIVE championships with the Spurs (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014), including three NBA Coach of the Year awards (2003, 2012, 2014).
Popovich and Jerry Sloan are the only two coaches to win 1,000 games with one franchise. On February fourth of this year, Popovich won his 1,128th game with the Spurs, surpassing Sloan for most wins with one franchise in NBA history.
So, in terms of coaching with one franchise, Popovich is the greatest of all time. Yes, Phil Jackson has 11 rings as a head coach, six more than Popovich has. However, Jackson had the luxury of coaching four hall-of-famers (Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal).
Jackson’s greatest ability as a coach was managing ego’s, but Popovich’s greatest ability as a head coach was to groom talent and get the absolute best out of his players.
A legitimate argument could be made that players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli would not be the stellar players they are today without the grooming of Popovich.
Now, both of those players are headed to the hall of fame.
Since Popovich has taken over, he has established a culture in San Antonio.
Many fans tend to look over the importance of culture and the impact it has on it’s players, and their development. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the New York Knicks since the turn of the century in 2000. Bad culture affects the players, and the players play below their capability.
The Spurs, on the other hand, get the most out of their players. When you become a Spur, you understand that to appease Popovich, you have to play defense. If you don’t take defense seriously, San Antonio isn’t the destination for you.
By the same token, if you play hard, Popovich will reward you. If a role player outplays and out-hustles one of the starters, guess who is going to get more minutes? The role player.
Some franchises like playing favorites, and allow their superstar players to do as they please. This type of culture rubs the other players the wrong way, creating the illusion that some players are exempt from putting in the hard work. On the Spurs, everyone is held accountable.
If Duncan took a play off, Popovich would rip him on the sidelines. Other players see this, and respect the coach, motivating them to play their hearts out.
LaMarcus Aldridge had his pick of the litter in terms of teams wanting him back in 2014. While other teams prioritize money and endorsements, the Spurs prioritize culture and winning. One meeting with Popovich, and Aldridge’s decision was made.
The rest is history.
The Spurs don’t operate like a regular franchise.
Popovich has always had a keen eye for international players, and is a big reason that the amount of international players in the NBA has risen exponentially.
Parker is from France, Ginobli is from Argentina, David Bertans is Latvian, Patty Mills is Australian, and Pau Gasol is Spaniard. The Spurs have also had players like Boris Diaw (France), Aron Baynes (Australia), Cory Joseph (Canada), Boban Marjanovic (Serbia), and Marco Belinelli (Italy).
Not to mention, Popovich decided to trade George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Kawhi Leonard, a trade that at the time, was questionable for the Spurs.
Fast forward to 2017, and that is one of the most lop-sided draft-day trades in NBA history. Somehow, Popovich managed to find himself the center piece for the team going forward, a guy who’s personality is eerily similar to that of Duncan. Selfless and hard-working.
Leonard is only 25-years old, and is just beginning to scratch the surface of his abilities. Leonard is already an NBA champion, a two-time, back-to-back defensive player of the year winner, and a potential MVP candidate this season. The possibilities are endless.
The Greatest Franchise of Our Generation
Put those three C’s together, and you have the formula for sustained success.
Popovich is 68 years old, and as sad as it is to say, his days as head coach are limited. One has to imagine coaching takes a toll on you, and Popovich wants to spend his days with his family.
When that day comes, Spurs fans will mourn, and rightfully so. Popovich has been a class act for as long as anyone can remember, and losing him is truly unfortunate.
However, given the players on the roster, and the culture in San Antonio, they will be able to remain competitive, even when Popovich decides to retire.
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The first test was Duncan’s retirement, and the Spurs passed.
The second test is Popovich’s retirement, and the results are unknown.
Until then, GO SPURS GO.