The San Antonio Spurs Are Quietly Chasing History
By Ethan Farina
After a rough start to the season many members of the NBA media speculated that this might be the end of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty. Now firmly in the playoff hunt, the Spurs are silencing the critics as they quietly chase another historic achievement.
Change isn’t easy, it takes deliberate and focused action. It is a time-consuming labor but it’s one of life’s necessities. The San Antonio Spurs themselves are no strangers to change.
This past offseason the organization underwent a dramatic transformation. After an unusual summer, a devastating loss, and a difficult start to the season, the rumblings quickly started. Would this be the end of the Spurs’ era of success?
While the NBA media questioned San Antonio’s ability to win with a new roster and an old school style of play, the Spurs stayed focused on their goal. Firmly in the hunt for another playoff appearance, San Antonio is chasing more than just postseason basketball. The Spurs are quietly chasing history.
A playoff spot this year would make it 22 consecutive years that San Antonio has been to the postseason. That would tie them with the 1950-1971 Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers for the most in NBA history.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. The Spurs have gone through many versions of themselves on their way to becoming the most successful franchise in NBA history. Maintaining such a high standard takes focus and determination from every single member of the organization. It starts at the top with the owners, Peter and Julianna Holt, and filters down through the front office, coaching staff, and players. It’s a full-on team effort.
Here are a few key factors that have helped San Antonio achieve and maintain this level of historic excellence.
Next: Developing Talent Internally
Developing Talent Internally
Over the past two decades, the Spurs have separated themselves from the rest of the NBA in their ability to identify and develop talent internally.
There aren’t many downsides to making 21 consecutive trips to the playoffs. However, it does deprive you of the ability to draft top-tier talent in the lottery.
The highest Spurs draft pick since they began this run of success was last year when they selected Lonnie Walker IV with the 18th pick. Other than that, San Antonio has usually been picking around 28th.
The cold reality of the NBA is that most players will have relatively short careers.
As fans, we love to get excited about the second round pick who is overflowing with upside. But, the fact of the matter is that for every second round pick who becomes a star there are dozens who are out of the league within a few years.
It would be impressive enough for San Antonio to develop second round picks into consistent role players. Instead, they’ve hit the jackpot multiple time with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker being prime examples.
Parker and Ginobili represent the absolute best-case scenario. Finding those two was key to the success of the Spurs in the 2000’s.
Along with Tim Duncan, the trio formed one of the most accomplished and decorated combinations in NBA history. The record-breaking amount of consecutive playoff appearances would not have been possible without picking up Parker with the 28th overall pick and selecting Manu with the fourth-to-last pick in the 1999 Draft.
Developing talent internally doesn’t always have to result in a Hall of Fame caliber player in order to be considered a success. The Spurs have shown a knack for turning an underappreciated player into a valuable contributor time after time. The current backcourt is a perfect example.
None of the Spurs’ current guards were considered top-tier talents. Derrick White and Dejounte Murray were the only two drafted in the first round and they were both picked 29th. Patty Mills was taken 55th. Bryn Forbes went undrafted. Look at them now.
Mills has been with the Spurs since 2012.
He was a valuable contributor on the 2014 championship team, a key part of team chemistry both on the floor and in the locker room, and Mills is the only Spurs player with 120+ three-pointers in five different seasons.
Murray and White were late first round picks who paid their dues with the Spurs’ G-League team before taking off in the NBA.
Murray was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team last year and White is on track to find himself in that exact same position. Together they form a formidable backcourt that is going to give opponents fits for years to come.
Forbes was an undrafted free agent who was considered too small to play in the NBA. This year he’s started in 67 games for the Spurs and is connecting on 40 percent of his three-point attempts.
Admittedly there is a bit of luck involved in San Antonio’s historic run.
Landing players of Parker and Ginobili’s level is the exception, not the rule. But San Antonio has built off of that success and has shown a consistent ability to take an underappreciated player and develop them into something more.
This ability to identify upside players in the later parts of the draft, let them grow in the G-League, and then unleash them in the NBA will help San Antonio maintain their success in the future.
San Antonio’s record-breaking run would not be possible without Gregg Popovich at the helm. A historic team needs a historic coach and Pop has been exactly that.
After taking over the head coaching role in 1996, Popovich has recorded the third-most wins in NBA history and accumulated five NBA titles along the way. But this story almost had a wildly different ending.
In 1999 in the midst of a lockout-shortened season, Popovich almost lost his job. Marc Stein, then with ESPN, detailed the tense period in time.
After a rough start to the season, Popovich was on the hot seat. The feeling was that Popovich was going to potentially be replaced by former Spurs guard Doc Rivers. Thankfully Pop was able to turn that team around, win the title, and go on to become one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
One of the reasons that San Antonio has been able to find success with so many different combinations of players and personalities is Popovich’s adaptability. Frankly, Pop can be hard on his players. Spurs fans have seen him erupt on players and coaches alike. But unlike other coaches who may have dug their heels in and insisted that their style of play was the only option, Popovich has been flexible.
He frequently butted heads with both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Both players had a penchant for playing fast and lose when they were younger. This sharply contrasted with the methodical style of play that Popovich favors which emphasizes patience and ball movement. Gradually, Popovich extended his comfort zone and gave Manu and Parker more and more freedom to call their own shots on offense.
San Antonio ran into a similar problem with LaMarcus Aldridge. But again, Popovich was able to step back and realize that he had been over coaching the Spurs free agent acquisition.
In an interview with ESPN’s Michael C. Wright, Popovich admitted as much. “As discussions went on, it became apparent to me that it really was me” said Popovich.
This level of self-awareness has helped Popovich adjust his style of play with the times and trust his players to execute.
The importance of an organizations’ culture cannot be overstated and San Antonio’s culture stems from Popovich. Pop has done a phenomenal job of assembling players from all over the world and getting them to buy in to something larger than themselves.
By emphasizing community involvement, team building, and interests outside basketball, Popovich has helped turn the Spurs’ organization from a basketball team into something that more closely resembles a family. Long after Popovich retires, his fingerprints on the Spurs’ culture will remain. That culture has helped San Antonio accomplish all that they have and will undoubtedly be a key part of their future.
Gregg Popovich's coaching tree is healthy and growing: http://t.co/btwtY6uhNL pic.twitter.com/wCUwzwlKtt
— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) March 7, 2014
Popovich’s inevitable retirement has been a topic of much speculation as of late. He’s said he doesn’t know if he will continue coaching the Spurs beyond this season.
While it certainly would be an adjustment to see anyone else coaching the Spurs, the team will be fine.
Look at Popovich’s coaching tree. He has former assistants and players in head coaching positions all over the league.
Three of his current assistants were interviewed for head coaching positions last summer. Any one of Ettore Messina, Ime Udoka, or Becky Hammon would make an excellent head coach.
When Popovich does retire it’s likely that one of them will take over the lead role. This will ensure that Popovich’s coaching and cultural philosophies will continue to help the Spurs long after he has moved on.
Next: Organizational Stability
Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN recently wrote about the difficulties of the Phoenix Suns and how their problems stem from the teams polarizing owner, Rober Sarver.
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An impulsive or dysfunctional owner can destroy a teams’ culture and ability to attract free agents. Looking around the league now you can see owners who alienate their fan bases, try to dictate draft strategy, or simply want to be too involved. The old saying “too many cooks spoils the soup” seems appropriate.
Thankfully the Spurs’ ownership has taken a hands-off approach and trusted R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich to assemble and lead a successful franchise. This has allowed the basketball minds to focus on basketball and the results speak for themselves.
The impact of an unstable or impulsive organization can clearly be seen with what is currently going on with the New York Knicks. James Dolan has single-handedly dampened free agents’ willingness to come to New York. He’s clashed with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, he’s banned fans from games, and feuded with an NBA legend in Charles Oakley.
The best ownership groups take a hands off approach, focus on the business side of the organization, and leave the basketball to the people who know it best.
The Golden State Warriors are a perfect example of this. You don’t see stories of Joe Lacob fighting with fans or dictating draft strategy. He focuses on developing the Warriors as a business and leaves the majority of basketball decisions to Bob Myers and Steve Kerr.
As long as the Holts continue to own the Spurs, the organizational philosophy and stability should stay the same. In the same way that you want to build a house on solid ground, you want to build an organization on stable leadership. The Spurs’ leadership has been as stable as any in the NBA and it has allowed the team to focus on what they’re paid to do: winning basketball games.
It’s been an incredible journey for San Antonio. From 1997 to now the Spurs have been the standard that every sports team should aspire to.
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Now, as they chase a record-tying number of playoff appearances, the practices that brought them here remain. As long as they continue to develop talent internally, are led by Gregg Popovich or one of his assistants, and have a stable ownership group, the next 22 years should be as enjoyable as the past 22.