Learning From San Antonio

There's been a lot of talk about which team the Nets should emulate as a model not that they've moved away from the pursuit of Carmelo Anthony.

There's the Thunder model, building around a superstar that as luck would have it was found in the draft. Mix in  successive lottery picks, filling in holes with an occasional veteran. There's the Trail Blazer model, warehousing draft picks of all sizes and shapes and molding a young team...with minimal veteran leadership other than a tough taskmaster coach.  There's also the model the Celtics. Heat and Knicks followed, and which the Nets were flirting with: blowing off draft choices and young players in favor of acquiring multiple superstars.

All have had some success, but really, there's no need for speculation.  The Nets have a model.  Mikhail Prokhorov has said so, has identified it.  It's the San Antonio model, the Spurs. Prokhorov mentioned his desire to emulate the Spurs last summer when he hired Avery Johnson, noting that he is a graduate of the Spurs "school" of basketball.

So what is that San Antonio model? Yes, it's about chemistry, loyalty, risk-taking and stars but it's mostly about a winning culture, one driven by pride and being in the forefront of everything.  Here's our summary...

Develop Chemistry the Easy Way

Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher may have won five championship rings together, but the Spurs have three players who've won three each and one of them, Tim Duncan, has won four.  Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have been together since 2001.  So has their coach, Gregg Popovich.  He's been around for 14 years without a break. 

There's a great deal of value in having your core play together for a decade.  They know each other personally as well as professionally.  They know where each other are going to be on offense as well as defense. They also know how each reacts to pressure and as the core of a unit, they know they can add to the comfort level of those around them with less experience. In crunchtime situations, thatt's a confidence builder. 

The Spurs have also added mature role players with winning histories (but not necessarily rings) to the club over the years. Richard Jefferson is just the latest example. They like winners, even in the smallest of pickups. Take Fabricio Oberto, the Argentine who played center for the Spurs mid-decade. He has won at every turn, with Argentine, Spanish and South American championships, an Olympic gold medal and after joining the Spurs, an NBA championship ring. Nazr Mohammed had two NCAA championships before winning a ring with the Spurs. Glenn Robinson, picked up at the very end of his career, won an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and a Spurs' ring in 2005. If you check the rosters of those four championships, you'll find a lot of others: Avery Johnson, Brent Barry, Robert Horry, Danny Ferry, Steve Smith, Steve Kerr, Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Kevin Willis, Jerome Kersey, Will Perdue...all of whom had played 10 years in the league before joining the Spurs, all of whom had some winning in their background when they accepted their first ring with the Spurs. Some like Kerr and Horry and Perdue had won rings before, but most had not.  All knew what this chance meant, what was required of them: sublimating their skills for the good of good teams.

Reward Loyalty

Between April and July, the Spurs signed Parker, Ginobili and Jefferson to contract extensions worth more than $125 million. All three were surprises...and all were criticized, Ginobili's and Jefferson's in particular. Parker was headed to free agency and even at age 28, there were some who thought he was done. A solid young point, George Hill, was in the wings. Parker got a four-year, $50 million deal.  Ginobili is 33 and also coming up injuries. The Spurs rewarded him with a three year $39 million deal. Jefferson who opted out of a $15 million player option to much ridicule, signed a three-year, $39 million deal. He's 30. The Spurs are having a career year, even if none of the Spurs individual Spurs aren't. The biggest risk may have been Jefferson who did not have good year with San Antonio last season but who the Spurs thought would adapt better this year after an intense summer of workouts...and a new understanding of the San Antonio model.  They were right.  The Spurs also gave Duncan a big contract extension in 2007. It runs out after next year, when he will be 35.  If the Spurs follow the model of Parker and Ginobili (and David Robinson), expect one more deal...if that's what the "Big Fundamental" wants.

There are other, less expensive instances of Pop's loyalty. He brought Johnson with him from the Warriors and installed him as the team's point guard even though Johnson was seen as a journeyman and too small.  Sean Elliot came back from kidney transplant surgery to win a ring.  Players around the league recognize that. Popovich  brought back Ime Udoka this season, a year removed from playing two seasons with the Spurs.

Push Stars To Be Leaders

Tim Duncan is the greatest power forward in the history of the game.  Karl Malone may have had better numbers, but Duncan has the rings.  Kevin McHale may have the rings, but he didn't have to carry the load.  The Spurs were lucky (or tanked) in getting Duncan back in 1997 but were able to first integrate him in one of the NBA's few successful Twin Towers combinations, then feature him. Duncan and David Robinson fulfilled expectations, unlike Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, Willis Reed and Walt Bellamy.   As Robinson aged, the Spurs were able to slowly shift the burden from him to Duncan. It was seamless.   

Duncan's physical gifts were (are?) great, but of equal and continuing value is his intelligence and leadership. For him, it's not about the spectacular but the steady, the reliable, the fundamental.  And those gifts are contagious.  Mercurial talent may sell tickets, but steady and intelligent leadership wins games AND sells tickets.

And that same transition that built the Spurs early championship teams is now being replicated.  Robinson, at age 35, 36, and 37, was nowhere near what he had been a decade earlier, but because of the Spurs model (and his and Duncan's intelligence and team loyalty), he was a valuable member of the team and wound up with two championship rings.  Now that same model is being replicated with Duncan as Parker and Ginobili take more of the burden. At age 35, Robinson averaged 14.4 and 8.6 in 30 minutes a game.  Duncan, who turns 35 in April, is averaging 13.9 and 9.5 in 30 minutes a game.  Popovich knows the model.

Draft Smart, Take Risks

The Spurs, because of their great success, haven't had a pick higher than #20 since 1997, when they took Duncan at #1.  Yet in that period, they've come up with Parker, taken at #28 and last in the first round in 2001; Ginobili, taken at #57 and next to last in the second round two years earlier; plus three members of their young rotation: George Hill, taken at #26 in 2008; DeJuan Blair, taken at #37 in 2009 and Tiago Splitter, taken at #28 in 2007 but arriving only this year.  Each was a risk.  Parker was 18 years old, thin and French. Ginobili was from Argentina, not yet known as a basketball powerhouse, and already 25 when he arrived. Hill played at IUPUI, barely Division I. Blair, a great college rebounder, has no ACL's and fell out of the first round as a result. Splitter had a European contract with an onerous buyout that prohibited him from playing in the NBA for three years.  Yet each has worked out...and in each case, there is a debt of loyalty.

The Spurs also have had solid international scouting.  Over the last decade, they have drafted, in addition to Parker, Ginobili and Splitter, Brazil's Leandro Barbosa and Slovenia's Goran Dragic (both of whom they traded on Draft Night); Argentina's Luis Scola (traded to the Rockets before he played with the Spurs); Slovenia's Beno Udrih, now with the Kings; and France's Ian Mahinmi, now with the Mavericks. They wanted to draft Serbia's Nenad Krstic but the Nets beat them to it.. Ironically, the international scout who did so much of the work for the Spurs was later hired by the Nets...but then dropped by New Jersey.  Rob Meurs died last April in a motorcycle accident.

That international scouting also extends to free agent pick-ups. Oberto was a great role player for the Spurs.  This year, they added to their reputation as risk-takers when they signed Gary Neal to a three year deal. Neal had been the highest scorer in both Turkey and Italy after going undrafted out of Towson State in 2007.  He is the rarest of Spurs' pick-ups: a kid with a bad reputation.  He had been accused (then cleared) of sexual assault charges while a freshman at LaSalle. But they did their due diligence and apparently found another gem. (And let's not forget how in 2002, they signed a Nets' castoff, Stephen Jackson, who helped them win a championship...over the Nets.)

Develop Front Office DNA

On the Spurs' front office directory, Popovich is listed as executive vice president of basketball operations/head coach, one step higher on the Spurs totem pole than R.C. Buford, who is senior vice-president/general manager. The two don't seem to be bothered by the arrangement. They've worked together in the Spurs organization for 16 years, as coach and GM for half that time.  They work well together and have a history of developing young talent, both in the front office and on the sidelines. 

The Spurs' DNA is valued by teams throughout the league. What is it? There's a lot of that risk-taking, focusing on fundamentals, and data mining and analysis.  There are former Spurs managers all over the NBA, none more prominent than Sam Presti, GM of the Thunder who has brought with him the Spurs' mentality.   Presti had served in several progressively more significant positions for the Spurs after starting as an intern. He had met Buford at a basketball camp in Aspen Colorado, and convinced the Spurs to hire him.  Presti was promoted to assistant director of scouting in 2002, then director of player personnel, and finally, assistant general manager in 2005.  He was both the resident capologist and designed the Spurs' scouting database, based heavily on those Moneyball attributes of quantitative and analytical data. 

Dell Demps, the new GM of the Hornets, is another graduate of the Spurs' school of basketball. A former Spur, Demps followed basically the same career path as Presti and immersed himself in the analytical and data-driven mindset that Presti helped create. He rose to Director of Pro Player Personnel, #4 on the Spurs hierarchy. He also served as General Manager of the Spurs' D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros, a relationship that he successfully developed.  Who's next? Maybe Rob Hennigan, who Presti brought with him to the Thunder.  He too rose from an intern's job. 

Stabilize Coaching

The same loyalty and chemistry valued on the roster is also valued on the coaching staff. There have been few changes during the team's championship run.  P.J. Carlesimo may have left to try his hand as head coach with the Thunder, but the core of Don Newman, Brett Brown, Mike Brungardt, Mike Budenholzer and Chip Engelland have been around for most of the decade.  Brown and Engelland are player development specialists, Engelland the Spurs' shooting coach.

The Spurs have also gotten a reputation as an incubator for coaches, starting in 1995-96, when Popovich was an assistant coach.  As the Sporting News points out, that team featured four players who are now head coaches in the NBA—the Celtics' Doc Rivers, the Hornets’ Monty Williams, the ClippersVinny Del Negro and Avery Johnson. Demps also was on the roster, as was Chuck Person, now an assistant with the Lakers.

"It is amazing to see how many of guys from that team are coaches or in the front office," Williams said. "Just a lot of basketball minds, and I am probably the least of the pack as far as that goes. But I was glad to be around those guys."

Little Things Mean a Lot

Take a look at these quotes from a fan post at 48 Minutes of Hell, a Spurs fans site, from last November. 

The Spurs make it a priority to do the little things to make sure that every player feels a part of the team...Chris Quinn was signed by the Spurs on last Friday. On Saturday night, his locker had a complete nameplate on it. No one would have blamed the Spurs if there was just a piece of athletic tape with Quinn’s name on it as a placeholder until his nameplate was finished. But the team had it finished in time for the game.


Player amenities is a term of art in the NBA and other professional sports leagues.  Sometimes, it's about a new locker room or a training facility, but it's also about name plates and pictures on the wall in the entry corridor.  As the fan notes, "The little things they do to make everybody feel like an important piece of the puzzle. Alonzo Gee isn’t alienated because he’s the 14th man on the roster. He gets a picture in the hallway just like Tim Duncan".

And of course, it's not an accident or ad hoc.  It's part of the culture in San Antonio.

Bottom line

The Spurs did indeed get lucky with Duncan.  So did the Thunder with Kevin Durant...and the Blazer thought they got lucky with Greg Oden.  They didn't.  But once the Spurs had Duncan...and Robinson, they decided rather than go hell bent for other complimentary pieces in free agency, they would build slowly, patiently and with everyone on-board.  It worked not because they spent a lot of money.  They really didn't, rarely and barely going over the luxury tax.  It worked because they followed a strategy, never much wavering.  It takes a lot of patience to do that.

Where the Nets Stand

There are certain things the Nets have already borrowed from the Spurs, at least since Prokhorov starting signing the checks. Avery Johnson and Billy King seem to be operating as equals in the front office.  They've expanded the coaching; scouting, including international scouting; and basketball operations staff in general.  The team has  begun focusing on analysis, hiring a management guy, Milton Lee, to handle stats and other basketball operations other than putting players on the court, making trades, signing free agents or drafting college and international players.

There are other, smaller things that matter as well. They've dramatically improved their video operations, for example, even hiring the Spurs former video assistant, Patrick Spurgin, as Video Coordinator. They've purchased  the latest state of the art equipment to develop coach and player friendly iPad apps...small things but they count.

They're improving player amenities, with better equipped locker rooms and training facilities and plan on making Barclays Center a model for the rest of the NBA.

Another development is not much appreciated but important to player development is the agreement with the Springfield Armor of the D-League.  In 2011-12, the Nets will take over basketball operations of the Armor, providing them with a "bullpen" for young players.  With so many draft picks over the next few years, the Armor could be as important as the Austin Toros has been for the Spurs. (The Nets tried to buy a D-League team outright, as the Spurs did with the Toros, but decided on the so-called hybrid affiliation.)

They've haven't done everything San Antonio has, like signing a shooting coach; or everything they've promised, like hiring a director of player plans to help develop younger players' NBA skill sets off the court.  They must show, come draft day, that they can match the Spurs scouting staff.

As for other, longer term aspects of the model, chemistry and loyalty, that will take some time, as will drafting smart.  Taking risks?  We've seen some of that, most boldly in the pursuit and abandonment of efforts to acquire Anthony.  The team also took a risk in dumping Terrence Williams, seen as having great potential, for a journeyman, Sasha Vujacic.  Of course, Vujacic with his two rings fits very neatly, as does the signing of Jordan Farmar, into building a winning culture, just as the Spurs did by adding veterans with winning records over the years.

The Spurs' incredible success in the draft will also take a while to replicate and is highly dependent on the Nets' scouting staff, which has had a hit and miss reputation the last several years.  King does have a good record drafting low. 

After the Melo-Drama, King has made it clear the team has embraced a new plan, call it Plan "C", having failed at securing high-level talent over the past six months...Plans "A" and "B".  In speaking on WFAN the morning after Prokhorov made his decision, King looked out over the NBA landscape and saw where he thinks the Nets should be headed:

Citing the Nets' youth, he said, "If you look at some teams and how they’ve been built through the draft, that’s how they’ve done it. Then they’ve added a player when they need be. You’ve got to get lucky in the draft but also you’ve got to add talent and sometimes young talent is the best way to go."  Sometimes, it's also the long way, a way that requires patience.


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