What Can the Brooklyn Nets Learn From the San Antonio Spurs?

Chuck Cook -US PRESSWIRE

A lot of teams, including the Nets, would like to model themselves after the Spurs. So we decided to grade the Nets against that San Antonio model. We did it understanding that the two most crucial elements of the model are its binary core of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan. Even with that in mind, we thought there was enough to compare ... and grade.


When he hired Avery Johnson, Mikhail Prokhorov said a big reason was that Johnson was a graduate of the San Antonio school of basketball. When he fired Avery Johnson, Mikhail Prokhorov cited P.J. Carlesimo's experience with the Spurs.

Of course, it doesn't end there. Mario Elie is also a veteran of the Spurs system. Elie and Johnson were teammates on the 1999 Spurs championship team. Carlesimo was an assistant to Gregg Popovich in 2003, 2005 and 2007, when the Spurs won it all. It doesn't stop there either. Patrick Spurgin, the Nets new assistant coach for player development, was a video coordinator for the Spurs before joining the Nets two years ago. Nixon Dorvilien, the new assistant trainer, had a similar job with San Antonio. As we noted not long ago, "Brooklyn Nets Keep Hiring San Antonio Spurs."

So, we thought we would take a look at how the Nets can follow the Spurs lead. It's not something the Nets talk about internally, but with all the ex-Spurs who've been on the payroll, how can they --and we-- not compare the two.

Develop Chemistry the Easy Way ... with Stability

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. As the core of a unit, they also know they can gauge the comfort level of those around them with less experience. In crunchtime, that's a confidence builder for the role player.

The Spurs have also added mature role players with winning histories (but not necessarily rings) to the club over the years. 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 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, 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.

The Nets? One of the more underrated aspects of the Nets off-season is how at the end of it, Brooklyn's roster had more stability than any Nets team ever and more than most of the NBA. Every Net player other than Andray Blatche, Keith Bogans and Jerry Stackhouse have a long-term deal, from Kris Humphries and C.J. Watson with two (including a player option) years to Deron Williams with five. Joe Johnson has four years left on his deal, as does Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace. Mirza Teletovic has three. Even the two second round picks have guaranteed two-year deals.

Williams has pointed to that on more than on occasion as a big deal. No one is distracted, no one is worried about job security. (Well, no players. Avery Johnson was certainly worried about it). You can't infuse a team with chemistry or familiarity but you can lay the ground work with a sense of stability, which is what Billy King tried to do.

Did Nets show patience with Johnson? No, but he's not Pop and unless the Nets can pick up Phil Jackson, they aren't going to get to the Pop level of quality quickly.

As for picking up winners, the Nets are not yet on the Spurs level but they have signed a number of players who fit the Spurs' model of signing players with winning pasts, if not rings. Deron Williams has two Olympic gold medals (two more than Duncan, one more than Ginobili). He and Joe Johnson have more than 100 playoff games to their credit. Williams and Wallace have been to the Western Conference Finals. Jerry Stackhouse has been to the NBA Finals with the Mavericks. (The guy with the winningest career? Tyshawn Taylor, national champion in high school, FIBA U19 World Champion, NCAA Finals.)

Reward Loyalty

Between April and July 2010, the Spurs signed Parker, Ginobili and Richard 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. It's turned out to be bargain. Ginobili was 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 was 30. The Parker and Ginobili contracts were risky and the Jefferson contract was a mistake. Were they all overpaid? Maybe. Did the Spurs finish that season with the best record in the NBA? Yes. Did the Spurs address their mistake with Jefferson and deal him for a player better suited to their needs? Yes. They traded him to the Warriors for Stephen Jackson eight months later. They don't wait around.

And loyalty is a two-way street. The Spurs gave Duncan a big contract extension in 2007. When it ended over last summer, Duncan decided to help the Spurs by taking a huge pay cut. It gave the Spurs roster flexibility. Duncan, whose contract paid him $21.2 million last season, will get $9.65 million this season and $10.4 million in 2013-14, at Duncan’s option. He will be 39. He might be worth it. Like Jason Kidd with the Knicks, Duncan has had a rebirth this season.

There are other, less expensive instances of Pop's loyalty. In 1992, when he was hired by the Spurs, he brought Johnson with him from the Warriors and installed him as the team's point guard. This was at a time when Johnson was seen as a journeyman and considered too small. Sean Elliot came back from kidney transplant surgery to win a ring. He brought back Jackson who other coaches had detested. Boris Diaw is another example of a player whose former coach couldn't wait to get rid of. Pop is about figuring out what a player can do and molding him into his system.

The Nets under their Russian ownership has not had the opportunities the Spurs have had. That's the bottom line for a lot of this analysis. But there are cases where the Nets have done well by players. Gerald Wallace was given a $40 million deal, when others would not have taken that risk, and Keith Bogans was brought back after a major injury.

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 37 in April, is averaging 17.8, 9.9 and 2.5 blocks this season playing 30 minutes a game in 30 games. Popovich knows the model because he developed it.

The Nets had the ultimate leader in Kidd during the early 2000's. Deron Williams is not Jason Kidd, but Deron Williams may need to be led before he can lead. You think that might be behind the Nets interest in Phil Jackson?

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 four members of their young rotation: DeJuan Blair, taken at #37 in 2009 and Tiago Splitter, taken at #28 in 2007 but arriving in 2010. There's also Kawhi Leonard, traded for another Draft Night gem, George Hill, in 2011, and now Nando DeColo, taken at #53 in 2009, arriving 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, then 25 when he finally 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. DeColo was a great European player but few saw him as a solid NBA player. Yet each has worked out. Again, 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, Splitter and DeColo, 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 Pacers. They wanted to draft Serbia's Nenad Krstic in 2002 but the Nets beat them to it.

That international scouting also extends to free agent pick-ups. The Spurs have seven international players on their roster this season. They also have 10 who had played overseas at some point in their career. The same was true last season.

Take Gary Neal as an example of their success in international scouting and risk-taking. They signed Neal to a three-year deal in 2010. He was not highly sought after. Neal had been the highest scorer in both Turkey and Italy after going undrafted out of Towson State in 2007. Like other Spurs role players, he had some red flags. He had been accused (then cleared) of sexual assault charges while a freshman at LaSalle. But the Spurs did their due diligence and found another gem. Since he signed the deal, he's averaged 10 points a game and shot 40 percent from the arc.

They're also willing to draft players and stash them overseas. Ginobili played in Italy for three years after being drafted. So did Splitter and DeColo. In all three cases, the player had a long term contract and/or a big buyout that scared off other teams seeking instant gratification. As a result, they got players with higher value at lower picks.

And they have a number of players still stashed in Europe, including a top Euroleague PF in 6'10" Erazem Lorbek, whose rights they acquired along with Kawhi Leonard, as well as a number of promising younger players who could still develop, including Adam Hanga, Hungary's 6'7" shooting guard, Ryan Richards, Great Britain's 7-footer; Davis Bertans, a 6'8" small forward from Latvia and Marcus Denmon, who they drafted last June out of Missouri at #59. He's playing in France. Who's next to come over? Lorbek signed a big deal with F.C. Barcelona this summer, so he's unlikely but don't be surprised to see any of the others in S.A. at one point or another. It's the system.

The Nets, like other parts of this analysis, have started to follow the model, but the results are TBD, to be determined. Overseas, they seemed to have done well in drafting and stashing Bojan Bogdanovic and to a lesser degree Ilkan Karaman. Tornike Shengelia shows a lot of promise for a kid taken at #52 in the Draft. He compares himself to a taller Manu Ginboli. So there's that.

Mirza Teletovic would seem to be the most Spurs-like pick-up, a star in Europe with a great deal of big game experience on arrival. He even played next to Splitter at Caja Laboral in Spain, then replaced him as the team's star.. So far, it hasn't worked out.

On the other hand, the Nets did very well, very Spurs-like, in signing and giving roles to first Gerald Green, then Andray Blatche. Both had issues with previous organizations. Blatche in fact may be a better pick-up than Stephen Jackson or Boris Diaw, if he continues to play like he has. He's a lot younger and he's a center. Of course, they didn't keep Green. And you have to credit the now-departed Johnson for those two signings. On the other hand, Johnson had done little to develop some of the team's other talent, like MarShon Brooks who was drafted at #25, a Spurs sweet spot, or Tyshawn Taylor.

The Spurs also have used their D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros, better than the Nets have with the Armor. The Spurs, like the Rockets, regularly move people up and down. It's part of the plan for younger players. The Nets haven't done much of that. Jordan Williams played five games in the D-League last season. So far, Taylor and Shengelia have played one game with the Armor this year.

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 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, then moved on to the Hornets. The latest? Rob Hennigan, who Presti brought with him to the Thunder and is now Magic GM. He too rose from an intern's job.

It's too early for the Nets to have developed such a DNA, at least in the Prokhorov era. But the Nets are getting good grades around the league for hiring good young staff and developing them. Their D-League operation is getting top marks although Avery Johnson didn't use it the way the Spurs --and Rockets-- have. Whether those young staffers in Brooklyn will rise like Presti or Demps or Hennigan is something to check back on ... say in 2025.

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 Brett Brown, Mike Budenholzer and Chip Engelland have been around for most of the decade. Budenholzer is Pop's top assistant. Brown and Engelland are player development specialists, Engelland also the Spurs' shooting coach.

Like their front office, the coaching staff has gotten a reputation as an incubator for coaches, starting in 1995-96, when Popovich was an assistant coach. That team, which finished with a 59-23 record, featured four players who began this season as 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. They also bring younger coaches along, quietly and efficiently, when one of their own moves on. Don Newman joined the Spurs as defensive coordinator in 2004. He had done the same job with the Nets but left after Byron Scott was canned. He got a new job this year as lead assistant with the Wizards. The Spurs replaced him with Chad Forcier. Forcier spent a few years with the Pacers and before that with the Pistons. He's heavily involved in player development. He's barely 40.

"It is amazing to see how many of guys from that team are coaches or in the front office," Monty Williams once 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."

Probably not a great week to talk about coaching stability and the Nets. For the second time in two and a half years, the Nets have fired a head coach. Under Johnson, they did hire Carlesimo and Spurgin as assistants. Again this is not something they should be graded on now.

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 November 2010.

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.

The Nets (of Brooklyn) are getting good marks from players about the little things that players appreciate as well as the big. In terms of amenities, technology, their "basketball campus" at Barclays Center, etc., the Nets are getting noticed around the league. No one will ever say they don't spend money. The "basketball campus" at Barclays cost $10 million, from locker room to practice court. It's a far cry from New Jersey.


Bottom line

The Spurs did indeed get lucky with Duncan. So did the Thunder with Kevin Durant...and the Blazer thought they did with Greg Oden. They didn't. But once the Spurs had Duncan...and Robinson, they decided rather than go hell bent for other complementary 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.

There are certain things the Nets have already borrowed from the Spurs, at least since Prokhorov starting signing the checks. They've expanded scouting, including international scouting; and basketball operations staff in general. The team has begun focusing on analysis and management upfront.

There are other, smaller things that matter as well. They've dramatically improved their video operations, for example. They've purchased the latest state of the art equipment, from training to video. No team uses the iPad more efficiently...small things but they count.

They followed the Spurs model with the Springfield Armor.

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 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. The Spurs have two of the most important components for long-term success in Popovich and Duncan and it's easy to dismiss what they've done by focusing on their luck. But as the greatest GM in Brooklyn history, Branch Rickey, used to say, "Lucks is the residue of design," and that is no truer than with the San Antonio Spurs. It's the system.


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