Commentary

Gregg Popovich's portable program

The longtime Spurs coach's influence isn't limited to one NBA organization

Updated: May 5, 2012, 3:46 PM ET
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Coach of the year isn't a good way to describe Gregg Popovich. It's too limiting. It implies he's about one season and one team.

What Popovich has done goes far beyond guiding the Spurs to the best record in the league this season. He has created a template for NBA success. His influence extends so far that his presence is likely to be felt in the NBA Finals even if the Spurs don't make it.

If the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers get in they all have key figures with significant ties to Popovich. For the Thunder it's general manager Sam Presti, who got his start in the NBA working in the Spurs' front office. For the Lakers and Clippers it's coaches Mike Brown, who was an assistant, and Vinny Del Negro, who played for Popovich.

Nonplayoff teams that reflect the Popovich effect include the Phoenix Suns (general manager Lance Blanks), the New Jersey Nets (coach Avery Johnson) and the New Orleans Hornets (general manager Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams).

"You go work for him, it's like going to school," said Brown, who was an assistant coach under Popovich. "You learn a lot, not only on the coaching side, but on the front-office side."

Phil Jackson and Pat Riley have more rings, but Popovich has more progenies around the league. It's because Popovich's way is portable. Brown has "tremendous respect" for Jackson and Riley and considers them worthy Hall of Fame enshrinees. He just doesn't think their success is as feasible to duplicate as Popovich's.

[+] EnlargeMike Brown and Gregg Popovich
D. Clarke Evans/Getty ImagesCurrent Lakers coach Mike Brown is one of many Popovich protégés in the NBA.

"When you talk about Phil and Pat, they went to big-market cities where everybody wants to go, there's tremendous amount of money and support of going and getting any guy you want, " Brown said. "And the teams were already, for the most part, halfway decent.

"You look at Pop taking an underdog situation and turning it into a championship situation, similar to what Sam Presti has done in Oklahoma City and similar to what Danny Ferry [another Popovich offspring] was starting to do in Cleveland, and you relish that or want that. Because not all situations are the Lakers, Chicago, Miami, New York."

It makes sense for team-builders to emulate Popovich just as it makes more sense for the typical player to pattern his game after Kevin Love rather than Blake Griffin.

When you hear the alumni talking about Popovich's success, you notice two things: They always call him "Pop" and they never talk about on-court strategy. Even though Popovich is a respected game coach, nothing from his playbook has entered the basketball lexicon the way you hear terms such as "Princeton offense" or "UCLA cut." Besides, it wouldn't make sense to copy a playbook when Popovich himself hasn't adhered to it the past couple years, revamping the Spurs' style and going up-tempo to reflect a changing roster and league.

Whenever anyone talks about why the Spurs win so much it always comes down to a company-wide ethos.

"I think everyone that has had a chance to work for Pop and RC [Buford] would tell you that a lot of things that have the greatest impact are not necessarily basketball-related alone," Presti wrote in an email. "There's healthy disinterest in the path of least resistance and an authentic and humble appreciation for having the opportunity to be involved with the game at the highest level.

"Above all else, it's clear that the organization itself is the most important thing; as Pop would say, everyone has to get over themselves and put the organization and team first. The endurance of their organization is uncommon, I feel fortunate for the opportunity to have been a small part of it."

Del Negro said: "They had a culture that was about doing it the right way and having the right people and character, and understanding your role and job. Pop kept everybody accountable. 'This is how we need you to play and this is what we need you to do.'"

Having that culture means putting a premium on players who fit that culture. No need to waste time looking at renegades who won't fit in. The Spurs consistently bring in impact rookies -- most notably Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- even though they haven't picked higher than 20th since they got Duncan.

"When there's a clarity of what works here and doesn't work, hopefully it gives us the clarity to know when we're looking for people," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "Maybe it helps us reduce our pool."

It's not just a culture. The term the Spurs keep using is program, as in a college program.

Example: "Pop has brought the vision to our program," Buford said. "Everyone who has come through our program understands the things that are important: character and selfless people who want to be part of a team. Want to be part of something bigger than themselves."

It has been Popovich's show since 1994, when he was named the Spurs' executive vice president of basketball operations. In December of 1996, with the Spurs off to a 3-15 start, Popovich fired Bob Hill and took over as coach -- timing the move with the return of David Robinson from a back injury that kept him out of the first 18 games.

Two critical things happened that season that enabled Popovich to reach the status he has today.

The first was veterans such as Robinson, Avery Johnson and Sean Elliott took Popovich seriously. That wasn't a given for a man who had never played in the NBA and whose only head-coaching experience was at Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.

"We had really good guys that were in the prime of their career that had been through a lot of stuff," said Del Negro, who played on that team. "It was just the right mixture of people."

The next career-altering moment came in the spring of 1997, when the Spurs won the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan. Not only was Duncan was a true franchise player, he was one of the lowest-maintenance superstars to ever enter the NBA.

Popovich could harp on him without the relationship deteriorating to Dwight Howard-Stan Van Gundy levels. That gives Popovich the leeway to yell at players who are more likely to do yell-worthy things. There's no double standard. Popovich can, as Monty Williams says, coach all 12 guys. Some coaches coach only 2-12 and let their superstar behave like Joffrey, the petulant teenage king in "Game of Thrones."

Duncan, in turn, is "a part of a lot of our decisions, too," Buford said. "Manu and Tony, too."

They'll consult with Duncan on potential free agents. He'll sit in on their draft discussions. And a long-standing tale in the NBA is the Spurs chose the location of their practice facility based on its proximity to Duncan's house.

"It's not far from the truth," Buford said.

The full story is that many players and coaches resided in the area.

"It made sense to build it near where our players live," Buford said.

As for building a team, Popovich's front-office background lets him think with a long-term perspective. He oversees most free-agent decisions, while leaving the drafting to Buford and the scouting staff. Most coaches need to think short-term, because their job status can change in the time it takes to refresh the NBA standings page on your web browser. Thinking long-term enabled Popovich to work long-term, to become the most tenured active coach in American major pro sports, to be so entrenched he easily survived a first-round exit from last year's playoffs that would have sent many lesser coaches packing.

"Our program starts with our ownership, with Peter Holt and his group," Popovich said at the news conference to announce his coaching award. "They set a tone for all of us, and I'm the beneficiary of all of their talents."

That's Pop, being all modest again. The attitude is so pervasive in the franchise that Buford even called back to make sure this article wouldn't make the Spurs sound as if they were taking credit for a system that made them superior to everyone else. They want to assert that everything is player-based.

"The guys that played here are the reasons that our program has been allowed to be built," Buford said.

It's not a false modesty. Popovich isn't obsessed with credit. He thinks so little of individual accolades that he didn't even wear a tie to coach the game when he was presented his trophy at half court.

But make no mistake, it's about Popovich.

"His people-managing skills, they're off the charts," Brown said. "You watch how he handles different situations with people, whether it's people in the front office or players 1-15 or people that work for him and you try to copy that, to a certain degree, if you can."