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.
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