Spurs Remain Elite While Losing Top Basketball Minds
The San Antonio Spurs have won 50 or more games in every full NBA season over the last decade and a half, solidifying themselves as the NBA’s model franchise. What the Spurs have accomplished is nothing short of amazing, and it’s well-documented that they have done an exceptional job stocking their roster with diamond-in-the-rough players who fit perfectly into the team’s system and culture.
But one aspect of the Spurs’ dynastic run that goes overlooked is the fact that they have been able to remain this dominant even with 29 other teams consistently stealing away their best basketball minds. No franchise has as many coaches and executives hired away as San Antonio does, since every organization wants to follow the Spurs’ blueprint and find the next Gregg Popovich or R.C. Buford.
Doc Rivers, Monty Williams, Mike Budenholzer, Brett Brown, Jacque Vaughn, Mike Brown, Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro and P.J. Carlesimo are among the coaches who have ties to Popovich, either because they played for him or served on his staff. Sam Presti, Rich Cho, Kevin Pritchard, Dennis Lindsey, Rob Hennigan, Danny Ferry, Dell Demps, Troy Weaver and Lance Blanks are among the executives who have worked in the Spurs’ front office as part of Buford’s staff.
The NBA is littered with former Spurs staffers, who are now calling the shots elsewhere. By now, San Antonio’s brass has just gotten used to losing key members of their organization every summer.
“Our philosophy is if someone gets an offer, they should check it out,” Popovich said. “We don’t keep anybody or try to keep people or not give permission for people to talk to our guys. We’ve had people talk to our guys during the playoffs every year basically, and we feel that people moving up to a better position is a natural process, and it should be encouraged. So while assistant coaches are here, we do our work. As they develop and people become interested in them, we’re happy when they get that job, whether it’s a better assistant job or a head job.”
Just last summer, Popovich lost his top two assistants – Budenholzer and Brown. Budenholzer had spent 18 years in San Antonio and was considered an eventual replacement for Popovich on the Spurs’ bench. However, Budenholzer was hired away by his former Spur colleague Ferry to become the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. Brown had been a member of the Spurs for 14 years, working in the basketball operations department and coaching staff. But Brown was plucked away by the Philadelphia 76ers, who believe he’s the perfect coach to build a strong winning culture while they rebuild. Popovich won four championships with Budenholzer and Brown, and considered them two of his closest friends.
Losing Budenholzer and Brown, two vital cogs who had a ton of responsibilities, was tough for the Spurs. Popovich filled in the holes on his coaching staff, which now consisted of Jim Boylen, Ime Udoka, Chip Engelland, Chad Forcier and Sean Marks. One positive to come from teams stealing away so many Spurs coaches and executives in recent years is that the team has no trouble filling vacant positions on either staff. Those jobs are some of the most highly coveted in sports since they provide invaluable experience and everyone knows that they’re a springboard to other opportunities.
Every year, regardless of who is on the staff, the Spurs’ coaches go on a retreat for three and a half days prior to the start of the season so that the coaches can get closer. This year’s retreat, which took place in San Francisco, was more important than ever.
One of the first things that the coaching staff did was watch film from Game 6 and Game 7 of last year’s devastating NBA Finals loss against the Miami HEAT. Then, after breaking down film, they had to get everyone on the same page. With Budenholzer and Brown gone, responsibilities had to be assigned out and the new coaches had to get up to speed very quickly.
“In the beginning, it was slow, but fortunately Ime Udoka is here in the system, so, very honestly, he took those guys out on the court and they ran through everything offensively,” Popovich said. “I didn’t really do much. He taught them what we do, and since he had played here and then coached that one year, it made the transition easier. But as the games progressed, it took a while to get responsibilities down and then feel comfortable with suggestions and what suggestions to give, which suggestions to take, that sort of thing. When you’ve been with two guys, each over a decade, it takes a while to readjust with brand‑new people. So it was slow, but we got it done.”
“We added two great assistants, but they don’t have the years of experience so we had to talk a lot,” Engelland said. “We do a coach’s retreat, and the players help us. The players are a great resource for telling you what you need to do, especially veteran players. If we’re off kilter, players will let it be known what needs to be done. We’ve got a good group, in a respectful way. They don’t run the team, we know its Pop’s team, but it’s a great barometer to listen to the players. That helps the new coaches. … Totally, [at first he] looked at us as a group going, ‘Who are these guys?’ It’s funny, we all [had to get used to it], the players had to get used to it. On every team, you take away one coach, you add one player, it changes the whole dynamic of the team. You have to get used to it.”
From the outside looking in, one would never know that the Spurs were undergoing major reconstruction on their staff. Popovich still managed to coach the Spurs to a league-best 62-win season and win the 2013-14 Coach of the Year award, which was his third time receiving the honor.
The coaching staff integrated new players such as Marco Belinelli and Austin Daye into the rotation, while continuing to develop players like Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills. The team also finished with the best record in the league even though they didn’t have a single player average over 30 minutes – a first since the ABA-NBA merger and a testament to the team’s coaching and depth.
“I think the voice starts with Pop, then the players coach themselves [because] they know what Pop wants,” said Engelland, who has been with the Spurs since 2005. “Pop, every single day, has the same message of simple team basketball, aggressive team basketball, and then it carries over because the players monitor each other. I think that helps the system being taught. To play here, there is no choice. If you want to play, you’re going to do it this way. This is what we think it takes to win. You can play, but you may not play here. Everybody has really tried to do what the team does. That’s the only way we can win. We win as a group. Pop teaches every day and the players accept the coaching every day.”
The coaching staff wasn’t as close as it had been in recent years, but that’s to be expected since one year can’t compete with nearly two decades of friendship like Popovich had with Budenholzer and Brown. However, the group did jell as this season went on, improving their communication and spending a lot of time together – whether they liked it or not.
“I make these guys eat with me,” Popovich said with a smile. “So they might not want to, but I make them.”
“I kid that he doesn’t like us as much as the other group of coaches,” Engelland said with a laugh. “Bud is like his son and Brett Brown is his best friend and then he had us. We have gotten closer as the season’s gone on. We go out to dinner in every city, every night that’s not a game night.”
San Antonio’s ability to develop less-heralded prospects into key contributors has been a major reason for their success. Tim Duncan is the only lottery pick on San Antonio’s roster, yet the Spurs have still managed to build an incredible supporting cast around the future Hall of Famer because they’re excellent at evaluating talent and helping players maximize their potential in a development program.
“Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland have been primary reasons for any success we’ve had in developing players,” Popovich said. “They have a program where the guys come early, they stay late on a daily basis or every time we practice. They’re really responsible for the skill sets of the individuals improving. Kawhi Leonard didn’t shoot threes when he came here, you know, that sort of thing. Tony Parker’s runner, you know, that kind of stuff. And every team works on this stuff, but those are the two guys for us that really get it done.”
Popovich remains close with many of the men who are part of his coaching tree. When one of his coaches is up for a job, he’ll often go on the record to praise them and offer support. He tries to keep in touch with as many of his guys as he can, and he even surprisingly tries to learn some things from the coaches who learned so much from him.
“[We talk] pretty regularly,” Popovich said of the coaches from his tree. “I like talking to them, keeping track. They keep me young, and they always give me good ideas.”
With Budenholzer gone, it remains to be seen who will be tapped as Popovich’s new heir apparent. The 65-year-old wants to have someone in place to take over for him when he leaves so that the organization remains in good hands, but he says he hasn’t given it much thought.
“I don’t think about legacy very often or at all, I guess, but if something like that happened or was available, we’d do it,” Popovich said of having a replacement in waiting. “But we haven’t really discussed it.”
With that said, he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t see himself retiring anytime soon. There had been some speculation that he and Duncan might retire following this year’s Finals, especially if the Spurs finish off the Miami HEAT and hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. However, Popovich shot down that rumor.
“Are you trying to push me out the door?” Popovich joked. “I don’t feel tired. I’d like to continue to coach [beyond this year]. I didn’t think I was going to have to answer those kinds of questions today.”
The Spurs’ assistants also don’t want to go anywhere. Most of them love the situation that they’re in, and would only leave if they were offered a tremendous opportunity that they couldn’t refuse.
“Just like a player never wants to leave a team, especially with the guys we have and the franchise we have, as a coach you get attached to all the players you’re coaching, so that wouldn’t be something that would be easy,” Engelland said of leaving to the Spurs. “I think other teams have tried to do [what the Spurs] do, but it’s just hard. We have been lucky. Pop and Tim have set the tone and everybody has followed suit and wants to be a part of it.”
The fact that San Antonio has been able to remain an upper-echelon team for so long is impressive. That they’ve been able to do this with a always-changing supporting cast of coaches and executives is downright amazing.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.