By Ian Thomsen
November 20, 2009

Other than commissioner David Stern, can you name anyone in the NBA who plays a more influential role than Spurs president and coach Gregg Popovich? I didn't think so.

Popovich oversees a kinder, gentler mafia. Four of his former San Antonio associates are now general managers running their own NBA playoff contenders -- Danny Ferry in Cleveland, Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, Steve Kerr in Phoenix and Kevin Pritchard in Portland -- with a combined record of 33-17 over this opening month of the season. The equivalent of an entire NBA division is controlled by Popovich or his offspring.

The lessons of working or playing for San Antonio can be career-changing. Though Kerr didn't wear a Spurs uniform until he was 33 and never worked in their front office, his four seasons with Popovich had a lasting impact.

"The guys that I talk to most on the phone of the other GMs [throughout the league] are Ferry and Presti, and there's a reason for that -- that our connection was made in San Antonio," said Kerr, who won two championships as a Spur. "There's always going to be a strong bond between those of us who were there with Pop. You're always going to have a connection with people who influence you, and it just so happens that Pop has probably more people around the league than anybody."

Since taking control of the Spurs as GM in 1994 and head coach two years later, Popovich has created an organization that has been fruitful and multiplied. Cavs coach Mike Brown was a longtime assistant to Popovich, and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro spent almost half of his career playing for him. Avery Johnson coached the Mavericks to the 2006 Finals by applying principles learned from Popovich, and former coaches Terry Porter and P.J. Carlesimo were hired as graduates of the Spurs' school. Four of the last 10 Coach of the Year awards have been won by Popovich or someone he mentored, including Boston's Doc Rivers, who was honored as rookie coach of the heart-and-hustle 1999-2000 Orlando Magic following a three-year run in San Antonio as a player and local TV broadcaster (1994-97).

"Pop was the GM when I was in San Antonio, and we had more dinners and more talks about basketball than anybody I can remember," Rivers said. "I went out with him, [current Spurs GM] R.C. Buford and [former Spurs assistant] Hank Egan. I just kind of listened to what they said and it was great."

Because Rivers also played for Larry Brown and Pat Riley, he has a unique perspective on Popovich's importance.

"I would say those three are on the pedestal, and everybody else is watching," Rivers said. "But they all stand for the same thing, if you think about it. They're all strong character guys. They sell the team aspect of basketball. They all preach the same thing, and they all do it in completely different ways."

Yet only Popovich has spawned so many GMs and head coaches, along with 11 current assistants (including Egan, Mario Elie of the Kings and Joe Prunty and Monty Williams of the Trail Blazers), several rival executives and two head coaches in the D-League (Quin Snyder of the Austin Toros and Will Voigt of the Bakersfield Jam).

A home for grinders. When I mentioned during a recent conversation that his Spurs have given birth to a kind of mafia -- an approach to NBA basketball that extends beyond San Antonio -- Popovich sounded both proud and humbled.

"I guess that's true, but I don't know how," he said. "We've just been fortunate with all of the guys who have come through here. It's not just coaches or GMs or people like Pritchard, who used to be a scout here. It's the film guys in Detroit and Cleveland, and one of our former [video] guys who just got the job at Bakersfield. We've had a hell of a group of people come through here, and they've ended up doing well."

Popovich doesn't dwell on his military background as an Air Force Academy graduate, but the lessons of that education are crucial to his organization. Look at the people who have moved elsewhere, and you'll find no celebrity hires or anyone who is especially glamorous. All appear to be hard workers who put in long hours and focus on details.

My understanding of the Spurs is that they operate on a sink-or-swim dynamic, that Popovich and Buford don't train newcomers in the hows and whys of the Spurs' program. Instead, those who work there are expected to catch on quickly, and figure it out on their own. If you're smart and you work hard, then you're a keeper who will succeed in San Antonio and go on to prosper elsewhere. The benefit is easy to see: It empowers employees to think on their own, to learn their own lessons and to provide Popovich and Buford with new points of view. They demand opinions from their workers; they don't surround themselves with a cabal of "yes" men.

If you're a nobody who pays attention and works hard, you can eventually become a somebody in San Antonio.

"There I am, a 22-year-old guy," said Presti, who was hired as an intern out of Emerson College in 2000. "I get to sit down and talk to Avery Johnson about things. I get to watch David Robinson's professionalism, the selflessness of Kerr and Ferry, the acumen of Brent Barry, the competitiveness of Terry Porter toward the end of his career, and all of that really helped me a great deal."

When Presti was hired at age 30 as GM of the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007, the year before they moved to Oklahoma City, he was more than a clone who referred back to the Spurs' playbook on franchise-building. He had been taught to think independently, which empowered him to surprisingly use the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft on Russell Westbrook -- a move that is no longer second-guessed.

Humility and humor. Popovich understands as well as anyone that the Spurs would be in no position of influence if not for the incredible fortune of winning the lottery rights to David Robinson and Tim Duncan. "If I'm going to take any credit at all," Popovich told USA Today in 2005 and has repeated many times, "I'm going to say I didn't screw it up."

As seriously as he has pursued his four NBA championships -- only four other coaches have ever won as many -- Popovich refuses to take himself too seriously. When someone once asked if his habit of keeping detailed index cards dated back to his time with the Air Force, he said, "No, you can be anal without being in the military."

Of course, Popovich has an ego: No coach could win championships and remain in charge for 14 years without maintaining a sense of charisma and presence. Much of that success has to do with the selfless role played by Buford, who is among the league's best GMs yet doesn't seek acclaim. In fact, he often shares credit with others in the organization, which is something you don't hear at press conferences in rival NBA cities. The focus in San Antonio is on the work, rather than on positioning oneself for the outcome.

The defining element of the Spur's program is that -- as George Karl often points out -- Duncan allows himself to be coached by Popovich.

"If Pop wasn't a really good coach and he wasn't a really good person, then a guy like Timmy or Manu [Ginobili] wouldn't allow Pop to coach him for as long as he has," Ferry said. "You've got to be good and you've got to be smart to be able to do it -- look at Jerry Sloan, Phil Jackson and Pop."

One attribute established by all three of those long-timers is the integrity to speak honestly with the best players. Kerr views himself as a straight talker, too.

"That probably is influenced by Pop," he said. "I'm open with [the media], I'm open with my players. I just tell them the truth -- and maybe to a fault, I don't know. But I think that's probably a San Antonio thing."

I recently asked Popovich how he decided to pursue a trade for Richard Jefferson.

"A couple of things I always look for in a player are a sense of humor and an ability to handle criticism in the right way," he said. "Some guys can't be criticized -- not in front of the team or even individually, they can't handle it. It shows what kind of character they have."

Popovich's sense of humor has helped keep him from burning out -- and kept his players from tuning him out. He has a feeling for how to weave in jokes, and he stays away from players who take themselves too seriously.

"Richard is a guy, you can screw with him, he understands the humor, and to me that's important," Popovich said. "You have to laugh at yourself during the journey to get to the championship. Those moments of self-deprecation when you can laugh at yourself when you make mistake and have somebody point it out, or [as a prank] you put a film up there of a guy in high school and he looks totally silly and everybody is laughing at him. Those kinds of guys fit in.

"You can find out if a guy has the character to be a team player, and we've always been fortunate to bring in that kind of guy."

Relationships. In celebration of his daughter's wedding last July on the coast of Maine, Popovich invited a number current and former Spurs -- Ferry, Kerr, Presti, Carlesimo, Egan, Larry Brown and Mike Brown, and on and on the list went. It just so happened that the Cavaliers had recently traded for Shaquille O'Neal, with whom Popovich has developed a long-standing humorous relationship.

"Danny and Mike Brown and Hank were all there, and we all gave them total static," Popovich said. "We were saying, 'We want to be there. Can we come to the practices? We want to be there to watch you coach Shaq when he comes in. He's going to run practice -- not you, Mike. LeBron's not going to have the ball anymore, because it's going down low to Shaq no matter what you do.' Mike would just smile and shake his head."

( After sharing that story, Popovich added that he believes Shaq will help Cleveland. "I think it will work out because Mike Brown understands personalities," he said. "He was a guy who handled Stephen Jackson here the most, when Mike was an assistant. He was great with Stephen Jackson, he knew how to give him room, when to let him do what he does and when to rein him in. I think he'll do the same thing with Shaq. After the Phoenix experience, I think Shaq knows even more than he's willing to admit how important that secondary role is and how much he has to accept that. He's an intelligent man and he learned a lot in Phoenix, and I think he'll appreciate what he has there in Cleveland.")

Popovich is highly connected. His three mentors were Egan, who coached him at Air Force and hired him as an assistant there for several years before eventually serving as consigliere on Popovich's staff at San Antonio; Larry Brown, whose coaching staff at San Antonio in 1988 consisted of Popovich, Buford and Alvin Gentry; and Don Nelson, who hired him as an assistant for two seasons in 1992 before Popovich return to San Antonio as GM. Other well-placed friends include Karl and Rivers.

Associates insist that Popovich is a terrific friend in times of personal crisis.

"He's busy, I'm busy, but we definitely talk periodically," said Ferry. "You get on the phone and you laugh with him, and he spends a whole lot more time talking about my family than about basketball."

When the talk does turn to basketball, does Ferry realize that his old friend is trying to fleece him? Ferry laughed in acknowledgment.

"I know that he's doing his job and R.C. is doing his job, and that we've got to do ours," Ferry said. "There is a line. The program that he's built is important for everyone there, just like our program is important for everyone here."

The Duke of the NBA. The Spurs may be the least-liked organization among NBA rivals who have no connection to the franchise. There is a feeling among those working for other teams that San Antonio's superiority is based on two lucky results in the lottery. Spurs insiders say that appearance of smugness doesn't exist within the organization, that there are too many pressing demands from Popovich and too much work to do for any patting of each other's backs.

"Success puts attention on everyone and everything that you do," Ferry said. "Without that level of success in San Antonio, I don't think any of us would have the opportunities that we've had.

"I knew from being there that you had to have a system. You appreciate the value of being good defensively. You learn the value of trying to do things in a first-class way without being outrageous. You learn the importance of communication."

Said Kerry: "The emphasis is on getting good guys and the chemistry. I saw that up close in San Antonio -- and we didn't always have the best talent, though obviously it helped to have Duncan and Robinson. I learned the same thing in Chicago [where Kerr won three championships as a teammate to Michael Jordan], that once you have your core group of guys, you've got to fill in the rest with really good, hard-working guys who fit in. That's been a priority here [in Phoenix]. We've always tried to get really good guys who, as Pop likes to say, have gotten over themselves and just want to compete and play. That's why we've got Jared Dudley and [Robin] Lopez and [Goran] Dragic and [Lou] Amundson -- all these guys, they're just gamers. They love to play, they're not here for the glitz and the glamour. They're here because they love basketball."

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

Why did Steve Kerr say that he pulled the trigger on the Shaq trade because "the other team (without Shaq) wasn't going to win''? When he made that trade, weren't the Suns in first place? The Suns didn't seem to have trouble winning. They went to a conference championship with their run-and-gun.-- Darius, Washington, D.C.

By "winning" he was referring to their chances of claiming a championship. With the backing of his coaches, Kerr gambled on the trade for Shaq in hopes it would bring a title to Phoenix. My view is that the real problems were created when Mike D'Antoni left and Terry Porter was brought in to slow the tempo and emphasize defensive schemes that didn't necessarily work with the Suns' roster. That move cost Phoenix a spot in the playoffs last season.

Behind the scenes, who do you think is the most popular NBA player among his peers? My guess is Shaq, but I am not sure.-- Neil Gray, Framingham, Mass.

My guess, too, is that it's Shaq. No one in the league cracks more jokes, and no star is more outgoing. During timeouts you can see players from other teams leaning toward him to hear what he's going to say next. There are some in the league who believe he has outlived his usefulness on the court, but nobody should doubt the NBA will have a hard time replacing his personality when he retires.

Given the mess that New Orleans is currently trying to sort out, is there any possibility of the Hornets' trading Chris Paul? Should they?-- Steve, Australia

I can't think of a trade involving Paul that would bring equal value in return. Unless they could get LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Dwight Howard -- good luck -- they aren't going to retrieve a young franchise star who can squeeze the talent out of his team as Paul has done in New Orleans. If the Hornets were to move him, they would be telling the fans that they were giving up and starting over, which would be followed by a large reduction in ticket sales and a renewal of speculation that the franchise will move to another market. I think Paul will be traded only when the Hornets face no other option.

Has the Hawks' ownership situation settled enough to think they might make a play for a big-time free agent in the off season (assuming they don't resign Joe Johnson?) I think the city and the young nucleus would be a draw for a lot of players.-- Eli, Atlanta

If you're asking whether the Hawks will become luxury-tax payers, the answer is an unqualified no. Can they contend for a championship without hoarding an expensive payroll of talent? Probably not. All of the title contenders are big tax payers -- even the normally fiscally-conservative Spurs have crossed that line.

The Hawks have assembled a very good second-tier team, but unless the top rivals in the East suffer a breakdown, it looks now as if Atlanta lacks the deep pockets or revenue streams to compete with the richest contenders.

If Johnson leaves, I believe the Hawks will replace him with an expensive star -- but at the same time they'll keep their payroll under the tax threshold.

They're 0-12 headed into Saturday's showdown at the 2-9 Knicks, but ...

They have a promising young roster. The Nets are in this mess because injuries to All-Star point guard Devin Harris, starting shooting guard Courtney Lee, power forward Yi Jianlian and swingman Jarvis Hayes have left them with eight players. They wouldn't be a playoff team if healthy, but the young trio of Harris, Lee and center Brook Lopez (17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 12 games) would provide hope for the future.

They haven't surrendered. Chris Douglas-Roberts has emerged as a member of their rotation moving forward while leading the team with 17.4 points. More important is the role played by coach Lawrence Frank, who can afford to coach his players all-out. It's not like he can be concerned about the long haul as he's a lame duck in the last year of his contract.

"If Lawrence gets fired for being 0-12, it will be a disgrace to our league because of how hard they play," a rival scout said. "Most teams would have packed it in by now, but he's getting everything out of them that he can -- they play hard, they execute. He's having to post up Trenton Hassell because that's his best option. This sounds crazy, but if you base it on someone getting the most out of his guys, I think he should be a Coach of the Year candidate."

Reinforcements are on the way. The Nets have major cap space this summer, the promise of a billionaire owner from Russia and the hope of a new home in Brooklyn. Better days are ahead for sure.

• I have a hunch (based on nothing more than intuition) that the Bulls will use their cap space to land Joe Johnson this summer.

"That's a good one," an Eastern scout replied. "Think about him and Derrick Rose in the backcourt, with Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons coming off the bench. Hinrich is playing great, and Luol Deng looks like he's getting back to what he was a couple of years ago. I love [Joakim] Noah, but they'd still need a big guy to play with him up front as a scorer. But you think about adding Joe Johnson to what they have now, and they would be that one guy up front away from going up against LeBron in a couple of years."

• An Eastern assistant coach and a league scout (who will be go unnamed here) believe Orlando's chances of returning to the NBA Finals are far from long. I was speaking with them about the contenders overall when the assistant predicted that the Magic will be strong once Jameer Nelson recovers from a knee injury next month.

"Vince [Carter] gives them that scorer, that go-to guy they didn't have before," the coach said. "Think about it: Ryan Anderson, Rashard [Lewis], Brandon Bass is a high-level player -- that guy is good. Just look at the amount of players they have."

"They are the deepest team in the league," the scout said.

"Every guy they have can play," the coach said. "J.J. Redick. [Marcin] Gortat would start for 10 or 12 teams, maybe 15. Orlando can beat you in two ways -- actually, it's more than two. They'll guard you, and they've just got too many guys who can score."

"And," the scout added, offering the unspoken third option, "when they get in trouble, they can just throw the ball in the air to [Dwight] Howard."

Said the assistant: "I think it could be Boston and Orlando going at it in the end."

To Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Paul Allen. Each is an enigmatic household name in the NBA, and each has been diagnosed with cancer -- Abdul-Jabbar with a rare form of leukemia, and the Trail Blazers' owner with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. May each draw strength from family and friends over the holidays ahead.

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