Like Best Hoops Programs, Spurs' Success Built on Philosophy as Much as Players

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Like Best Hoops Programs, Spurs' Success Built on Philosophy as Much as Players
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO — Every season the Spurs hole up at home this time of year, making up games they're due from vacating the AT&T Center in February for the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo.

While the roundball eyes of the world go mad every March over college basketball, the Spurs recede even further than usual from the spotlight—and get done more work than usual in preparation for their own annual playoff run.

This year is a little different.

The 58-10 Spurs have been so great—as have the 61-6 Golden State Warriors—that there is a pro game whose moment deserves to outshine even the purest amateur hour.

On Saturday night the Spurs are putting their 34-0 home record on the line; the Warriors try to stay on pace for the best overall record in NBA history.

During the NCAA tournament is actually an appropriate time to crack open the textbook on the Spurs' model, which is more collegial than one might think.

To explain how much better he's playing, first-year Spur LaMarcus Aldridge said this week: "I'm in the system. I'm in the group."

Even Gregg Popovich refers to his life's work as "the program," not "the organization" or "the franchise." Like a legendary college coach, Popovich stands as the consummate long-standing leader who is intimidating yet privately endearing. His deepest team-building goal is for young men to "get over themselves."

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

With the Spurs isolated in small-market San Antonio, it's not impossible to imagine them all living together in a team dorm. (Matt Bonner would be perfect as the earnest, friendly, slightly awkward resident assistant!)

But the program works so well because Popovich doesn't have to set all the tones. He has three trusted senior players—Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker—to regulate behavior, too.

Because they don't play as many minutes as they used to, Danny Green said, it just gives those three more time to coach and instruct now. And in their own ways, each is immensely helpful in keeping everything going in the right direction.

The linchpin, of course, is Duncan. He turns 40 next month, which, on the San Antonio campus, makes him totally the older guy who never leaves campus and moves on in life.

Duncan is a funnier, weirder dude than people know, so it's not actually that far off. But alongside the humor is wisdom; the strength of team bonding just does something for this guy.

Some players don't want to retire because of the competition or glory. One of the reasons Duncan is still playing is that he so dearly enjoys being part of a team.

He's not the stereotypical glue guy or the ultimate outwardly charming, inclusive leader. He just does what he's comfortable doing in a natural way that makes people feel good and secure.

When I asked Popovich if Duncan needed to get over himself when he arrived in San Antonio in 1997, Popovich replied: "He didn't need that talk. Honestly, he didn't need that talk. His parents already did that with him."

As Duncan developed into one of the greatest players of all time, the ego stayed the same—giving the Spurs' program the incredible stability it enjoys to this day.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

"He's been totally uninterested in all the hoopla and awards and all that," Popovich said. "All he cares about is winning. It's really the truth. I've never talked about any of that kind of stuff with him."

Duncan has empowered Ginobili and Parker and now Kawhi Leonard and Aldridge to take the control that the team needs them to take.

Here's how Duncan put it Thursday night regarding Leonard and Aldridge: "They were trying to fit in, trying to see where things are, and they've gotten to the point where they're taking over. They understand that we're going to ride them, and that builds their confidence."

That's how it is in San Antonio: Things change, but the spirit behind them does not.

No matter if the style of play evolves from rugged defense to peppy offense, there will be discipline and communication driving the execution. That's the program.   

"It can't just be about talent," Popovich said. "That'll never get you anywhere."

Golden State's chemistry and talent have been well chronicled. But those are the same elements that go into what San Antonio is.

This is the first time two different teams have won 50 of their first 60 games—but it might be the only time we get max power from both sides in a head-to-head matchup during the regular season.

Darren Abate/Associated Press

Golden State routed San Antonio in January with Duncan hurt and Aldridge uncomfortable in the offensive style. The last two meetings sit so late on the regular-season schedule—Golden State's fourth- and second-to-last games—that both teams might be resting players, even if the Spurs do get close to catching the Warriors.

"We never concern ourselves with any seed," Duncan said.

Duncan allowed the Saturday night showdown will be a worthwhile experience, but he also said to reporters: "It's whatever you guys want to make it. It's not going to change our season."

It's very much in keeping with the way Popovich's program is run. Players have their moments, but the big-picture mission governs all.

The unassuming way Duncan has allowed Popovich to coach him provides the template for the coach's relationship with all the players, Popovich said.

"That's leadership on Timmy's part," he said. "He understands and expects to do things right, just like everybody else. He's not above anybody else. Same with Manu, same with Tony. So they've all led by example."

Popovich and Duncan are nearing their 1,000th victory together; No. 994 came Thursday night. (Utah's Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone are a distant second with 775.)

The Popovich-Duncan relationship has made for a unique system of checks and balances in San Antonio. Popovich, the icon of the program in his 20th season, can't take himself too seriously as long as another Spurs lifer is around.

"Pop's never happy with anything," Duncan said dryly. "So there's that."

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Indeed, there Popovich was Thursday night, calling a timeout with three minutes, 27 seconds to play and a 111-99 lead over Portland in hand just to teach second-year pro Kyle Anderson a lesson about playing hard.

Popovich opened the timeout with a harsh lecture. After his opening salvo, he retreated…but eventually circled back late in the timeout to elaborate on his point.

This time, though, Popovich wound up making funny faces and motions to mimic Anderson's complacency. Anderson couldn't help it: He wound up actually laughing in Popovich's face.

The stuff about getting over yourself isn't just something Popovich preaches.

That's the reason everyone in the program practices it.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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