Why the Next NBA Coach or GM Will Probably Be a San Antonio Spur

Mike Monroe@@Monroe_SAFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2016

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich argues a call during the second half of Game 4 in a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies Sunday, April 24, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. The Spurs won 116-95 to sweep the series 4-0. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The revolving door that leads to the first seat on NBA benches keeps turning.

Dave Joerger exits in Memphis, and soon there will be a line of potential replacements waiting to enter for an interview with Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace.

Be shocked if some of them don’t currently work for Gregg Popovich.

The Kings already have sought permission to speak with Spurs assistants Ettore Messina and James Borrego about their coaching vacancy. Messina, Popovich’s Italian-born lead assistant and a legend in European coaching circles, was believed to be No. 2 on the Lakers’ coaching list if Warriors assistant Luke Walton had not agreed to take the job. He is on the hot list of candidates for nearly every gig that opens.

Borrego already has put in time as a head coach, an interim stretch after Jacque Vaughn, another Popovich assistant, was dismissed by the Magic last season.

Now, with additional vacancies in Houston and Indiana, it will be a surprise if Ime Udoka, the third of Popovich’s bench assistants, does not draw some interest, as well.

The NBA’s coaching carousel churns faster these days because instant gratification infects every aspect of American life. In his press conference announcing Vogel’s dismissal, Pacers president Larry Bird suggested a coach’s ability to retain the attention of his players has a shelf life of three years.

Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina has been considered for several head coaching vacancies, and for good reason.
Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina has been considered for several head coaching vacancies, and for good reason.Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

It is the sort of institutional impatience Popovich decries. He has been in complete command of his team from the moment he used his authority as Spurs GM to fire Bob Hill and take over the bench himself. He understands no other way and lauds the patience the Spurs ownership group, then led by Peter Holt, showed him when his second full season on the bench got off to a slow start.

The Spurs won their first championship during that truncated 1998-99 season that began with five losses in the first nine games, and his players have never tuned him out.

“I think I’ve just been fortunate that the kind of players I’ve had seem to want to listen for whatever reason,” he said. “They’re people who are pretty selfless, in the sense they just want to do things to the best of their ability, and we just appeal to that.

“Winning has something to do with it, too. We’ve had good players and we’ve won, so they might be listening or they might not be. They might be winning for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with me. So I hang around.”

But Popovich denounces the lack of institutional patience that leads to the firing of so many coaches, including some who came up through his program, even as they create opportunity after opportunity for others on his staff.

Since 2003, seven Popovich assistant coaches have gone on to become NBA head coaches, including active head coaches Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta Hawks), Brett Brown (Philadelphia 76ers), Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz) and Earl Watson (Phoenix Suns). (Snyder and Watson served as coaches of the Spurs’ D-League team in Austin.) Popovich assistants P.J. Carlesimo (Seattle Sonics-Oklahoma City Thunder), Jacque Vaughn (Orlando Magic) and Mike Brown (Cleveland Cavaliers and L.A. Lakers) moved on to coach their own teams before they became victims of the revolving door.

Additionally, six former Spurs players who count Popovich as a major influence became head coaches: Steve Kerr (with the Spurs from 1998-2001 and 2002-03); Doc Rivers (1994-96); Avery Johnson (1991-93 and 1994-2001); Vinny Del Negro (1992-98); Terry Porter (1999-2002); and Monty Williams (1996-98).

Fourteen different NBA teams48 percent of those not located in San Antoniohave hired a head coach after he was an assistant or player under Popovich. 

Then there is R.C. Buford’s influence around the league. The Spurs president of basketball/general manager lost two of his assistants in the last three months. Sean Marks was hired as GM of the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 18. The Minnesota Timberwolves made Scott Layden their GM about the time the Spurs were completing their 4-0 sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, greasing the skids for Joerger’s dismissal.

Marks and Layden became the seventh and eighth Buford assistants hired to run the basketball operations departments for other NBA franchises. Combine the teams who have had a coach who worked or played for Popovich, and/or a GM who worked under Buford, and the list swells to 16.

Spurs president of basketball/general manager R.C. Buford lost two of his assistants in the last three months.
Spurs president of basketball/general manager R.C. Buford lost two of his assistants in the last three months.Eric Gay/Associated Press

Call it the Spursification of the NBA.

And why not?

San Antonio’s sustained success under Popovich and Buford has made the Spurs the model franchise in all of pro sports. The Spurs' winning percentage during the Popovich years is a remarkable .692, the second highest among all of the four North American major sports (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB); (just behind the Patriots').

Thunder GM Sam Presti, hired to run the then-Seattle SuperSonics at the age of 29, understands the paradigm.

“It’s very rare to see an organization achieve that level of continual success through several different salary-cap eras and periods of time and different rules changes, and so on, that are essentially designed to limit continual success,” Presti said a few hours before the Spurs beat the Thunder in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinals playoff series at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

“I think their approach to things over time is probably becoming a little more understood, but any time you have that level of success it certainly makes people respect what’s taken place.”

Presti made Carlesimo his head coach in Seattle after taking the job as GM of the SuperSonics. He knew him, both as a coach and an individual with great people skills. It was a hire that surprised nobody.

“First of all, NBA has always been a copycat league, and most pro sports and business is, too,” Carlesimo said. “When you look at the success other organizations have, it makes sense to try to copy what they are doing. Who better to do that than someone who has been on the inside. Teams hire them and think that maybe they can bring some of the magic with them.”

Something similar happened when the Cleveland Cavaliers identified Ferry as their new GM a few weeks before the Spurs won their third NBA title by beating the Detroit Pistons in the 2005 NBA Finals. His hiring didn't become official until the Finals ended, but he had already impacted the Cavs' hiring of Mike Brown as head coach.

Brown was an assistant on the 2002-03 Spurs team that earned Ferry a championship ring. He had been serving as assistant head coach under Rick Carlisle with the Indiana Pacers but had established his chops as a defensive guru with the Spurs title team that beat the Nets in the 2003 NBA Finals.

“The sustained success they’ve had at that high a level is very, very hard to do in today's sports world,” Brown said. “Couple that with the small market they play in, compared to New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, and you sit back and wonder how it can be.

“The answer is the people who are running the organization. It’s really that simple.”

Buford scoffs at the notion that teams raid the Spurs hoping to discover the secrets of what has come to be known as “The Spurs Way.”

“We all know there is no secret sauce,” he said. “I believe all of these people are being hired for their skills and their character and their leadership abilities.”

Besides, Presti said, simply trying to imitate the Spurs carries its own level of danger.

“The runway of imitation is really short,” said Presti, who is completing his ninth season in charge of the Thunder’s basketball operations. “Eventually, you have to chart your own course.”

Spurs University has a high graduate rate. Buford will have to replace Marks and Layden when the Spurs playoff run ends, and Popovich won’t be surprised if he loses another assistant, maybe two, by the time all the coaching vacancies are filled.

Restocking requires work, but Popovich calls it no more than an annoyance.

OAKLAND, CA  - APRIL 7: Head coach, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and head coach, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs before the game on April 7, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Noah Graham/Getty Images

“We get a big thrill out of seeing guys that are in another organization we play, and it’s always fun to watch them grow and be happy for their success,” he said. “At the same time, it creates work. It creates holes. Right now we’ve got a couple guys that are gone recently that we’ve got to replace. R.C. and I will think about that at the end of the season. But it does cause some disruption and some work to try to get it back.”

Of course, both Popovich and Buford left other basketball organizations to join the Spurs. They can’t begrudge the opportunities given to their staffers.

“I don’t know that you weigh it as a problem,” Buford said. “It’s the approach we’ve taken from day one, and I think it’s probably the approach that people took with us. Because of that, you recognize that’s the repercussions, but you also understand we’re the beneficiary of their knowledge, their contributions to our organization, to our culture, and you’re thankful for the time we had together.”

Mike Monroe has covered the San Antonio Spurs for 12 years and the NBA at large for 35 years. He has served as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and is one of two recipients of its Phil Jasner Lifetime Achievement Award.


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