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How Gregg Popovich Turns Nobodies Into Somebodies In Spurs System

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How Gregg Popovich Turns Nobodies Into Somebodies In Spurs System
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Danny Green and Gary Neal both proved to be found treasures in the Spurs' Game 3 blowout of the Heat.

The San Antonio Spurs have a lens to find talent where no one else is looking.

The Spurs’ found treasure was on display in their 113-77 Game 3 victory on Tuesday when the once-unheralded duo of Danny Green and Gary Neal stole the show from Miami superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Both players that were once considered fringe NBA players overshadowed even their Spurs’ superstar teammates, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, as Green tallied 27 points on 7-of-9 three-point shooting and Neal added 24 points on 6-of-10 from behind the arc in Game 3.  

Yes, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the kind of guy who discovers $20 bills in his laundry, finding money seemingly everywhere he looks.

Just leaf through the list of prized names on this Spurs roster—the one currently playing for its fifth NBA championship under Popovich—and you’ll find guys who were never supposed to be NBA difference-makers, especially on the game’s grandest stage, the finals.

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Green and Neal celebrate during their stellar Game 3 performances.

Manu Ginobili was drafted No. 57 overall before playing in Italy and eventually signing with the Spurs in 2002 and potential Hall of Famer Tony Parker was drafted 28th overall in 2001.

It’s more than San Antonio’s core, a nucleus that starts with former No. 1 pick Tim Duncan, as the team has been buoyed by its valued role players.

The Spurs have continued their dynasty for so long because of their ability to slice specific roles for distinct talents. In past seasons, it’s been guys like Bruce Bowen, Beno Udrih and the late-career surges of guys like Robert Horry.

The Spurs, cast as the NBA’s version of Moneyball, don’t chase highlight-reel moments. Their talent isn’t loaded with athletic springs, but they find players to fill appropriate needs.

San Antonio continues to actually coach and develop its players after arrival in addition to placing them in ideal situations.

The recent catalog of players includes names that were, at a time before now, never spoken in NBA discussions—that's until Popovich and the Spurs turned them into known talents:

 

Danny Green

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What he was

Green was a young version of a journeyman who was cut by the Spurs twice and the Cleveland Cavaliers once in his first two seasons in the NBA. A North Carolina product, Green played professionally in Slovenia and then in the NBA Developmental League with the Reno Bighorns and the Austin Toros.

 

Why he excels in San Antonio

At 6'6", Green can be a pesky defender and a solid rebounder for the Spurs. But it’s Green's dramatically improved shooting form that has allowed him to succeed with the Spurs. He is the perfect wing threat for a Spurs offense that moves inside-out through Duncan and Parker. As witnessed in Game 3, he can catch a streak and carry the Spurs' perimeter.

 

Gary Neal

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What he was

 Neal was just the third player in NCAA history to score more than 1,000 points for two different Division I schools (La Salle, then Towson) but went undrafted in 2010. He played in Europe for three seasons prior to signing with the Spurs as a free agent.

 

Why he excels in San Antonio

 Neal, like Green, stretches defenses through his outside shooting. Neal has a pretty catch-and-shoot rhythm, and he offers depth to San Antonio’s outside shooting.

This regular season, though, Neal had a bit of a down year shooting the ball, converting on just 35.5 percent from three-point range after shooting 41.9 percent in each of his first two seasons. As witnessed in Game 3, however, Neal has the tremendous ability to spread opposing defenses by way of his deep shot.

 

Matt Bonner

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What he was

 Bonner was drafted in 2003 by the Chicago Bulls before being traded to the Toronto Raptors, who then sent him to play in Italy and develop his game. Bonner attempted just 1.1 three-pointers per game in his rookie season with Toronto in 2004-05, though he upped that to 3.1 three-pointers in his second year.

 

Why he excels in San Antonio

 Bonner was picked up by the Spurs as part of a quiet trade that sent Radoslav Nesterović to the Raptors. It was the perfect move for Bonner, who with San Antonio isn’t asked to do usual "power forward" things.

While the 6'10", 235-pounder doesn't rebound, averaging just more than two boards per game this postseason, he further spaces the Spurs offense by adding a fourth potential shooter to the perimeter at any given point. He entered Game 3 shooting 50 percent (15-of-30) on three-pointers this postseason.

 

Tiago Splitter

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What he was

 Splitter was drafted by the Spurs with the No. 28 pick in the 2007 draft, but he opted to earn more money playing in the Spanish league until he ultimately signed with San Antonio in 2010.

 

Why he excels in San Antonio

 Similar to waiting on Ginobili after drafting him, the Spurs waited on Splitter knowing they had a good thing. Obviously the native Brazilian was worth the Spurs patience. At 28 years old, Splitter averaged 10.3 points on 56 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds this past regular season.

Like his colleagues on this list, Splitter is found gold that comes without athleticism, but he is the perfect physical player to pair with Duncan, and he is efficient inside as the clean-up guy around the rim.

 

Boris Diaw

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What he was

The veteran Diaw peaked in 2008-09, his first season with the Charlotte Bobcats, when he averaged 15.1 points on 49.5 percent shooting and 41.9 percent (1.2-of-2.8) three-point shooting. He eventually disappeared into irrelevancy as a result of continuous losing coupled with decreased shooting efficiency before being waived by the Bobcats during the 2011-12 season.

 

Why he excels in San Antonio

 Diaw is an example of a resurrected career in San Antonio. The end of Diaw’s run in Charlotte came with some harsh comments from then-Bobcats coach Paul Silas, who questioned Diaw’s motivation and intensity. After the Bobcats let Diaw go in March 2012, the Spurs picked him up, and he was an automatic difference-maker through the Western Conference finals that same year.

It’s no surprise that Diaw, a big body who can also stretch the defense by stepping out to knock down the perimeter shot, is having success within the Spurs system. Under Popovich, there doesn’t seem to be any questioning of his heart.

Popovich has a way of doing that to guys, young or old, even if no one else sees the potential gold.

The Spurs' ability to turn nobodies into valued somebodies is one of the key reasons San Antonio is back in the finals and currently up 2-1 in the series.

 

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