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Kragthorpe: Spurs' culture gives them consistency

Published May 2, 2012 4:41 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

San Antonio

When he received the NBA Coach of the Year award Tuesday, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich was dishing out compliments and sharing the credit.

In the Spurs' culture he's created, he obviously could not have done otherwise.

His highest praise, featuring one of his favorite descriptions, was saved for players "who have gotten over themselves."

That's their only choice.

Of course, some of these guys have no reason to exhibit any selfish traits, which is part of the Spurs' story.

Undoubtedly, the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have made San Antonio's extended success possible. But maintaining consistency also has required a continual makeover of personnel and playing style.

With a low-profile, team-first approach resembling the NFL's New England Patriots, the Spurs are in the playoffs for a 15th straight season. They've remained contenders while continually reassembling the cast of complementary players, making Popovich and Duncan the basketball equivalent of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

As if the Spurs' four NBA championships are not impressive enough, they've succeeded in another makeover in the five years since their most recent one, giving themselves a genuine shot at another title in June.

In his 16th season, Popovich has conceded that the Spurs were losing some of their defensive ability and he's responded with more of an offensive approach.

That's a major transformation for someone who replaced the Jazz's Jerry Sloan as the longest-tenured coach or manager in pro sports, even though Parker said, "Pop's still preaching defense."

Popovich's coaching plays to the strength of one of the NBA's deepest teams. Some of general manager R.C. Buford's acquisitions are "absolutely mind-boggling," Popovich said.

That's a compliment. Yet the striking thing about the Spurs is their lack of overwhelming talent.

Danny Green? Gary Neal? Matt Bonner?

DeJuan Blair? Boris Diaw? Stephen Jackson?

"Everybody's a piece to the puzzle," Green said.

They're all key contributors, finding their niches in the operation and conforming to the culture. That's how the mercurial Jackson, a long-ago former Spur, could come back from Golden State via a trade in late March and blend in and how Diaw could be waived by Charlotte and end up starting for San Antonio in the playoffs.

"We had some good experiences with [Jackson] in the past, so we know how to handle him," Parker said.

"We know sometimes he's going to lose his mind and go crazy, but I think it's good for our team to have that craziness."

Winning reinforces good behavior, and the Spurs have been doing that for a long time. None of this would be happening without a remarkable sequence of drafting success — or "incredibly good fortune," as Popovich said.

If the Jazz lucked into John Stockton and Karl Malone in the middle of the first round in successive years, consider the Spurs' every-other-year acquisitions:

What if they'd finish second in the 1997 lottery and ended up with Utah's Keith Van Horn instead of Duncan?

What if some team had grabbed Ginobili before the second-to-last pick of the second round in 1999, when the Jazz made someone named Eddie Lucas the final selection of that draft?

What if the Jazz had taken Parker instead of Raul Lopez late in the first round in 2001, when Vancouver picked Jamaal Tinsley just ahead of Parker?

As it is, "the Spurs' way" under Popovich became established.

"That's probably overblown," Popovich said. "When you win, a lot of things get attributed to you that you shouldn't get credit for."

How else could he have addressed the subject? That's the Spurs' way.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt