Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs: 20 years in the making

Popovich has built a lasting legacy at AT&T Center since taking over in 1996

The San Antonio Spurs are one of the most decorated and respected franchises in the NBA. Five championships, six conference titles and 20 division wins makes them the fifth most successful team in league history. But the silverware is only the tip of the iceberg in what has been a twenty-year process of building, that has brought us to where we stand today.

Millionaire Peter Holt bought the Spurs in 1994 and had a vision for where he wanted them to go. But he could never have imagined that in the present day, San Antonio would be put on a pedestal as a perfect example of how to run a franchise, and it is all down to one man, on the whole; Gregg Popovich.

Holt's acquisition ushered in a return for Popovich after he - along with the whole coaching team - was fired from his role in south-central Texas as the lead assistant coach to mentor and close friend Larry Brown four years earlier.

Having been dismissed by previous owner Red McCombs, Pop spent four years as the assistant at the Golden State Warriors, before his arrival back at the Alamodome. It was a move that changed the history of San Antonio forever.

Before 1994, the Spurs had enjoyed reasonable success. Seven Southwest Division titles and a Conference Finals appearance since their inaugural season in 1976 had given fans a taste of the high life, but Popovich was about to take the franchise into a new stratosphere, where they have remained ever since.


Originally returning to River City as general manager and vice president of basketball operations, he stamped his authority early on; trading Dennis Rodman to the Chicago Bulls in 1995 despite the power forward leading the NBA in rebounds during his two-year stay. The Worm - who went on to win a hat-trick on rings with the Chicago Bulls - was an early indication of the type of player Pop wanted to represent the franchise.

But the former Pomona-Pitzer coach was not content with his position in the background and, following a slow start to the 1996-97 season, he made a change that set the wheels in motion for the Spurs becoming the all-conquering organisation we see today. Out went Bob Hill, after a 3-15 beginning and in came, appointed by none other than himself, Gregg Popovich. Who better to do the job than yourself, right?

Well, in the case of Pop, absolutely correct. With an injury-ravaged roster, that included the absences of David Robinson, Sean Elliot and Chuck Person for large chunks of the season, the Spurs could muster just 17 wins from 64 games. However, the terrible season proved to be a blessing in disguise as the summer of '97 saw the beginning of a partnership that has come to define them.

June 25 saw the franchise, having won the draft lottery, select Tim Ducan - who had broken numerous NCAA records during his time at Wake Forest University - with the first pick. And thus, the 'Twin Towers' attack of Duncan and Robinson was born, as was the relationship between coach and player that still stands to this day. It is a bond that withstood the test of time and has been the cornerstone of Popovich's tenure.


Since his debut season in the league - that saw him average 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game as the Spurs finished fifth in the West and made it to the Conference semi-finals - Duncan has been an ever-present member of the roster in a career that has seen him play 1,372 regular season games, so far. The now-39-year-old fits into Popovich's ethos perfectly. Having averaged 19.2 points and 10.9 rebounds during a glittered career that includes 15 All-Star selections, two MVPs and three Finals MVPs, Duncan has remained level-headed and understands the franchise is bigger than any individual.

This is a trait Pop looks for in every single player he brings to San Antonio; Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen are three who also fit the ideology that trickles down from the coach to all facets of the organisation. In a previous interview, coach Pop explained exactly what personality traits he looks for when deciding whether a player fits the Spurs way.

"For us, it's easy. We're looking for character, but what the hell does that mean?" he said. "We're looking for people — and I've said it many times — [who] have gotten over themselves, and you can tell that pretty quickly. You can talk to somebody for four or five minutes, and you can tell if it's about them, or if they understand that they're just a piece of the puzzle. So we look for that. A sense of humour is a huge thing with us. You've got to be able to laugh. You've got to be able to take a dig, give a dig — that sort of thing.


"And [you have to] feel comfortable in your own skin that you don't have all the answers. People who are participatory. The guys in the film room can tell me what they think of how we played last night if they want to. Sean Marks would sit in on our coaches' meetings when we're arguing about how to play the pick-and-roll or who we're going to play or who we're going to sit.

"We need people who can handle information and not take it personally because, in most of these organisations, there's a big divide. All of a sudden, the wall goes up between management and coaching and everybody is ready to blame back and forth and that's the rule rather than the exception. It just happens. But that's about people. It's about finding people who have all of those qualities. So, we do our best to look for that and when somebody comes, they figure it out pretty quick."

One player who fell within the boundaries of Pop's requirements is Kawhi Leonard. The 24-year-old has developed into a premium two-way guard and is seen as one of the leading lights in the league for the significant future. In a world where every minute detail of a basketball player's life can be found on the internet, the forward is the epitome of what the Spurs have come to stand for under Popovich.

The 2014 Finals MVP, who shut down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as the Spurs gained revenge for the previous season, remains out of the spotlight and largely flies under the radar despite his immense talent and huge standing in the NBA world. It is this ethos, along with relentless hard work and passion, that is expected from every representative of the organisation.


Having been traded by the Indiana Pacers - along with the rights to Erazem Lorbek and Davis Bertans - for George Hill in 2011, Leonard has gone from strength-to-strength at the AT&T Center. There was no doubting his defensive ability, but Popovich has trusted Kawhi at the other end of the court, putting the ball in his hands on a more regular basis, and the small forward has repaid his coach - averaging 20.2 points this season. During the 2016 All-Star weekend, his first since joining the NBA, Leonard showed exactly why Pop was keen to bring him to San Antonio.

Speaking about the Spurs' system, he said: "I was not always comfortable, I was happy winning but there was always those times when you feel selfish and want to do more on the floor for your team. But I was always just a guy that wanted to take the best advantage of my opportunity, so whatever role they gave me I just tried to be the best in the league at that.

"I felt like nobody watched because I was at a low measure, but since high school, I thought I could be an All-Star if I was able to get into the NBA. I've just been blessed to have the opportunity to play. Coach Pop and the organisation have seen how hard I work, they gave me an opportunity to score the ball more, even just play minutes out on the floor."

That gratitude to his coach shows the loyalty Popovich wants from his players. It is a trait central to his successful career and has been a significant factor since his relationship with Brown began to blossom in the early 80s. He even took a year's paid sabbatical from his role at Pomona-Pitzer to become a volunteer coach at the University of Kansas to learn directly from his 'mentor'.


While his players have stayed loyal to him, Popovich remained loyal to the Spurs and that continuity is a major reason why he is considered one of the greatest coaches to ever grace the sport. Five titles in 20 years may seem a little underwhelming to some, but 18 consecutive playoff spots while continually coming up against some of the best rosters in NBA history is a record not to be scoffed at.

He is one of just nine coaches to crack 1,000 wins, putting him an elite category alongside Phil Jackson, a man who himself enjoyed unrivalled success during his tenures at the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and thwarted Popovich's Spurs on numerous occasions. The current New York Knicks president claimed eight rings prior to Popovich's appointment as head coach before moving upstairs after leaving Los Angeles in 2011, and the similarities between the two coaching greats are endless; they believed in their philosophies, they were incredibly motivated, inspired some of the greatest players to ever grace the hardwood and their burning desire to be the best shone through on numerous occasions.

Jackson and Popovich boast impressive records that draw envious looks from around the world and are used as a motivating tool for aspiring coaches making their way in the league. When comparing, there is very little to separate the two. Both men hit the four-figure win mark in incredible time; Phil is the quickest ever while Pop is third. Jackson has a slightly better percentage with an astounding 70.4, but Popovich is not far back with 1069 victories from his 1548 games as head coach, so far. When it comes to the playoffs, a time of year when both come into their own, Jackson again holds the better record with a 68.8 win percentage from 333 games. Popovich, who has overseen 246 playoffs encounters during his time at the Spurs, holds a win percentage of 61.8.


One man who was lucky enough to play under both coaches is Robert Horry. The now-retired 45-year-old played under Jackson during the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal led three-peat following the turn of the century, before joining Popovich in Alamo City, winning two more rings in a five-year spell. He shared his thoughts on what made both men such special leaders and perennial winners.

"Both of them are the same, there are no differences. They both believe in their system," he said. "Pop's was move the basketball, Phil's was the triangle, which was; move the basketball, and they both believed in their systems. Their systems worked because you had dynamic players.


"The other thing they stressed was defence. You can't win a championship without defence and both of those teams were always in the top five defensively and that is the way you have to do it. Those guys, there is no difference. One guy would take you to dinner and talk to you, the other guy, he'd take you to dinner, but he might not talk to you. I think people want coaches to be different but they both had the fire. They both wanted to go out there and beat you down, there's no difference. Every good coach is like that. If they are good coaches, they are similar because they always stress; being a good teammate, a good person off the court and playing great defence."

Both coaches are of the old school approach but neither are afraid to embrace different elements of the game, knowing full well that is what it takes to win. Regardless of personal perception, Popovich has shown his willingness to adapt over the years, and the proof is in the pudding when it comes to three-point shooting. The shot is an element of 21st-century basketball that cannot be ignored and the San Antonio Spurs' use of the tactic emphasises why he will go down as one of the greats.


The shot from behind the arc is considered a circus act by a number of the NBA's elder statesmen and Pop freely admits he falls into that category. To put it lightly, he is not a fan of the tactic but knows it cannot be ignored if teams are to be successful.

"I still hate it. I'll never embrace it. I don't think it is basketball. I think it's kind of like a circus sort of thing. Why don't we have a five-point shot? A seven-point shot? You know, where does it stop? that sort of thing.

"But that's just me, that's just old-school. To a certain degree, you better embrace it or you're going to lose. And every time we've won a championship, the three-point shot was a big part of it. Because it is so powerful and you've got to be able to do it. And nobody does it better than Golden State, and you know where they're at. So it's important. You can't ignore it."

During their five ring-winning years - including the inaugural success of 1999 - the Spurs have shot more than 500 times from deep during the regular season and never averaged below 33 percent. During their most recent championship in 2014, they threw up 496 in the playoffs and averaged 40.9 percent - not bad for a coach who is openly against the shot.

Adapting is what makes good coaches into great ones and Popovich certainly falls into the latter category. Many franchises in the past have struggled to recover from the loss of legends, just look at the Los Angeles Lakers, while they have not exactly set the world alight in the final years of Bryant's career, they are sure to miss the five-time champion when his retirement tour reaches its final farewell against the Utah Jazz on April 14.


The Chicago Bulls are still searching for their first ring in the post-Michael Jordan era – their previous success was 18 years ago. While the Miami Heat have struggled since LeBron James decided it was time for a homecoming in 2014. The Spurs have been built around Duncan – one of the best power forwards in history – and two nailed on Hall of Fame inductees; Parker and Ginobili, since 2002. However, life without the three pivotal players may not be so tough for the Western Conference franchise, and we have seen glimpses of that this season.

With Duncan and Ginobili both approaching 40, Popovich has made moves in recent years to ensure the long-term future of the franchise. There are new stars at the AT&T who can ensure there is a bright future for the Spurs after the older generation retire. Leonard will be leading the charge for years to come, and he has been joined by LaMarcus Aldridge, who was the hottest property in free agency during the summer. Despite the former Trail Blazer claiming it was assistant coach Ime Udoka who got the deal over the line, the 30-year-old insisted the presence of Pop was also a very important factor.

It is that level of respect from players around the league that shows just how special the San Antonio coach is to the organisation. LeBron James - a man who has endured many battles with the Spurs during his career - admitted he would love to be around the Indiana native on a day-to-day basis.

"I believe he is one of the great basketball minds that we've ever had in this game, I wish I could be around him every day so I could just pick his brain, what he does, what he thinks. I can't be there on a day-to-day basis. I wish I could."


Ahead of the 2016 All-Star game, which was Popovich's fourth, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green admitted he was excited to play for the decorated coach: "It is very special. Pop, this is his fourth or fifth All-Star game and to play under him is special. He has won a lot of Championships, is one of the most respected coaches in the league and pro sports, period. So to play under him will definitely be special and I'm looking forward to it."

But it is not just players over the past twenty years who admire what Popovich has achieved. George Gervin, who oversaw the Spurs' most successful era pre-Pop, is full of admiration for the man who has taken his former franchise on to a new level.

"Pop is a special guy. He is a caring guy, he is a leader. Pop knows how to win" he said. "He knows how to put a package together to get the results that it takes to, in June, hold that O'Brien trophy up. That is what makes him special, how he is remembered and how he is always going to be remembered. When he is gone and he is going to be gone soon because that is the kind of guy he is. He is very low key, don't really want to be about it all the time. You can tell by some of the interviews that he does, which is quite special, that's just what kind of guy he is."


There's no doubt about it, Popovich is a special coach and has done so much for, not just the Spurs, but the NBA as an organisation. He allowed the first internationally raised basketball coach; Ettore Messina, to serve as head during his absence in November 2014. He also broke ground by hiring the first-ever full-time female assistant coach in history; Becky Hammon, who went on to become the first woman to coach at an All-Star game.

His decision to step away from coaching may creep up on everyone. It is not yet known when Pop will decide it is time to take a step back, but he will be leaving the franchise in an incredibly strong position with a bright future ahead, and he will be gifting the NBA a setup that is the blueprint for building a successful future. For that, we can all be thankful for the legacy he has built in San Antonio.