When you’ve reached the playoffs 16 consecutive seasons, you’re way beyond steady. And when you’ve brought home the championship trophy in four of those years, your organization clearly doesn’t believe getting there is good enough.
Over the better part of the past two decades, the San Antonio Spurs have shown it’s not about the size of the media market; it’s about building a better mousetrap. Coach Gregg Popovich and General Manager R.C. Buford have created an operation that should provide inspiration to the “little guys” in every professional sports league. The Spurs have a plan and they stick with it — especially when setbacks occur — which shows a big-picture approach some in the league lack.
San Antonio has replaced many parts throughout its amazing run, which continues Tuesday night against Miami in Game 3 of the Finals at San Antonio. Key role players have moved on. Front-office executives and assistant coaches have left for bigger roles with other teams. But Popovich and Buford, NBA executives say, don’t lament about what the Spurs have lacked or lost. Instead, they find a way to keep rolling. Their message is clear: Maximize what you’ve got. To make it happen, Popovich and Buford rely on their scouting smarts.
A leader in international scouting, the Spurs have bolstered their roster with foreign players. In part because of the Spurs’ success, international scouting budgets across the league have increased steadily the past 15 years. When one team scouts, drafts and develops future Hall of Famers such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — Ginobili was a star in Europe before joining the Spurs — competitors take notice.
The Spurs selected Parker with the No. 28 overall pick in the first round of the 2001 NBA draft, the year the Wizards took Kwame Brown No. 1 overall. Ginobili was an even bigger draft steal: a second-rounder in 1999. Fifty-six players were chosen ahead of Ginobili. Center Tiago Splitter, a late first-round pick out of Brazil, has emerged as a solid starter for the Western Conference champions. The Spurs just don’t find contributors overseas. They find gems.
San Antonio will never replace Miami, Los Angeles and New York as hot-spot destinations for superstar free agents. And big-market teams such as the Lakers and Knicks are flush with cash from their local television contracts. The Lakers and Knicks can spend their way out of player-personnel blunders (the Knicks have had a lot of practice at it).
By hitting it big internationally, Popovich and Buford have not only leveled the playing field. They’ve tilted it in their direction.
Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti, who cut his teeth in San Antonio, likes how Popovich and Buford operate. Once heavily involved in the Spurs’ international efforts, Presti said his former bosses have a sound strategy.
“Pop and R.C. deserve a lot of credit for having the foresight to invest the time [in international scouting], and provide a lot of opportunities” for foreign players, Presti said in a telephone interview Saturday. “Certainly, they not only did an excellent job in identifying players, but also in creating an environment and a system where those players would want to play and would be capable of thriving.”
The system makes it all work. Popovich and Buford learned under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. In the game’s history, there has never been a better teacher or tactician than Brown. Popovich and Buford got a great foundation from Brown. Then they improved on it.
Popovich wants tough-minded players who fill their roles well and put the team first. Buford gets them for him. From a talent standpoint, the Spurs haven’t necessarily had the NBA’s best roster over the past 16 years. In fact, many of their standouts were castoffs and journeymen. What the Spurs always seem to find, though, are guys who fit their system.
Former Wizard Roger Mason Jr. was an effective three-point shooter for the Spurs. When Mason was on his way out of San Antonio, long-range specialist Gary Neal was coming in. Danny Green was cut by Cleveland and San Antonio before finally sticking in the Spurs’ starting lineup. Second-year standout Kawhi Leonard has a polished all-around game. Popovich and Buford didn’t let Leonard slip past the 15th pick in the 2011 draft.
The Spurs aren’t perfect. Since winning the 2007 championship, San Antonio has lost in the first round twice. Some teams would have panicked after such playoff flops. Major changes would have followed. Not in San Antonio. Popovich and Buford stayed the course and returned to the Finals.
NBA people jealous of the Spurs’ accomplishments are quick to point out that the team got lucky in winning the 1997 draft lottery. They wound up with Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward in league history. The Spurs also got Hall of Famer David Robinson after winning the 1987 draft lottery (Robinson was part of the Spurs’ first two title teams). Granted, good fortune has helped the Spurs.
“A good portion of it is good fortune,” Presti said. “And I think the first step is acknowledging that you have to have some of that in order to move forward. But you also have to maximize that when it does come your way.”
That’s what the Spurs have done. They get a lot out of their roster and make winning look easy. Everyone else can just sit back and enjoy the show.
For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.