The Gregg Popovich effect
Spurs' head coach and front office have had major impact on the NBA
Updated: June 7, 2013, 9:14 PM ET
By Bradford Doolittle | ESPN Insider Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan
AP Photo/Bahram Mark SobhaniGregg Popovich and Tim Duncan have enjoyed an unprecedented run of successful seasons.
It used to be that the most frequent adjective used to describe the San Antonio Spurs -- besides great -- was boring.
They had a quiet superstar in Tim Duncan, whose signature move was an old-school bank shot. They were led by a crusty coach in Gregg Popovich, who had seemingly emerged from the ether, having neither played in the NBA nor been a head coach at the major-college level. They had a slow, methodical style of play and a defense so effective that it stymied the fluidity of every offense it faced.
Seems to me the "Spurs are boring" stereotype is pretty much dead. Popovich has never warmed to the media, to put it mildly; he's not about to steal any of Phil Jackson's endorsement gigs. "Pop" just coaches on and on, and oversees the operation he established nearly 20 years ago.
Even though the dynasty he has built is nestled in the quiet center of the vast state of Texas, he's now widely recognized as one of the greatest basketball minds in the history of professional sports. And despite a truculence with the media that sometimes borders on belligerent, I dare say he has become a beloved figure in the process.
Jeff Haynes/Getty Images
The dynasty began with Robinson and has continued through to Duncan and Pop.
The Spurs have become a basketball operation recognized for traits any business or corporation would love to have as part of its brand: Culture. Accountability. Adaptability. Modesty. Selflessness. Success. Consistency. Efficiency. How does that happen? Because of Popovich.
You can go on and on, but Popovich would be the first one to admit that even though he was the architect of the operation, he has had plenty of help. General manager R.C. Buford has been with Popovich every step of the way.
And then of course there is Duncan, the centerpiece of the longest sustained run of high-level success any NBA franchise has had. Not even the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics have ever put together a dynasty that lasted as long as the 16 years of dominance the Spurs have enjoyed since drafting Duncan. Along with owner Peter Holt, the trio have been pillars for the NBA's model organization. Spurs' impact
Countless players, coaches and executives have aided the success of that foursome over the years, and it's not surprising that they've gradually spread around the league. This season, nearly half the NBA -- 14 teams to be exact -- had a coach or chief executive with Popovich ties. Some of the ties are loose, such as Doc Rivers, who played for the Spurs for a couple of years when Popovich was the general manager, but there is no doubt that Pop's influence is immense.
The latest to be plucked from the Pop tree is lead assistant coach Mike Budenholzer, who takes over the Atlanta Hawks next season. The Hawks' general manager is Danny Ferry, who once toiled in the Spurs' front office.
Who is going to replace Budenholzer as Pop's top assistant and possible coach-in-waiting? That won't be addressed until the offseason, but candidates to emerge from the Popovich finishing school seem clear.
Shooting guru Chip Engelland was a ball boy for one of John Wooden's last UCLA teams and played his college ball under Mike Krzyzewski. Brett Brown is a longtime coach in Australia who played for Rick Pitino in college. Chad Forcier has also learned under George Karl and Rick Carlisle. The newest member of the staff and rising star is former NBA defensive specialist Ime Udoka. Whoever gets the job will immediately become a candidate to follow in the footsteps of Mike Brown, Monty Williams, Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo and Jacque Vaughn, among others.
| This season, nearly half the NBA -- 14 teams to be exact -- had a coach or chief executive with Popovich ties. |
It's not just the coaching ranks that have been populated with Popovich protégés. Former Spurs executives who learned under Pop and Buford are in high demand. Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti is the most accomplished of that group, while Ferry, New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps and Indiana Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard all have had their moments of success.
The jury is still out on promising Orlando Magic GM Rob Hennigan and Utah Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey. Things didn't work out too well for Lance Blanks in Phoenix, but Spurs execs will continue to be in demand, not only because of San Antonio's on-court success, but because the Spurs have sustained it while only occasionally dipping into the luxury tax. According to Mark Deeks of ShamSports.com, San Antonio has paid just $12.6 million in luxury tax over the past decade, and won't be a taxpayer this year at all.
So while it's understandable why owners around the league, especially those in small markets, are eager to import the San Antonio operation, the fact of the matter is that just because you know the precepts of a system doesn't mean you can replicate it. There is only one Popovich, one Buford, one Holt and one Duncan.
David Goldman/AP PhotoSpurs protégé and Hawks GM Danny Ferry nabbed former Pop assistant Mike Budenholzer as his new coach.
Since Popovich took over the Spurs, San Antonio has missed the playoffs only once. That down season in 1996-97 came when David Robinson was limited to six games by injury, and led the Spurs to win the lottery and land Duncan. Since then, if you prorate the lockout seasons, the Spurs have won at least 50 games per 82 every season, made it out of the first round 13 times in 16 years, have won four titles and are three wins away from No. 5. They've finished in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency the past 15 years and the top 10 defensively in 14 of the 16 Duncan seasons, including the top three 12 times.
It's certainly a good idea to mine the coaching and executive ranks of the Spurs for talent. Popovich and Buford have a knack for finding the brightest and the best, and there is no better environment in which to learn the professional game. That the alums of their organization have not fared as well -- yet -- only underscores how remarkable the run of success in San Antonio has been. It also illustrates that even if you have all the right ideas, there are many, many things that have to go right to do what the Spurs have done.
In my database, I flagged 75 team seasons in which either the coach, chief executive or both had a direct Popovich tie-in of some sort. That number in itself is a testament to the Spurs' program. There has been one championship in that group -- Rivers' title with Boston in 2008. And, again, it might be a stretch to consider Rivers a Popovich protégé. The average 82-game record for those 75 seasons is 43-39, with an average offensive rank of 13th and a defensive rank of 14th.
It's not bad, but it's not Popovich. That said, teams wouldn't be hiring coaches and execs away from the Spurs if they didn't need something fixed, so the results are on the whole very encouraging.
Don't expect the Spurs pipeline to dry up any time soon, and as long as Holt, Popovich, Buford and Duncan are around, don't expect the talent drain to hurt the Spurs either.
Sometime in the next few years though, the curtain on Duncan's career will fall and a new era will take root in San Antonio. Change is inevitable in sports. For now, even if you're not a Spurs fan, just marvel at what you're seeing. Chances are, you won't be bored. Success is never boring, and we should have known that all along.