The NBA champions, San Antonio Spurs, have long employed a metaphor for the way they go about their business. First used by social reformer Jacob Riis, coach Gregg Popovich adopted a quote that, in his words, was an answer to “all the typical, trite, silly c*** you see in locker rooms”, something that would give his players a clearer idea of what it means to be a San Antonio Spur.
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the 101st blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
The notion of a man pounding a rock doesn’t seem a particularly enticing image for your average fan, but then the Spurs aren’t your average team.
They are the only team that has won more than 50 games, pro-rated, every year for the last 17 years, and the only team that has kept its core group together for 12 of those years.
They are the only team that begins the 2014/15 season with every player from the previous campaign returning, as well as having the longest tenured coach in all four of North America’s major sports leagues. They also happen to be the reigning champions.
None of the above facts are mere coincidence. As far as San Antonio are concerned, continuity is sacrosanct. While other teams obsess over finding the next star to add to their roster, the extra piece that could push them over the hump, the Spurs continue to do their thing with the same key players year after year.
At the wheel throughout their unprecedented run of success is one of basketball’s most popular, enigmatic, acerbic, philosophical and gifted coaches.
Popovich is seen as something of a basketball savant, a player whisperer and keeper of the secret to longevity. Unsatisfactorily, though, he doesn’t attribute the Spurs’ consistent metronomic winning machine to anything that people haven’t thought of before.
When an individual or group of individuals achieve extraordinary things, we tend to look for extraordinary reasons. But you won’t find them here. “I think our success over the years is in large part due to continuity,” he says. “Synergy between ownership and management and coaches is rare because in most organisations there’s always frictions of one sort or another.
"If that synergy is good and you have an opportunity for continuity and that continuity is good, then continuity means corporate knowledge from year to year and that’s important.”
That kind of clear thinking has served the Spurs long and well, and they have made a habit of employing policies and tactics that in hindsight seem obvious. The Spurs were the first team to really mine the foreign market for players. Before his coaching days as a scout, Popovich spoke of feeling like “a kid in a candy store” because of the wealth of talent outside the US that was being completely ignored by the NBA.
The Spurs used analytics early and better than almost everyone and were the first to realise the value of the corner 3-pointer, the most efficient shot in basketball as well as employing the obvious policy of only signing players that have “gotten over themselves”.
A franchise that seems to have no worries this summer has perhaps a concern they haven’t faced before – a lack of motivation. Last season they redressed one of the most painful episodes in NBA history when they beat the Miami Heat, the same team that had defeated the Spurs the year before despite San Antonio being so close to winning the Finals that officials sealed off the court and brought down the trophy with less than half a minute to go in Game 6. Ray Allen then hit a back-breaking 3-pointer that the Spurs never recovered from.
The pain pushed them last season but this year the team just has the warm glow of satisfaction around them as their core move into their basketball dotage. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have won four of the franchise’s five titles together – Duncan was MVP in the other title-winning performance.
Duncan is now 38, Ginobili 37 and Parker 32. Each has achieved everything in the game and it is hard to imagine what more motivation they have left. Yet ‘Coach Pop’ isn’t about to start searching for tricks and tips on motivation, that isn’t simple enough.
“The only choice you have is to start at the beginning again, don’t skip any steps, don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I’ll be very hard on them the first two months of the season. They won’t like me very much and we’ll do it the way we do it every year. At the end of the year our goal is to be the best we can be at playoff time and be healthy.
"And we’ll either win a championship or we won’t, then we’ll go to dinner. Life’s too short, it’s just basketball, you have dinner and you go home. You just want to play the game. These are grown men, you don’t need tricks or manipulations or anything like that, they’re too old, been around too long, been with me too long.
“We just tell the truth and tell them it’s going to be another difficult road. Just in the West there’s Houston and the Clippers and Oklahoma City and Portland and so on, I’m not even thinking about the East, it’s very difficult to do.”
Eventually the continuity will have to be broken. Not only is the team’s spine getting older but Popovich will soon turn the wrong side of 65. He has always claimed that he will retire when the Spurs’ talisman Duncan retires, which could well be at the end of this year.
While continuity exists within the playing staff, the demand for Spurs-schooled has meant every summer Popovich must hunt for new assistants. Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer, Mike Brown, Jacque Vaughn and many others are at new franchises hoping a bit of magic dust will rub off.
This summer brought about as much excitement as backroom appointments can make with the Spurs picking up Becky Hammon – the first ever full-time female coach in the NBA – and Ettore Messina, one of the great European coaches of all time. Exciting though as it is to see a coach of Messina’s quality on the bench, it could also be a sign of what is to come.
The Italian has won four Euroleague titles and even took charge of the Spurs in a pre-season game against the Phoenix Suns. It would be very like the Spurs to be the first team to hire a foreign-born head coach. He is after all a little overqualified for an assistant’s job.
Whether Popovich retires this year and Messina takes over remains to be seen, but Pop wants a few things out of him first.
“Having coach Messina is great,” he said. “This guy is in the top echelon of coaches no matter where, it doesn’t matter what country.
“He’s someone who I can argue with about different things. Plus he’s Italian and he might invite me to Tuscany."
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