Pinpointing the True Genius of the San Antonio Spurs' System

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014

Feb 1, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich reacts during the second half against the Sacramento Kings at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 95-93. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs are always good. 

That's no hyperbole, as this model organization has made the playoffs each and every year since the 1996-97 season, when David Robinson went down after a handful of games and the team tanked. And that led to the acquisition of Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA draft. 

Because of course it did. 

Hard as it may be to believe, the Spurs have won titles more often than they've failed to make it out of the first round of the postseason since The Big Fundamental was added to the roster.

But how?

It's not just about the Big Three, though having the trio of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili has certainly made the task at hand easier throughout recent memory. This is more about the system in general, as it's a system so conducive to success that San Antonio has forgotten anything else exists.

That system, though, can be broken down into two overarching sections—principles of building a winning basketball team, if you will.

 

International Flair

/Jan 28, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker (9) with his hands on his knees during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

This goes two ways, as the Spurs have established an international style of play while making use of some incredible international talents. Let's begin with the latter. 

The number of players drafted by this organization without attending an American university is simply staggering. Even more impressive is the sheer quantity of players who have panned out, even if they achieved success with teams other than the Spurs: 

  • Manu Ginobili, No. 57 in 1999
  • Tony Parker, No. 28 in 2001
  • Luis Scola, No. 55 in 2002
  • Leandro Barbosa, No. 28 in 2003
  • Ian Mahinmi, No. 28 in 2005
  • Tiago Splitter, No. 28 in 2007
  • Goran Dragic, No. 45 in 2008

I wouldn't bet against Livio Jean-Charles—the No. 28 pick in 2013—becoming a quality NBA player, simply because it was the Spurs who scouted and selected him. However, the team is about more than just drafting these players; it also finds them in free agency. 

Danny Green had been cut by a number of teams in the Association and was playing in Slovenia when San Antonio picked him up. Gary Neal had gone undrafted before general manager R.C. Buford picked him out of Europe.

The Spurs are able to take on these players and make them effective because they're a patient organization. They're willing to develop the young international guys and players who have seemingly flamed out in the Association because they have the distant future in mind just as much as the looming present. 

"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," Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti told The Washington Post's Jason Reid. "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."

So, what is that system? 

It's one that is largely different than the rest of the schemes used by NBA teams because it defies superstardom. There is no extreme ball dominance in San Antonio, but rather a complicated, screen-based offense that relies heavily on movement and complete unselfishness. 

No player will thrive in San Antonio unless he's willing to accept his role and make everyone else thrive. That's an international principle, one that you can see employed by almost any team in a league that isn't the NBA. 

"Of course, Pop's coaching style, as prescient as it is curmudgeonly, isn't for everyone," writes ESPN The Magazine's Seth Wickersham. "He's demanding and ruthless; his playbook is pick-and-roll heavy, more structured and complicated than European ball but a blood relative."

If you look at the stats for almost any European team, you're going to have trouble finding a guy who puts up points in bunches at the expense of everyone else.

In the Spanish ACB, for example, RealGM.com shows that Andy Panko is currently leading the league in scoring. He's averaging 18.17 points per game for Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, and even that team has spread out its scoring rather nicely, as only two players are in double figures. 

Real Madrid—the most famous and best team from the ACB—is 18-0, and the scoring is once more incredibly balanced: 

  1. Nikola Mirotic, 14.29 points per game
  2. Rudy Fernandez, 12.88
  3. Sergio Rodriguez, 12.56
  4. Sergio Llull, 12.28
  5. Jaycee Carroll, 10.07

This is the same way the Spurs play. They share the ball, and they're willing to make sacrifices for the betterment of the team. 

Thus far in the 2013-14 campaign, Green is the No. 9 scorer on the team with 7.3 points per game. Perhaps even more impressively, the Spurs have five players who are averaging at least half as many points as their leading scorer. Boris Diaw (9.6 points per game) is the cutoff point, and Parker's 18.4 pace the squad.

Jan 28, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward Boris Diaw (33) is defended by Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley (2) during the third quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

That may seem like a weird stat, but it's one that necessitates a lack of a go-to option and an abundance of system-created depth. 

The New York Knicks don't even have one player averaging half Carmelo Anthony's total, if you're looking for an example on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Both in their offense and in their scouting, the Spurs have a love for all things international. And while it works, it's by no means the only reason for their success.  

 

Challenges in the Coaching Staff

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 8: Mike Budenholzer and Gregg Popovich, head coach of the of the San Antonio Spurs warm up during practice as part of the 2013 NBA Finals on June 8, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

This is what it's all about, and it goes well beyond Gregg Popovich's status as the best coach in the NBA. 

From top to bottom, San Antonio always employs a stellar coaching staff that isn't afraid to challenge what Pop says. Sideline reporters might be terrified of his gruff answers during mid-game interviews, but coaches are presumably more scared by what he'll do if they don't add to the conversation. 

Some coaches hire plenty of yes-men as assistant coaches, guys who won't challenge anything said by the man in charge. Popovich does the exact opposite, and we can leave it to one of his former players to provide firsthand testimony, per The New York Times' Scott Cacciola:

He (Beno Udrih) cited his time in San Antonio as especially important.

'In games and practices, I wasn't just watching Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker play,' Udrih said. 'I was also watching what Popovich was doing.'

Throughout his career, Udrih has made a habit of gauging how teammates respond to various styles of coaching. Some methods, he said, are more effective than others. If nothing else, he has come to realize the value of a solid staff that is willing to challenge the head coach regularly.

Why do you think the Spurs have turned so many assistant coaches into head signal-callers for other organizations? Seriously, just take a look at the products of the Popovich coaching tree: 

  • Mike Budenholzer, coached under Pop
  • Mike Brown, coached under Pop
  • P.J. Carlesimo, coached under Pop
  • Jacque Vaughn, coached under Pop
  • Brett Brown, coached under Pop
  • Avery Johnson, played under Pop
  • Vinny Del Negro, played under Pop
  • Monty Williams, played under Pop

It's ridiculous how widespread Pop's influence is. And it only grows if you include all the general managers who have served under Buford and the front office (Dennis Lindsey, Danny Ferry, Sam Presti, Kevin Pritchard). 

All of this talent on the sideline only enhances the talent on the court. These men—most of whom have gone on to run the show for a different organization—all took turns telling Popovich one word.

"No."

Of course, they'd follow it up with explanations—I think. 

And when you have different opinions, there's more opportunity to find something that works. And that something is the San Antonio system, which has consistently done a fantastic job maximizing the impact of role players. 

As B/R's Kelly Scaletta wrote: 

This is a group of players that Popovich has developed into something more than they were before they got there. If you have a few players who end up being more than you thought they'd be, it's good fortune. When it's virtually every player you coach, it's good coaching.

There are no attention-seeking glory hounds on this roster, and there is no room for them.

It helps that leadership, from the owner, Peter Holt (if you're not a Spurs fan, you probably couldn't even name him), down to the stars, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, all buy into the philosophy. The system is what matters here.

Speaking of buying in, what does it say that Marco Belinelli actually took less money so that he could be a part of this system? 

SAN ANTONIO, TX - January 29: Marco Belinelli #3 of the San Antonio Spurs passes the ball against the Chicago Bulls during the game at the AT&T Center on January 29, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

"Belinelli, meanwhile, said he had more lucrative offers than the two-year, $5.6-million deal he eventually signed with the Spurs," writes Dan McCarney for Spurs Nation. "But the opportunity to play for one of the best teams in the NBA, alongside long-time idol Manu Ginobili, was too good to pass up."

Belinelli knew, as so many do throughout the NBA, that San Antonio was an organization capable of maximizing his talents. That's exactly what Popovich has done, as the 2-guard is enjoying what is unquestionably the best season of his seven-year career. 

And that shouldn't come as a surprise. 

This, above all else, is the true genius of the Spurs' system. 

Having a Big Three helps, especially when the central figure will go on to retire as the greatest power forward of all time. But you'll notice that since he was first brought up in this article's introduction, Duncan literally hasn't been mentioned until now. 

Even without The Big Fundamental, the Spurs would still have been successful. Even without the luck they've experienced in the draft, the Spurs would still have been successful. 

Thanks to their international stylings—both in the draft and on the court—and the coaching staff's mentality and established system that maximizes the abilities of role players, the Spurs have always been primed to excel. 

The future shouldn't be any different.