What’s the Secret to Success for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs?

By Elias Wagner in Sports
| January 10, 2019 12:00 am PST
San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have made the playoffs every year since the 1996-1997 season.

For that achievement alone, GM R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich deserve an enormous amount of praise and respect.

But what has made their tenure really special is that it was never about results.

Don’t get me wrong; the Spurs are one of the most successful teams in the last 20 years. In fact, until 2014, they had won more titles than they’ve had times where they were eliminated in the first round of the postseason.

And they have done it in style.

The franchise is revered across the basketball world as a model organization.

You will hardly ever see a player, fan, or pundit who will have something bad to say about the Spurs. On the contrary, superstars and GMs have always hailed Pop’s approach and the brand of basketball that he has brought to the NBA.

But how has one basketball coach in the most competitive league in the world managed to put together a successful team that everyone loves to praise?

The key is that it wasn’t only him that did it. The Spurs have stuck to their fundamental principles, which have proven beneficial for them time and time again.

I will explore in detail how it all started back in 1997 and the reasons it is still working to this day. I hope that after that we will be one step closer to understanding how the Spurs work their magic.

A look at the Spurs’ Past

There is no doubt that a large part of the Spurs’ ongoing success is down to drafting Tim Duncan. However, as true as that is, it would be foolish to put it all down to this.

Yes, Duncan was a huge talent, but what really made him thrive was the system and atmosphere in San Antonio.

Timmy was always going to be a success under Pop. A humble professional who knows his role on the court and is a natural leader is a dream player to have.  And sure enough, Popovich was able to mould him into the greatest Spur ever to play for the organization.

However, you can’t make a successful team with one player, and here is where the tandem of Buford and Popovich amazed us all.

Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford

Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford

In 1999, with the 57th pick, the Spurs drafted a virtual unknown from Argentina. That player was Manu Ginobili. In 2001, they used the 28th pick to draft Tony Parker from France.

It was seen as shocking back then. No other franchise would so freely squander their draft picks on players who haven’t even been in the USA, let alone have any college education there.

But the rest, as they say, is history. These players won four championships with the Spurs and alongside Duncan are now remembered as the “Big Three.”

And this is by no means a fluke. In 2011, the Spurs traded point guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers and got Kawhi Leonard and Davis Bertans. Although Hill’s athleticism and tenaciousness were hailed back then, he did not come close to replicating what Kawhi has been doing in the league.

Under Popovich, Leonard won a championship in 2014 and was voted Finals MVP. He also has two All-Star appearances and two Defensive Player of the Year awards to his name, which is another example of very shrewd business by the organization and a testament to the player development system.

No one expected Kawhi, the 15th pick in 2011, to reach such heights, but he was able to do it in San Antonio. It is unfortunate that his relationship with the organization panned out the way it did, but the recent game he played for the Raptors at the AT&T Center showed he still very much respects his old mentor.

Kawhi Leonard - San Antonio Spurs

Kawhi Leonard

Another example of a player Pop made better is Danny Green. The shooting guard was drafted with the 46th pick in 2009 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. After featuring in a handful of games for them, the Cavs decided to waive the player.

He was subsequently picked up by Popovich but did not break into the team. However, after averaging 20 points with the Reno Bighorns in the D-League, the Spurs decided to give him another chance. He was signed again in 2011 and joined the Austin Spurs (then known as the Antonio Toros).

Green then penned a one-year contract with the Slovenian outfit KK Union Olimpija and was later recalled by the Spurs.

This kick-started his NBA career, as Danny featured in 66 games for San Antonio, starting 38 of those. He even managed to eventually clinch the shooting guard spot with Manu Ginobili returning to the role of sixth man.

That year, Green was voted ninth in the NBA Most Improved Player poll. He won a championship in 2014 and was a regular fixture in the Spurs right until his trade to Toronto in 2018.

The player is a classic success story under coach Pop. When nobody imagined he had any future in the NBA, Popovich saw something in him and decided to give him a chance.

He is now a valuable piece in the Raptors system, starting pretty much every game and contributing heavily to their status of being one of the best teams in the NBA. It all points to the fact that the Spurs organization has a working method, so let’s explore what makes it all tick.

Scouting and Development at San Antonio

We touched on how the Spurs were not afraid to explore the global market, which led to the additions of players such as Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

This is not to say that the management does not have extensive knowledge of the American college talent. It simply is an indication that the Spurs do not put any limitations on identifying the right players.

The amount of international flair added to the Spurs roster over the years is way higher than any other organization. Popovich is well aware of the European basketball culture and the fact that successful teams there rely more on collective effort than superstardom.

This has been key in the success of the organization. Not only does the management have a keen eye for talent, but they spot players who are professional, will know their role on the court, and will stick to it. I think this is what helps the Spurs off the court as well.

R.C. Buford and Popovich know their roles. Buford is the one looking after the scouting network and the staff appointments being made in that department. The coach is responsible for developing a playing system in which he can get the best out of his players.

Both Buford and Popovich have been very vocal about the fact that their shared responsibility has been extremely important.

The recent firing of Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau is a stern argument in favor of running a franchise collectively. Thibodeau acted as both coach and GM of the organization, and it never looked like it was going to work.

Having to rely on one man to make all the decisions without being questioned is a problem, and it is no surprise that the T-Wolves were not able to meet the fans’ expectations these past few seasons.

That is exactly what the Spurs have been avoiding all those years. It would be easy for a successful coach of 20 years to surround himself with staff that follows his every word and does not challenge him.

That’s not Popovich’s way, though. He is known to appoint people who will make their disagreements known. He actually encourages them to do so.

It is no surprise that so many people who played under Pop or were part of his coaching staff went on to be head coaches themselves. Being a unit both on and off the court is a big part of the organization’s success and their widespread appraisal in the basketball world.

This season has been another example of the fact that Popovich and R.C. Buford will stick to their philosophy until the end.

San Antonio Spurs in the Here and Now

The current season did not start well for the Spurs. On top of Kawhi Leonard’s trade, Popovich lost promising point guard Dejounte Murray and new recruit Lonnie Walker to injuries. Two established defenders in Danny Green and Kyle Anderson were also out of the picture.

Adding an all-star in DeMar DeRozan was good, but fans were worried that the team did not have an established backcourt and that this would hurt them in the chase for the playoff spots.

And sure enough, the Spurs did have a shaky start to the campaign. Offensively, they weren’t too bad, but their leaky defense meant that teams such as the Bucks, Rockets, and Pelicans all scored more than 130 points against them.

They also exhibited major problems in games on the road. Until December, the Spurs had won only four games on the road and endured some bad losses against teams like the Suns and the Heat along the way.

During this period, Pop tested out different players to provide some defensive stability, but to no avail. At one point, the Spurs were ranked 26th in the league for defensive efficiency.

It was evident that something needed to be changed, but little did we know that it was changing right before our eyes.

Popovich knew quite well that players like Bryn Forbes and Derrick White would not be able to perform from the very start. They are both young with almost zero experience with regularly starting games in the NBA. However, the coach stuck with them and gave them the minutes to gel with their teammates.

All of a sudden, the Spurs improved their defensive record tremendously. In December, they had five games in which they let in less than 100 points.

Since the turn of the year, they have beaten the Celtics, Raptors, and Grizzlies at home and have added two wins on the road against the Clippers and Pistons.

The players started speaking about the team chemistry and understanding being better. The more experienced ones like Rudy Gay and Patty Mills mentioned that they now have more trust in the young boys. It may come as a surprise for many, but this was exactly what Popovich was aiming for.

He stuck by his players, knowing that they would need some time to create a functioning unit. Just a month after all the apocalyptic predictions about the team, it now seems more than likely that the Spurs will reach the playoffs.

Of course, we do have to credit the star players Aldridge and DeRozan for their contribution. But they were performing well right from the start. What has really made the difference is the backcourt occupied by White and Forbes.

Derrick White was drafted by the Spurs with the 29th overall pick in 2017. He had some problems with injuries and only appeared sporadically for the team last season. His debut this season was on November 7th against the Rockets, and he has been a mainstay in the Spurs lineup ever since.

Bryn Forbes went undrafted in the 2016 draft and was picked up for the summer league by the Spurs. Popovich immediately saw the player’s ability to shoot 3s and defend. A lot of people were unsure about his place in the team last season when Dejounte Murray was showing a lot of potential in the point guard position.

However, Pop made sure he got minutes on the court despite the fact that his performances were not always good. With Murray’s injury in the summer, it fell to Forbes to occupy the point guard position this season. It was a big ask, but the player has delivered.

Both his defensive and offensive stats have improved tremendously. He is the team’s best 3-point shooter and is only the third Spurs player to reach 1,000 points and 150 3s in his first 150 games with the team.

The growth of Bryn Forbes has been unbelievable for someone who went undrafted just two years ago.

There is still a long way to go, but it looks like Popovich has done it again.

Who would have imagined that we would be speaking about Derrick White and Bryn Forbes being one of the best backcourts of the season? In a year of big adversity, the Spurs have managed to remain united and simply followed the process.

I expect that the confidence and understanding of this team will only improve. So, after a gloomy start to the season, chances are it will get brighter in San Antonio.

What Does the Future Hold for the San Antonio Spurs?

The rise of Bryn Forbes and Derrick White has prompted the NBA community to look at who might make the next batch of young players to have an impact on the team.

Popovich shows no signs of slowing down the integration of youth, and we have already had glimpses of what we can expect in the future. Both of the 2018 draft picks have been impressing in the G-League and have already made their NBA debuts.

Chimezie Metu was drafted with the 49th pick and was signed by the Spurs after impressing in the summer league. Metu is a type of player that the team does not currently have. He stands at 6’10” and is quite athletic for his size.

The bigs that the Spurs currently have are more of the traditional type, like Pau Gasol and Jakob Poeltl, so Metu can definitely add something to the dynamic.

Lonnie Walker IV was the Spurs’ first-round pick, and his NBA debut was highly anticipated. Unfortunately, he got injured in the summer and then had to regain his fitness in the G-League.

He finally made his debut against the Raptors in a game that the AT&T Center was rocking. And he put the cherry on top of a great victory by knocking down a deep 3 in the dying seconds.

Even with the form that Forbes and White are currently in, I expect that Walker will become more and more involved in the rotation as the season progresses.

The one I would really like to see is Dejounte Murray. He had a terrific season last year and held his own against some of the top names in the league. He was poised to be the starting point guard, but unfortunately, he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, which means that he will miss the entire season.

Now that Forbes has made the point guard position his own, Dejounte will face stern competition, but I imagine this can only be good for the Spurs.

Final Words

It is truly astonishing how the organization has been able to develop young talent and stay competitive in the meantime. There have been some hardships along the way, but they always seem to get there in the end.

Popovich and R.C. Buford have built an organization in which patience and collective effort are the top priorities. In an age of basketball, where superstars and big trades are the only things we talk about, it is good to see that teams can be successful by being smart and consistent.

The Spurs will continue their season with back-to-back games against the Thunder starting today at the AT&T Center. Be sure to check my betting preview of the game and stay updated on all things NBA by regularly visiting our blog.



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