Weekly Countdown: Pop's influence
Other than commissioner
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
"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]
Because Rivers also played for
"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,
"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
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
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
"If Pop wasn't a really good coach and he wasn't a really good person, then a guy like Timmy or
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
"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."
"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.
( 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
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
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."
"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
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
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.
I can't think of a trade involving Paul that would bring equal value in return. Unless they could get LeBron James,
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 ...
"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
• 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
• 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
"They are the deepest team in the league," the scout said.
"Every guy they have can play," the coach said. "
"And," the scout added, offering the unspoken third option, "when they get in trouble, they can just throw the ball in the air to [
Said the assistant: "I think it could be Boston and Orlando going at it in the end."